Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said on Friday he was hopeful China’s next rulers would maintain improving relations and that anointed leader Xi Jinping’s understanding of cross-Strait issues would help keep economic cooperation on track.
Ma, in his first interview with foreign media since he won re-election in January, also said the two sides would continue to build closer economic, financial and trade relations before tackling thornier issues such as political or military dialogue.
Ties would progress even after a broad reshuffle of the top Chinese leadership, Ma predicted. Hu Jintao is expected to retire as Communist Party chief at a Communist Party Congress later this year and as president in March 2013, completing the transition to a younger generation headed by Xi, now vice president.
“Xi Jinping has had past experience in Fujian so his understanding of Taiwan is very deep,” Ma said, referring to the province directly across the Taiwan Strait that has close cultural, business and trade ties with the island.
Xi served as an official in the province since 1985, rising to governor from 2000 to 2002.
“Based on what has happened over the past four years between us and China, current relations are mutually beneficial. So we do not expect cross-Strait ties to have significant changes due to the leadership change.”
Ma took office in 2008 vowing a pragmatic approach to turn Taiwan from a “troublemaker” into a “peacemaker” after eight years of opposition leadership that had frayed relations between Taiwan and China as well as with the democratic island’s key ally, the United States. China considers self-ruled Taiwan sovereign territory to be brought under mainland control eventually, and by force if necessary.
He stressed his formula for Taiwan-China relations in his first term has been to handle “pressing matters before less pressing ones, easily resolved issues before difficult ones, and economic matters before political”.
Catch phrases aside, Ma’s policies of economic rapprochement and opening to China are widely seen as having eased the potential of the island to become a geopolitical flashpoint, and he now declares relations at their most stable in 60 years.
Nevertheless, he could face pressure in his second term from the new Chinese leadership for more action on political links.
“They will exert some pressure. If they push and they don’t get, there will be fewer economic concessions,” said Joseph Cheng, a China politics expert at City University in Hong Kong.
“I think it’s a very typical carrot and stick situation. If there’s a breakthrough there’ll be more economic goodies. If not, there will be a cooling down and fewer economic goodies.”
Perhaps mindful of the potential for such pressure, Ma conducted his interview with caution – emphasising the economic progress made and opportunities for more ahead but being circumspect on more sensitive questions like the ouster of Chinese politician Bo Xilai or the contentious political election in Hong Kong.
Asked about blind activist Chen Guangcheng, whom China recently allowed to travel to the United States to study after a diplomatic row between Beijing and Washington, Ma said Taiwan was concerned about rights in China, particularly in light of there being a million people from Taiwan on the mainland.
“We hope the mainland can face some of the issues that have happened in the past and can treat dissidents well. We are looking at this from the point of view of kindness, not based on Western human rights values, but traditional Chinese values.”
Both sides were already in talks about an investment protection agreement that included some guarantees for individual safety and freedoms, he said.
It is through economic policies that Ma has been most successful in lowering cross-Strait tensions. He hopes to parlay that success into free trade deals with other trading partners, previously difficult because of China’s objections.
Ma said he was urgently trying to build a foundation that would break down protectionism and promote free trade between the island and China and also other trading partners including New Zealand and Singapore. By the end of the year, he also hoped to reopen talks on trade with the United States that had been upended by a controversy over US beef imports.
But Ma also noted that there was still other work to do on Taiwan’s economy, which is dependent on exports and thus vulnerable to the current global downturn.
He has had a rough start to his second term as his plans run into opposition at home: an uproar over a planned capital gains tax aimed at addressing the island’s rich-poor gap and the subsequent watering down of the plan sparked the resignation of his finance minister.
Taiwan needed to move quickly to resolve two issues – shifting its industry’s focus from just efficiency to efficiency and creativity, and opening the economy further, he said.
“I want to finish these jobs promptly so that we can build the base for Taiwan for the next 20 to 30 years.” he said. “But I only have four years, so no matter how efficient I am, I won’t be able to complete all the tasks. What I can do is build the foundation.”-By Brian Rhoads and Jonathan Standing