Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou says meeting with Chinese president would be 'premature'

By Howard Schneider
Saturday, May 8, 2010

TAIPEI, TAIWAN -- Despite warming relations and deepening trade ties, it is "premature" to consider a meeting between the leaders of Taiwan and China, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said Friday in an interview that set practical limits on his policy of engagement with the mainland.

"There's a long way to go before the two sides can find something in common politically," said Ma, who has overseen a diplomatic and economic thaw with China that U.S. officials regard as strategically significant, calming one of Asia's most acute potential flash points.

Taiwan, seen as a wayward province by the government in Beijing, spent only a few of the past 115 years under the control of a government in China. It is currently governed by Ma's Nationalist Party, which fled China to Taiwan after the Communist takeover in 1949.

Although the United States and most other nations have not formally recognized Taiwan, the island has developed into an economic powerhouse and bustling two-party democracy under the protection of U.S.-supplied arms and an implicit U.S. guarantee to help if the island is attacked.

Ma said that while he did not "exclude the possibility" of meeting the head of China's government in the future, the focus should be on maintaining the progress being made on trade, travel and government-to-government cooperation. The two sides, he said, have reached a workable "status quo," with China setting aside vocal demands for unification, Taiwan dampening assertions of independence and each looking to keep the peace.

Ma ruled out attending a 2011 meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii, suggested as a possible venue for a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. "It is premature, and it would be very difficult" for Ma to join Hu at the meeting, he said. "The most important thing is to lay the groundwork for institutionalized infrastructure between Taiwan and the mainland."

"At the moment, people do not believe that either unification or independence is a good choice," he said. "They prefer to maintain the status quo and let the two sides interact in an in-depth fashion and then leave the decisions to future generations. People here want to do business with the mainland, but they don't want to have the way of life over there."

Ma is up for reelection in 2012, and the Chinese leadership will also be undergoing a change. According to Taiwanese and other analysts, domestic politics alone make it unlikely that either side will risk a handshake with the other until those transitions are complete.

But Ma was also adamant that he wants to continue deepening relations, a process he thinks is necessary to secure Taiwan's economy and will help push Beijing officials toward liberalizing their country's politics. A million mainland Chinese are expected to visit Taiwan this year under loosened travel rules that were included among a dozen agreements officials in Taipei and Beijing have signed since Ma took office two years ago.

Those agreements also allow direct air service, the extradition of alleged criminals and other practical steps.

After an era in which the opposition Democratic Progressive Party advocated a harder line with China -- and Chinese officials sometimes responded by firing missiles into nearby seas as a reminder of the military hardware targeted at Taiwan -- Ma said he will continue "engaging in honest and flexible diplomacy."

Ma said Taiwan is not expecting international recognition anytime soon. "Diplomatic isolation can be handled," he said. "Economic isolation can be fatal."

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