Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou outlined on Thursday plans to further improve ties with mainland China during his final three years in office and rebutted criticism that he is giving up too much to Beijing in return for too little.
What follows is a transcript of Ma’s Oct. 24 interview with William Wan of The Washington Post at the presidential office in Taipei. The transcript was translated from Mandarin and compiled by the Office of the President, which simplified the question-posing portions for brevity.
Washington Post: Earlier this month, the leader of mainland China, Xi Jinping, stated that the political divide must step-by-step reach a final resolution and cannot be passed from generation to generation. What do you believe this means?
President Ma: At an APEC meeting, mainland Chinese leader Mr. Xi Jinping did say that the cross-strait division cannot be handed off to subsequent generations to handle. Perhaps he meant that he hopes that political issues can be discussed at an early date. Actually, since I took office and began to improve cross-strait relations, among the political, economic, and other matters the two sides have dealt with, the political ones can be divided into high-level and low-level issues. High-level issues include the “one China” principle, on which the two sides came to a consensus in 1992, that is, “one China, respective interpretations.”
As to low-level matters, in the past five years we have signed 19 agreements, some of which are politically very sensitive. For example, the Cross-Strait Agreement on Joint Crime-fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance we signed in 2009 concerns the two sides’ exercise of public authority and jurisdiction, which is clearly politically sensitive. But operations taking place under it have gone well for four years now. While the agreement concerns sensitive topics, the agreement itself is neutral. What is more, thanks to this agreement, the two sides have arrested over 5,000 criminals.
The agreement on the establishment of representative offices in each other’s territory that we are now negotiating is similar in that it is also politically very sensitive, but the institutions themselves are neutral. So it is not the case that we are deliberately evading political questions. Our principle is to address pressing issues before less pressing ones, easy ones before difficult ones, and economic ones before political ones. It is not the case that we are only addressing economic issues and avoiding political ones. Where the time is ripe and the issue is pressing, we address these issues. But right now, we believe we should address the issue of establishing representative offices, as these can offer services and help to our people traveling, doing business, or studying in mainland China. So we are not avoiding such issues.
Washington Post: Is it possible that in your generation the two sides of the Taiwan Strait engage in political negotiations?
President Ma: The mainland hopes to discuss a cross-strait peace agreement. But our people are somewhat concerned that such talks would end up as a discussion about unification. So two years ago, when we first brought up this issue, we thought it would be best to first put it to a referendum to confirm that we had strong public support. If so, it would be easier to move on with discussions. Mainland China has brought up talking about mutual military confidence-building measures. This is also very sensitive. However, at this time, we have not reached consensus in Taiwan. Though we have seen continuing development in cross-strait relations, on this issue, perhaps there will be a time—when the issue is perhaps not so sensitive and when we have a consensus—at which point we would not rule out discussing it.
I want to stress that our cross-strait policy is to pursue peaceful cross-strait development and maintain the status quo of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” under the framework of the ROC Constitution and the 1992 Consensus. In fact, over the past two decades, opinion polls have shown that around 80 percent of the people support the maintenance of the status quo of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force.” This closely reflects mainstream public opinion in Taiwan.
Washington Post: You mentioned that political negotiations require sufficient popular support. Do you believe that there is a possibility for leaders of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to meet? At what kind of events? What conditions would have to be met?
President Ma: This question has come up a lot recently. My basic attitude is that for the leaders of the two sides to meet, the nation must require it, the people must support it, and the meeting should proceed in a dignified manner, with equal status for both sides.
Washington Post: If the leaders of the two sides were to meet, what would you hope to convey?
President Ma: We actually have many established channels through which we can communicate our ideas, including the Mainland Affairs Council, the Straits Exchange Foundation, and other agencies. This is much different from the past. Through these channels, we can indicate our positions to the mainland. Right now, we are implementing a raft of concrete measures. On the economic front, we must pass a trade in services agreement and a trade in goods agreement, as well as negotiate an agreement on representative offices. Then we will engage in a comprehensive review of the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area and related regulations to relax them so that they are more in line with recent trends. These are foundational matters for the cross-strait relationship. They are very important. These steps will make moving forward smoother.
All of this is just the official channels; more exist in the private sector. All sorts of discussions and forums are held frequently and participants exchange opinions on related issues. And so there is a great exchange of opinions going on between the two sides.
Washington Post: What message does the ROC government want to convey?
President Ma: For example, in late April, we hosted a gathering marking the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Koo-Wang Talks. Mr. Wang Daohan’s son came to Taiwan. At the gathering, I explained very clearly that, in accordance with our Constitution, we will not, either domestically or abroad, promote “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” or “Taiwan independence.” These are not allowed by our Constitution. Moreover, in July, after I was re-elected as Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT), Mr. Xi Jinping sent a message of congratulations to me in his capacity as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. In my capacity as KMT Chairman, I sent a letter of thanks back to him, and I stressed that our achievements over the past five years were a realization of the 1992 Consensus. We also reiterate our basic cross-strait position at such events to show that our attitude has not changed and to let the mainland understand our basic principles in progressing with related work. These are the type of things we are always doing. This weekend, Honorary KMT Chairman Wu Po-hsiung will travel to the mainland to attend the Cross-Straits Economic Trade and Culture Forum. Prior to his departure, I exchanged opinions with him, and shared exactly what I have just told you.
Washington Post: Will the deepening of cross-strait relations affect Taiwan’s sovereignty?
President Ma: You just said that our improvement of relations with mainland China would undermine our independence and autonomy. This is a major misunderstanding, since the situation happens to be the reverse. Before I took office, Taiwan’s international participation was rather limited. After I took office, as we promoted improvement of the cross-strait relationship and signed one agreement after another, our international room for maneuver gradually expanded.
For example, in the second year of my first term, Taiwan was able to take part in the World Health Assembly (WHA) held by the World Health Organization (WHO). We did so as an observer under the name Chinese Taipei. This was 38 years after we had left the United Nations. We now have taken part in the WHA for five years in a row with no problems. Our relationship with the WHO is increasingly close and through this organization, our liaison with the health agencies of other countries has become closer.
The year after we first attended the WHA, we acceded to the Government Procurement Agreement, which is an agreement under the World Trade Organization. This allows us to take part alongside 41 other member states in government procurement.This is also something we could not do before.
Similarly, in September of this year, we took part in the Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This was the first time we participated in ICAO since our departure from it 42 years ago. The improvement in cross-strait relations had a great deal to do with this.
All of what I have just mentioned pertains to our multilateral relations. In terms of bilateral relations, after we signed with mainland China the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June 2010, two months later in August Singapore expressed willingness to begin talks about signing an economic cooperation agreement, which is now nearing completion. In 2011, New Zealand also indicated that it wanted to sign an economic cooperation agreement with us. It was signed after the completion of negotiations in July of this year. We expect that it will soon be approved by our Legislative Yuan. Since we have signed the ECFA with mainland China, many countries have shown interest in holding talks with us in this area, including the European Parliament, which has passed a number of resolutions supporting the signing of such an agreement with us. We currently are holding such talks with a number of countries. From this it is evident that the improvement in our relationship with mainland China has not shrunk our international room for maneuver, it has actually expanded it. So, you just mentioned that some people think that after we improve relations with mainland China it will limit our independence and autonomy, but it happens to be the reverse.
In fact, our relationship with Japan is the same. The year after we signed the ECFA with mainland China, Japan signed an investment pact with us. Japan has already been investing in Taiwan for six decades; so, why did it suddenly want to sign an investment pact with us when it had never raised the issue before? Obviously because it has not yet signed a free trade agreement with mainland China, so via the investment pact signed with us, Japan can invest in Taiwan and sell its products on the mainland. This is beneficial to Japan. Examples such as these indicate that, as we have improved our relationship with mainland China, we have also bettered our international relations. In the past, these two conflicted in a vicious cycle. Now it has been changed into a virtuous cycle. I think that is quite evident.
In addition, five years ago when I took office, only 54 countries and territories afforded us landing-visa or visa-waiver treatment, but now that number has grown to 134. The reason that it is up by 80 over these years is that our improvement of cross-strait relations has facilitated peace in East Asia, causing countries to perceive the Republic of China as an asset, not a liability. Thus, they are happy to welcome our sophisticated citizens to visit them. These situations are all linked, not independent. So, the view that you just mentioned is totally untrue.
Washington Post: Even though you have improved cross-strait relations, expanded international participation and signed many agreements, some people are still criticizing you for what is referred to as maitai, or selling out Taiwan. What would your response to that be?
President Ma: From the question you just asked, they say that we are “selling out Taiwan,” saying that we have given up something, but they are unable to say what it is that we have given up.
The DPP leadership regularly criticizes me for “selling out Taiwan,” but their local leaders often go to mainland China to market their fruit and promote their cities. Clearly, when they are in power, they realize the importance of cross-strait relations, but when they are in opposition, they start to criticize us. In fact, what is interesting is that in the eight years of the DPP presidency from 2000 to 2008 Taiwan’s investment in and trade volume with mainland China grew most rapidly. For example, when the DPP was in power, our exports to mainland China and Hong Kong grew from 24 percent of total exports to 40 percent. After we came to power, from 2008 to 2012, this percentage not only did not increase, it actually dropped a bit. Why? Our trade volume with mainland China has increased, but its proportion of total trade has not. So where is the growth in Taiwan’s trade volume? It is due to an increase in our trade volume with other countries, especially in Southeast Asia. This is an important approach we hope to use, to diversify our markets and balance our trade. So, even though our reliance on trade with mainland China is not slight, it has not grown. Quite the reverse, we have diversified our export markets. Isn’t that the goal we have been pursuing?
DPP county magistrates and city mayors wanted to initiate direct flights with mainland China. During the DPP’s eight years in power, they talked about wanting to implement direct cross-strait flights, but could never accomplish it. After we came to power, it was achieved in just over a month’s time. I took office on May 20 and attained it on July 4. Those same counties and cities sought to set up direct flights with the mainland, since once they were set up, it would bring mainland tourists and increase bilateral trade. Clearly, what we have been doing these past five years is correct, it’s just that they want it, but don’t dare say so. Or one could say that their central leadership doesn’t dare say it, but their local leaders do.
Washington Post: Some people believe that US support for Taiwan, especially in the face of growing Chinese power, has lessened in tangible ways. What are your thoughts on that relationship and what is your strategy for Taiwan if US support for Taiwan continues to weaken?
President Ma: As you have just mentioned, a few US scholars have suggested that the United States give up on or reduce aid to Taiwan. However, this has never been the mainstream opinion of US academia, and even less so, the attitude of the US government. In fact, the US government’s cooperation with the Republic of China in the areas of economy and security has only strengthened, not weakened. Why is that? It is clear that the United States seeks to return to Asia, to rebalance to Asia, where the Republic of China plays a very important role.
Our cooperation with the United States is apparent to all in the economic and security domains. But we are also engaged in other areas, such as counter-terrorism, prevention of nuclear proliferation and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the combat against human trafficking. Taiwan maintains very close cooperation with the United States and our performance has been outstanding, which has gained a high level of US affirmation. Our bilateral relationship is one of multi-faceted cooperation and is proceeding very well. Our relations with the United States are closer now than prior to the severance of our diplomatic ties in 1979.
Washington Post: Do you think US arms sales to Taiwan are an accurate measure of Taiwan-US relations?
President Ma: Of course. In the past five years, the US administration has submitted to Congress plans for three arms sales to Taiwan valued at a total of US$18.3 billion, the highest in two decades. You asked why these are necessary. The Republic of China is a sovereign nation and we must maintain an effective national defense. As Taiwan is unable to produce some of the weapons it needs for defensive purposes, it has to purchase them from the United States. The United States, because of its Asian policy, wishes to cooperate with Taiwan in this area. Therefore, our bilateral relationship is a mutually beneficial one. These are arms sales to Taiwan, not military aid. These are purchases, not gifts. This is very important to both sides. This is why former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said two years ago that Taiwan is an “important security and economic partner” of the United States.
Washington Post: Is there need for more arms sales to Taiwan?
President Ma: The earliest request for the recent three arms sales to Taiwan was made 10 years ago. The arms will continue to arrive and be put into service. For example, the first P-3C anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft has already arrived, with another three to be delivered at the end of the year. These are very important weapons for anti-submarine warfare, and will enable Taiwan to join the United States and other countries in regional defense efforts. There are some weapons that we wish to buy, but which we are unable to procure at the present time. Submarines are an example. We can manufacture some of the defensive weapons we need, but others need to be purchased from the United States. To us, they are vital for maintaining effective deterrence in national defense.
Washington Post: What is your view on your low approval ratings?
President Ma: I think this has a lot to do with some of the reforms we have been promoting in recent years, for example the reasonable pricing of electricity and gasoline. In the past, our electricity and gasoline prices did not accurately reflect importation costs, and this situation could no longer continue. We therefore had to make some difficult decisions. Following more than a year of effort, electricity and gasoline prices have gradually become more reasonable.
Of course, there have also been several other policies that have caused controversy, including pension reforms and the US beef issue. Sometimes, however, things that need to be done can no longer wait. This affects our approval ratings, but I believe that, even though these measures may not be very popular for a certain period of time, they will benefit the long-term development of Taiwan.
Taiwan is a country that relies on imports for 98 percent of its energy needs. We cannot use the government’s budget to subsidize people that use relatively large amounts of electricity and oil. This is not in line with the user-pay principle, and affects the efficiency of energy use. We know that some of these decisions are not popular, but for the long-term development of Taiwan we sometimes have to accept people’s dissatisfaction.
However, our approach to these issues has improved, so as to minimize the impact on people’s lives. For example, the recent increase in electricity prices has been much more moderate than last year. Of course, we have learned some lessons in this process. I believe that, if we gradually continue on this path, the situation can be improved.
Before we raised electricity prices in April of last year, they were even lower than they were in 1982. This could no longer go on.
Washington Post: With regard to the recent conflict between you and Wang Jin-pyng, the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan, as well as the differences within the KMT, how do you plan to lead the KMT in the coming three years?
President Ma: This is related to the controversy surrounding the recent judicial influence peddling case. At a very early stage, we said that political affairs must continue as normal while we proceed with relevant court cases. As for the differences within the KMT, during the recent no-confidence vote initiated by the DPP, the KMT showed great unity.
Washington Post: Could you say what it means to you to be Taiwanese? Is there a relationship between Taiwan independence and Taiwan identity?
President Ma: The issues you just mentioned were more pertinent 20 or 30 years ago. In recent years, however, these questions have become much less relevant, as everyone in Taiwan upholds the principles of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force,” as well as the ROC Constitution.
We all know that the Republic of China is our country and Taiwan is our homeland. The number of people holding this view continues to grow. Furthermore, in the past people did not show the enthusiasm toward the ROC national flag they do today. Now, during international baseball games we always see our national flag, and everyone cheers on the national team. There is no controversy over this. From this we can see that our citizens’ sense of national identity is growing. Even though some people still hold different views, these views no longer represent the mainstream of our society. Nevertheless, we are a democratic country, and we still have to respect the fact that some people hold different views.
Washington Post: What do you think your legacy will be for Taiwan?
President Ma: Most people, when talking about this question, will mention my performance with regard to cross-strait and international relations. A peaceful Taiwan Strait and a friendly international environment have been two of my main goals. I have worked hard to reach these goals, and I have achieved more results than in the past. However, in terms of domestic reforms, we have promoted many policies that will have a profound impact on Taiwan and will affect all of our citizens, such as the reasonable pricing of gasoline and electricity.
As for our social welfare system, we have amended the Public Assistance Act, increasing the number of people from low-income households that receive assistance from 260,000 to 650,000. We have also promoted reform of the national pension and labor pension systems. In addition, young parents can apply for maternity or paternity leave, allowing them to take six months of leave a year before their child reaches the age of two. During these six months, parents still receive 60 percent of their salaries, giving them the time and money to take care of their newborn children. This policy, which we did not have in the past, has been very popular.
Meanwhile, in terms of saving energy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, we have reversed the past trend of continuously increasing carbon emissions in Taiwan. Now, emissions have been reduced to 2005 levels. More importantly, the efficiency of our energy use has greatly improved. We have set very clear goals: We aim to reduce emissions to 2005 levels by 2020, and to 2000 levels by 2025. Even though these are very ambitious targets that require a lot of effort, we continue to proceed in this direction.
Earlier, we spent quite some time talking about cross-strait and international relations, areas in which we have made significant progress compared to the past. Our ties with the United States, Japan and mainland China are the best they have been for 30, 40 and 60 years, respectively. By creating peaceful cross-strait relations for the people of Taiwan, as well as a friendly international environment, many issues will no longer be a problem moving forward, or at least will be greatly mitigated. This is very important. These are goals I set for myself when assuming office five years ago, and over the past few years we have moved closer to reaching them.
With regard to domestic reforms, we have attached great importance to justice and fairness, and have therefore spared no effort in fighting corruption and promoting a clean government. Even cases in which our fellow KMT members violate the law are treated very seriously, and we hope to create a clean and competent government. We have already achieved some concrete results in this area.
Over the past few years, we have also promoted the second-generation National Health Insurance (NHI). The NHI is a social insurance program that we are very proud of in Taiwan. Similar to other measures, at first some people may not have approved of this program, but now it has proven to be very stable, and the NHI will not experience any financial problems before 2016.
The crime rate in Taiwan has also continued to fall, while our success in solving criminal cases has increased. In fact, social order is now the best it has been for 17 years. Meanwhile, in 2006, 727 people in Taiwan were killed as a result of drunken driving, but in 2013 we actually have a chance to reduce this number to below 260. We have been working very hard on this issue, not only at the central government level. Local governments have also done their part in coordination with the central government. For many people, statistics with regard to people being killed may only be numbers, but each person killed in these incidents represents a broken family. These are all very important reforms.
As for economic development, from 2008 to 2012 Taiwan’s average economic growth rate was 3 percent, ranking second among the Four Asian Tigers behind Singapore. In that same period, the global economy grew at an average rate of 1.9 percent. In the first half of this year, our economic growth reached 2.06 percent, again second among the Four Asian Tigers. In addition, in the IMD’s World Competitiveness Yearbook, for four straight years we have been ranked in the top 10 among the 58 countries surveyed, as well as third among Asian countries, outstripping our past performance. Indeed, we have made significant progress in many areas. Of course, not every citizen will understand this, but we have done what needed to be done, and we will continue to push these reforms until they are completed.