Saturday, August 09, 2008

Ma Interview in WSJ

Peter Stein and the redoubtable Ting-yi Tsai interview President Ma in the Wall Street Journal (link behind pay wall.) Ma remains, as always, his slippery, China-loving self, though discussions I've been having with locals lately show that among swing voters Ma is facing uphill climbing. We told ya what Ma was! excerpt:
On his flagging popularity at home:

WSJ: When you came to office, I think it's fair to say you came in with a good deal of political goodwill that seems to have evaporated somewhat quickly. the overall global economic conditions weren't in your favor, oil prices aren't under your control, but there have also been some criticisms that your administration hasn't handled some of the policies as well as people had hoped. How do you respond to that? Do you think there was just a learning curve that goes along with coming into an office like this?

Ma: This is a kind of growing pain, in the sense that we came in at a time when the world economy encountered its worst difficulties in 30 years. That actually hit not just Taiwan, but South Korea, Singapore, the United States, Europe.

We have to take right policies to make sure that when the economic situation turns better we will have a chance to catch that opportunity and develop ourselves. This is why we took advantage of this opportunity to liberalize, to deregulate and to set up policies that will make our economy stronger. If you look back to the last two and half months, you will see that we actually realized our campaign promise to have a clean government, to have a society of harmony, and to make peace across the Taiwan Strait. Now people do not have to worry about the specter of hostility across the Taiwan strait, and people don't have to argue over some very ideologically oriented subjects, for instance the name of the country, or the loyalty, or whether you love Taiwan or not. All these issues are not really concrete issues. They are pseudo-issues that only widen the division between and among different ethnic groups. Once the government stopped doing that, you see that the traditional harmonious society of Taiwan gradually emerged.

We didn't criticize the previous government on many things, but we actually inherited a government with lots of problems.

You talk about oil prices. The previous government froze oil prices for more than half a year. So by the time we took over, we had to do something about that, otherwise there would be obvious risk for the Chinese Petroleum Corp. or the Taiwan Power Co. They were facing severe difficulties, or approaching the level of bankruptcy, if no immediate measure was taken. So a government has to make difficult decisions.

I think Obama got a hero's welcome in Berlin, but he said in a very humble way: before you take office, you don't have to face many difficult decisions. [When you take office], you may offend somebody by implementing some of the not necessarily welcome policies, but you have to make that difficult decision. After all, you are the leader of the country. I think all heads of states, heads of governments, will have those kinds of experiences.

What we should do is not just look at the opinion polls, but rather you have to make sure the policies you are making are correct and right ones. For instance, in the cross-strait area, we are only catching up with the economic reality. All these policies have been considered, planned, formulated by the previous government, but they didn't do it.

On Taiwan's participation in international organizations:

WSJ: Can I ask you whether you have plans to press for Taiwan's membership in the U.N. when the U.N. holds its annual meeting in September? This has obviously been something Taiwan has pushed for in the past.

Ma: As you know there were two referendum proposals associated with the presidential election on March 22. One is proposed by the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party, the party of previous president Chen Shui-bian], the other by the KMT [Mr. Ma's Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party]. Both failed: they only got about 36% of the vote. This is quite interesting, because on the one hand, the general support for Taiwan's return to the U.N. can be as high as 60 or 70 [percent]. But once you come to a referendum, people seem to have different ideas.

Every since 1993, we have proposed to make our readmission to the U.N. an issue [but failed each time]. So we now will continue to consider this proposal but in a quite different setting. Not just for political reasons, but for legal reasons as well given the fact that both referendums failed. So we have to carefully review our policy options when we consider the September meeting of the U.N.

WSJ: So its not clear yet …

Ma: We are still considering this issue. On one hand, the people certainly have their aspirations for participating in a meaningful way in activities of the U.N. or its specialized agencies. But on the other hand, we have two referendums over there, so we have to carefully balance the two things before we make a final decision.

WSJ: What about other organizations such as the WHO [World Health Organization]?

Ma: We are thinking first of the Wealth Health Assembly, WHA. That is an activity and event of the WHO. We want to become an observer of that event. And this intention is supported by the U.S., Japan and EU. We hope next year we will be able to make it. This year the meeting of the WHA happened to fall on my inauguration. It actually started the day before my inauguration. The proposal was made by the previous administration. They wanted to become a member under the name Taiwan. Again, that failed, as expected. We will take a more flexible and more agile attitude on this issue as we proposed in our referendum. So hopefully next year the issue will be taken up again and given a new consideration when we change the way we apply for it.

WSJ: That includes possibly the name under which Taiwan participates?

Ma: We will try to keep the way we apply for it flexible and to let our supporters feel comfortable.

WSJ: For the APEC summit later this year, [because of China's objections] Taiwan's president is not allowed to attend. Are you yourself interested in attending that leaders' summit? Or might you be interested in sending someone such as former Vice President Lian Zhan?

Ma: Yes, we are thinking about a possible candidate (we) will send to APEC. But we haven't made a decision yet. It is going to be held in December. We still have enough time.

WSJ: Are you interested in attending yourself?

Ma: APEC meetings in the past normally will not permit a head of state from Taiwan to attend. So certainly that will be taken into account in our review of the situation.

WSJ: Will you try to convince China to allow, or at least not to oppose your attempt?

Ma: Mainland China isn't the only member of APEC. Their consideration is important, but it's not the only consideration. We have to consult with other members of APEC to see what would be the most appropriate candidate for APEC.

On U.S.-Taiwan relations:

WSJ: In July, Adm. Timothy Keating [the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command] came out and basically said that in fact the Bush administration has frozen any arms sales to Taiwan for the time being. At same time Taiwan has set aside money in the budget, or there's been an expectation Taiwan should set aside money in the budget for military procurement. Have you sought any explanation from the White House? Are you trying to get the Bush administration to reverse this decision? Or do you expect that this is just a temporary measure and that this will be unfrozen after the Olympics?

Ma: We have been assured that Adm. Keating's remarks would not affect the position of the U.S. on military sales to Taiwan, and we have even been told his remarks were misquoted, or he has misspoken. And all the responsible officials from U.S. have assured us that nothing has been changed. But our request for the seven items of military hardware are going through the interagency review, so they will not just let us know, they will let Congress know in due time. So we are waiting for that move. As you know, all the budget that support these seven items was passed last year. And we have already told the U.S. many, many times that this is our policy. So we were quite surprised and puzzled by rumors in the last couple of months that we asked the U.S. to delay the decision. That's contradictory to our wishes.

When we improve relations with the mainland, we still need a viable armed forces in order to defend Taiwan. And I made it very clear in my inauguration speech we will demonstrate a very strong will to defend ourselves. In future if we negotiate a peace agreement with mainland, we certainly want to negotiate from a position of strength, not weakness.

We have no intention to engage the mainland in an arms race. That would not be in the interest of our people. But on the other hand, Taiwan has to defend itself and this is something that is generally accepted by the majority of people here.

WSJ: Do you worry that despite assurances to the contrary, this is something the Bush administration might want to push onto the next administration and that that administration, starting from a clean slate, will not want to deal with something so sensitive?

Ma: No, I will not worry about that.

WSJ: You have previously spoken out about your desire to have China remove missiles that are directed at Taiwan from the other side of the Strait. Is that something you've raised with the Chinese recently? Do you see any movement on that front?

Ma: That issue is related our negotiation with the mainland on the peace agreement. It is not related to future negotiations, for instance, on direct flights. I think I made it very clear we don't want to negotiate a peace agreement under threat of missile attack. So those two things are related. But removal of the missiles is not related to talks on either the economic relationship or international space.

WSJ: Do you have an idea when those negotiations on a peace agreement might be able to move forward? Or is it at this point up to China to make the next move?

Ma: We don't think that is the first priority. I think the first priority is normalization of economic relations, because that will have direct bearing on daily life of our people. And of equal importance is the issue of international space. You have talked about diplomatic truce, or reconciliation. Those are very closely related to the sense of dignity on the part of the Taiwanese people. So that also has priority.

WSJ: Can you speak a little bit about how you see the relationship between Taiwan and U.S. developing over time? If and when, for instance, Taiwan and China are able to negotiate a peace accord, what do you think the relationship with the U.S. will evolve into?

Ma: As we improve our relations with the mainland, the U.S. is very pleased with what happened, as you can tell from remarks from President Bush on July 30 in his White House interview. He said relations between Taiwan and mainland China is in a better place.

This is not just the view of the U.S. government but is also a shared view of many knowledgeable experts on this issue.

I think they are all cautiously optimistic about the emergence of a stable structure in this part of world which will benefit U.S. very much.

On the other hand, I'm sure we will continue the current security relationship with the U.S. by not only continuing our arms procurement from the U.S., but keeping our military defense budget at a level no less than 3% of the GDP. I'm sure all these will receive a positive response from the U.S.

WSJ: A few years ago there was a lot discussion about a new security framework involving U.S. and Japan and Taiwan. Has that situation changed at all? Are discussions of that nature still taking place?

Ma: I don't see any basic change of the situation. We continue to support the U.S.-Japan security arrangement, although we are not part of it. As you can see, in the last two years, in spite of this security arrangement, Japan and mainland China have improved relations. In the last two years, there are frequent visits by high-level officials – premiers, presidents. Even the exchange of visits of their warships. This is unprecedented in 60 years.

The U.S. has been proud of creating a situation where it could deal with Japan and mainland China simultaneously in a peaceful way. That was not possible in the last century, when the U.S. had to choose sides. They have to align with one and fight the other. Now in the case of Taiwan and mainland China, the U.S. also finds itself in a situation that it could deal with the two sides without having the two sides fighting each other. This is something the U.S. has always wanted.

WSJ: But would Taiwan be interested in becoming part of U.S.-Japan security arrangement?

Ma: No, that's not possible. Why? Because we don't have diplomatic relations with the U.S. It has to be done in a more informal way.

WSJ: We are drawing near to the presidential election in the U.S. These have been perhaps the most closely followed campaigns in recent memory, not just domestically but around the world. What do you think the selection of the next president might mean for Taiwan?

Ma: As you know, the U.S. policy toward mainland China and Taiwan was formulated in late 1970s, and throughout the seven presidents ever since then, the policy remained the same. It is actually composed of the three joint communiqu├ęs between the U.S. and mainland China, and of course the Taiwan relations act. I don't see the possibility of changing that by either Obama or McCain. And this policy has bipartisan support from the U.S.

No matter who is going to win, I believe the situation will largely remain the same. That is to say, our current approach in cross-strait relations will continue to be supported by the future administration of U.S.

Actually, when I was elected on March 22, I received congratulatory messages from both Obama and McCain. They also expressed the kind of sentiment that I just mentioned. I think they were all impressed by Taiwan's maturing democracy and hope to continue the fruitful relations between the two sides.

Ma knows how to handle western media audiences. Commendably, Stein and Tsai don't leave the readers with a set of fawning comments about Ma's charm or his ability to speak English. Note that Ma always refers to China as "mainland China."


Tommy said...

"I've been having with locals lately show that among swing voters Ma is facing uphill climbing."

But does it really matter at this point? He has another two and a half years before he has to even worry about his own reelection. As for the local elections that are coming up, will dislike of his administration translate into lack of support for KMT candidates?

His comment about the fact that nobody in Taiwan has to debate ideological questions anymore is laughable.

Anonymous said...

Words to preserve and remember:

you will see that we actually realized our campaign promise to have a clean government, to have a society of harmony, and to make peace across the Taiwan Strait.

A cleaned-up government in only 2.5months! I guess that means they stopped any attempts at transparency.

And the harmonious society reference feels like a veiled threat that implies the Ma government will not tolerate dissent.

Anonymous said...

I also have problem with his use of "harmonious society", twice!
So, any debate he doesn't like will be called "pseudo-issue" and we should not debate about it. This sounds like we should all be spoon-fed with the "right-idea" to reach the harmony!

Besides, he sure knows what the US and Chinese governments want to hear.
Were the article not so long, it would be nice to read a blow-by-blow analysis from you, Michael.

Anonymous said...

"but we actually inherited a government with lots of problems.

You talk about oil prices. The previous government froze oil prices for more than half a year."

As I remember, lawmakers of Ma's party were those forced Chen's government NOT to raise the gas prices before the election. Now it's all previous government's fault ????

Btw, shouldn't he use "gas prices", but not "oil prices" ?