By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 24, 2008
TAIPEI, March 23 -- Taiwan's president-elect, Ma Ying-jeou, outlined ambitious plans Sunday to revolutionize economic and security relations with China, aiming ultimately for a peace accord ending 59 years of hostility across the Taiwan Strait.
Ebullient after a decisive victory in Saturday's election, Ma predicted he could reach agreement with Beijing on a wide range of delicate issues because, unlike President Chen Shui-bian, he is willing to put aside the question of whether this self-ruled island should be considered an independent nation or a part of China.
"The idea is to shelve the issue," he said in an interview.
Ma, sipping tea in his chaotic campaign headquarters, was visibly buoyed by the clarity of his victory, with 58 percent of the vote. Relaxed but closely following his script, he seemed strikingly confident of his ability to move forward with Beijing on agreements covering direct airline flights, increased mainland tourism, commercial ties, confidence-building military arrangements and even a formal end to the state of hostility in effect since the defeated Chiang Kai-shek fled here in 1949 with his Nationalist followers -- including Ma's father.
Taiwanese analysts said Ma's inauguration on May 20 indeed will open a new horizon for relations with China. But they cautioned against over-optimism, warning that much still separates the two sides and that China's Communist Party has its own historical baggage and political realities to deal with in any negotiation with Taiwan.
"We can think the unthinkable now," said George Tsai, a political scientist at Chinese Cultural University in Taipei. "But don't expect too much."
Speaking earlier at a news conference, Ma agreed he was setting out on a difficult course that would be impossible to navigate without equal determination from China. "These are very ambitious plans," he said. "They require the other side's goodwill."
A spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, addressing a Taiwanese television crew in Beijing, expressed satisfaction that the island's voters rejected a pro-independence referendum issue at the same time as the presidential vote and added what appeared to be an endorsement of Ma's appeal for change.
"It is the hope of the people on both sides of the strait to develop peaceful cross-strait relations," said the spokesman, Li Weiyi. "Therefore, all of us should work hard on it."
Ma, 57, said he based his confidence on three years of contacts between his Nationalist Party and China's Communist Party, discussions that bypassed Chen's government and its relentless emphasis on Taiwanese independence. Those talks have led him to believe that President Hu Jintao and the Chinese government are ready for dramatic changes now that Chen will no longer be Taiwan's leader, Ma said. In particular, he cited a statement by Hu in November in which he expressed readiness to seek a peace accord with Taiwan under certain conditions.
"I think both sides have the strong intention to stabilize the situation," Ma said.
Chen, a lifelong campaigner for Taiwanese identity, centered his two four-year terms on the independence issue, embittering Chinese leaders and keeping tensions high across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.
In contrast, Ma said China and Taiwan probably would not settle the issue in his lifetime and meanwhile would be better off trying to reach practical agreements. They could begin their talks, he suggested, by returning to an understanding reached in 1992 that was repudiated by the Chen government.
China has long insisted that the "one-China principle" -- there is only one China, with Beijing as its government -- is a prerequisite for any negotiations. Taiwan endorsed the principle in 1992 but stipulated that both sides interpret it differently. On the basis of that diplomatic sleight of hand, China agreed that talks were possible on a variety of subjects.
Discussions would not have to be conducted by the Chinese and Taiwanese governments directly, Ma suggested, relieving China of concern over dealing with a government it considers illegitimate. Instead, he said, as in the past, exchanges could be held through semiofficial organizations such as airline groups, tourism associations or the Strait Exchange Foundation in Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait in mainland China.
Ma said the first subject of discussion should be direct charter flights to and from Chinese cities, which he predicted could be in operation every weekend by July. From there, he said, negotiations could begin about regular scheduled flights and increasing the number of mainland tourists allowed to visit Taiwan.
Within a short time, he predicted, Taiwan could draw as many as 3,000 mainland visitors a day, providing a boost to the island's economy and eroding the enmity built up over the last half-century of hostility. Under Taiwan's present restrictions, only 230,000 mainland Chinese visited here in 2007, while 4.62 million Taiwanese visited China, including trips by the approximately 1 million who live and do business there.
"If everything goes right," he said, "I think that will significantly change the Taiwanese attitude toward the mainland."
At the same time, Ma said he wanted to open negotiations on a comprehensive agreement regulating economic ties between China and Taiwan, particularly the nearly $125 billion a year in trade and the growing level of investment by Taiwanese businesses in the mainland. "The rules of the game, of the economic game, mean that the two sides have to get together," Ma said.
Negotiations should also be held on confidence-building measures between the Taiwanese and Chinese militaries, he said. Specifically, he suggested that military officers could meet to exchange advance information on deployments and troop movements to avoid misinterpretations and accidental alarms. More broadly, he said, talks could get underway for the accord suggested by Hu to set aside the hostility that has made the strait one of the world's most volatile flash points.