“Now it has changed into a virtuous circle,” he said, ticking off a long list of economic benefits as well as new paths to elevate Taiwan’s international standing since he launched his detente policy.
Taiwan is still far from ready to engage in detailed political talks with mainland China, he said, despite suggestions from Chinese President Xi Jinping that the explosive subject be broached soon.
This month, at a meeting with envoys from Taiwan, Xi said that a final resolution on Taiwan’s status must be reached and that the island’s political estrangement from the mainland “cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
Ma says that a referendum and clear public consensus in Taiwan are needed before military talks and discussion of a peace accord can begin. Similarly, he ruled out a direct meeting with Xi unless there is both an urgent need by Taiwan and public support for it.
“It is not that we avoid touching the political issues and pass them on generation to generation. In fact, we are willing to discuss any issue as long as it is an urgent one,” Ma said. He added that his guiding principle has been to address the easiest and most pressing issues first, such as economic ties, rather than tackling more-difficult political questions.
China regards Taiwan as a rebellious province that must eventually be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary — a threat backed up by at least 1,600 missiles that remain aimed at the island, according to military analysts. Taiwan insists on the rights it has maintained as a self-governed entity since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s forces fled to the island after their defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
The United States has been a key defender of Taiwan, but it worries about anything that might complicate its already difficult relationship with China.
A note from Obama
When Ma won election in 2008, Barack Obama — then a presidential candidate — sent a note to Ma, according to Richard Bush, a Taiwan expert and adviser who delivered it. “The letter said, ‘I like your cross-strait policy. As you pursue that, US-Taiwan relations will improve,’ ” Bush said.
Thanks to Ma’s warming ties with China, Bush said, the issue of Taiwan no longer dominates the U.S.-China relationship, allowing Washington to tackle other divisive bilateral issues such as cybersecurity, Syria and intellectual property.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, however, have proved a persistent irritant. After a $6.4 billion deal was announced in 2010, China temporarily broke off all military ties with the United States.
Ma described relations with the United States in recent years as good and said that continuing sales of U.S. arms are essential for Taiwan.
Ma succeeded Chen Shui-bian, who had taken a defiant stance toward Beijing. Ma began his presidency with a quick succession of diplomatic deals unthinkable just a generation ago: regular direct flights to China, sea links, mail service and 19 agreements, including one lifting tariffs on certain goods.
Ma, reelected in 2012, said he hopes that in his remaining three years as president he will win parliamentary approval of a landmark accord that liberalizes trade across the Taiwan Strait in dozens of sectors. He also wants each side to establish representative offices in the other’s capital and to relax strict and outdated rules affecting the interaction of people and businesses in China and Taiwan.
Policies draw criticism
Many Taiwanese, especially in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, worry that Ma’s policies are eroding Taiwan’s self-governing status. Some deride the warmer ties as a cheap selling of Taiwan’s sovereignty in return for mainland favors. Others fear that Ma is linking Taiwan’s economy too closely to China’s. “Ma’s policy aims to tie Taiwan’s economy with China and build a one-China market, putting all hopes of economic development on China,” said Wang To-far, an economist at Taipei University. “But one country’s economic development can’t solely depend on one other country.”
Wang also said that the trade agreements with China that Ma has pursued could lead to a hollowing out of Taiwanese industry and services as jobs and investment shift to the mainland.
Ma bristled at such criticism. “They say we are selling out Taiwan and that we lost something, but they never say what exactly we have lost,” he said.
Better cross-strait relations have strengthened rather than weakened Taiwan’s international standing and claim on autonomy, Ma said.
During its eight years in power before him, the opposition party tried numerous ways of winning more international recognition for Taiwanese sovereignty, infuriating China. Under his administration, Ma noted, Taiwan was allowed for the first time in 38 years to go to meetings of the World Health Organization as an observer, and last month Taiwan was allowed to attend an assembly of the United Nations’ aviation agency as a special guest.
On the business front, Taiwan is working on economic agreements with Singapore and New Zealand, Ma noted.
Despite what he described as his policy successes, Ma has suffered from some of the lowest approval ratings of any leader in Taiwanese history. A recent poll pegged public support as low as 9 percent.
Some of his public battering is attributed to unpopular domestic actions, such as overhauls of electricity pricing and pensions. There has also been a power struggle within his Nationalist Party involving alleged favor-peddling by Taiwan’s legislative speaker, wiretapping and a failed attempt by Ma to oust the speaker.
Still, Despite those setbacks, Ma expressed no desire to change his cross-strait goals or his domestic policies. “We have made progress in every area,” he said. “Of course, not everyone understands this. But we have done what needed to be done, and we will keep doing so until the very end.”
Liu Liu contributed to this report.
Click here to read the transcript of our full interview with Taiwanese president.