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Romberg: Election of New President in Taiwan Likely to Improve Taiwan-China Relations

Interviewee: Alan D. Romberg, Distinguished Fellow, Director of East Asia Program, Henry L. Stimson Center
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 24, 2008

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Alan D. Romberg, a leading expert on Taiwan who served for many years in the State Department, says the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s next president should usher in an era of improved relations between Taiwan and mainland China. He says Chinese leaders were “anxious to get out of this very confrontational mode” and “focus on their high priority, which is economic development.” He says the United States was also looking for a calmer relationship no matter who won the election.

Ma Ying-jeou won a clear victory in Taiwan’s presidential election. This was not unexpected. What does this strong victory presage for his future policies, particularly towards China and the United States?

He has made clear for a long time that he wanted to put relations with the mainland on a more stable basis, rather than what was perceived to be the  confrontational approach of the outgoing administration of President Chen Shui-ban. He also wanted to move ahead and even endorse what was called the 1992 Consensus. Under that consensus, the two sides had a common position that there is One China. It was agreed that each side would verbally express its view on One China separately. In fact, what came about was that they had rather significantly different definitions. The PRC would have preferred that no one talk about the definition because it highlighted the fact that they were not the same. What happened here in Taiwan, where I am at the moment, is that it came to be called later on: “One China, Respective Interpretations.”

The meaning of “One China” is different to each side. Ma says this One China is the Republic of China, established in 1912, and which was ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT) until the government fell to the Communists in 1949 and it moved to Taiwan. To the PRC, the One China is the People’s Republic of China, although in recent years the mainland has come to broaden that definition to say that both Taiwan and mainland belong to One China.

Ma wants to take things back to a period about 13 years ago but he is not about to even talk about unification, much less to negotiate anything. Rather, he wants to take this issue, the principle of One China, in which he has his own definition, then set the issue aside and move ahead with the PRC on a variety of fronts. He wants an economic agreement, quite early on; to establish much more frequent charter flights than now exist, then scheduled flights. Then over the period of what he hopes would be his first term, a peace accord, and what he calls a “modus vivendi,” an agreement by which Taiwan could have greater international participation or what Taiwanese call international space. He looks forward to a much more robust relationship across the Taiwan Strait and a much reduced level of military confrontation.

Do you get the sense that the PRC leadership will be willing to make some compromises with him?

I think they will go along with the way he has been handling the One China issue. Basically they say they won’t accept what he says but they will live with it and move on. During the campaign, Ma was quite insistent on sticking with this “One China, Respective Interpretations” approach. President Chen, and Frank Hsieh the nominee of the Democratic Progressive Party, the DPP, both said the PRC had never accepted this and was not going to accept it. Well, I spent a lot of time in conversations with officials and experts on the mainland and I think it’s very clear that they are going to accept it. The PRC was anxious to get out of this very confrontational mode that they were in with Taiwan and try to put this whole thing back in a box and try to establish relationships that would over time win hearts and minds, but also to focus on their high priority, which is economic development.

What about the United States?

I think the United States has had a lot of tension with the current Taiwan government, primarily over issues that seem to be challenges to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. The most recent cause of tension was the proposed referendum by Chen Shui-bian’s party, the DPP, for joining the United Nations under the name of “Taiwan.” The PRC interpreted that referendum as a significant political and legal step towards independence. The PRC then put a lot of pressure on the United States to try to end the referendum or when it was going ahead to make sure it was defeated. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the United States acted on this because Beijing said it should do so. I think Beijing’s attitude was critical here but the United States basically came to its own conclusion that for all of these factors involved, including most important that this could be some kind of cause for use of coercion or even military force--it was a very bad idea.

Chinese leaders were “anxious to get out of this very confrontational mode ...  and try to establish relationships that would over time win hearts and minds, but also to focus on their high priority, which is economic development.”

The United States tried early on to discourage it but felt it got nowhere with the Chen government. It eventually went public with its criticism, essentially going over the head of the government, making it clear to the people of Taiwan that there were consequences in the quality of U.S. relations. It wasn’t a matter of the United States walking away from relations but obviously affecting relations. Those are symptomatic of the kinds of tensions we have had. The United States was looking forward to a calmer and easier relationship no matter who won. This is also true, as I was saying before, of Beijing. Everyone looked at the next four years as likely to be much more productive and calmer in that sense, than the last eight years have been.

Under the current diplomatic rules, the president of Taiwan can’t make an official visit to the United States. Could Ma, as president-elect, go to Washington for unofficial talks?

I think that’s an issue that’s currently being batted around. Ma gave a press conference the other day and indicated he would like to travel to Taiwan’s principal economic partners. Obviously that would include the United States, most importantly. Whether that is a really good idea is going to have to be considered between Ma and Washington. I don’t know where that will come out. Obviously there are arguments for doing it, of establishing a new relationship and getting off on the right foot. But then there are arguments that this could provoke Beijing into some kind of debate that would not be helpful in the process of that moving ahead. So again, I don’t know what the answer to your question is, but the bar is against official travel and visits to Washington by the sitting President, Vice President, Premier, or Vice premier.

What kind of person is he? We know he’s got a degree from NYU and a doctorate degree at Harvard Law School. Is he very westernized? How would you describe him?

He is certainly very comfortable with Americans and other Westerners in English. He is fluent and has spent a lot of time, as you say, being educated in the West. He’s a very calm person who does not, at least as far as one can tell, easily get riled up. One of the charges against him from his opposition in the election is that, on issues where he was pressed hard, he was very uncertain of himself and kind of flip-flopped. The biggest example of that in the campaign was when Frank Hsieh said that Ma had a “green card”--a permanent residence card to the United States and Ma was asked, do you have a green card, and he said “no I don’t.” It turned out that he had had a green card but he believed it had expired and so there was a great debate on whether it had expired.

There have been a few occasions when he had to back track on political confrontations of that sort. But my own view is that on policy issues he has been quite consistent.

Now, I gather from his press conference he said he wanted to negotiate confidence-building military measures with China to reduce the risk of accidental war and eventually a peace agreement, ending hostilities across the Taiwan Strait. Is it actually possible? Can Taiwan actually negotiate with China?

Before 1995 there was, under the 1992 Consensus, a dialogue of sorts that was going on. At the time, it was really dealing with smaller non-political issues, but there was a channel established for carrying on discussions. Moreover, if they were to move ahead on this, I think it’s important to note, that not only in the campaign had Ma proposed a peace agreement but so did Hu Jintao, the PRC president. At least in principle, they have both said they wanted to do this--even Frank Hsieh said that he, too, would be willing to negotiate a peace agreement, although it seemed as though he would have had different requirements. In any case you can’t negotiate a peace agreement unless you’re talking, so the fact that both Ma and Hu Jintao have said this would be a good thing means they are both willing to find a way to talk.

Doesn’t a peace agreement presuppose two states?

Not necessarily. In fact, I would say that from the PRC point of view, not at all.

So how do you have a peace agreement between a nation and a province?

The PRC has in principle been saying that it would negotiate anything once Taiwan accepted One China on an equal basis. That’s never been very well defined but the fact is that between the authorities, the PRC is a little reluctant to talk about a government here, but I think they would even go that far.

The essential deal would be that Taiwan would not move toward independence and that the PRC would not use force. In principle, the PRC is going to retain, for itself, the right to use force, if Taiwan were to, at some future point, move toward independence. This I think would fall in the category of an interim agreement. Ma, when he originally talked about this, talked about it for a period of thirty to fifty years. In my conversations in Beijing, people have said “we’re perfectly happy to talk about a peace agreement but we’re not going to sign a piece of paper that essentially says we essentially recognize that Taiwan is not going to be unified with the mainland for such a long time, even if that turns out to be the case. We just can’t accept that long of a period of time as a formal position, codified in some sort of document.”

The PRC first publicly proposed confidence building measures in May of 2004 and so clearly they are willing to do that. To have a longer term peace agreement they would have to come to some kind of understanding about these two critical issues, which are the use of force and Taiwanese independence.

Right now there is considerable trade between Taiwan and the mainland?

There is. I don’t have the figure in my head but there is considerable trade and there is considerable Taiwan investment in the mainland. There are all sorts of reasons why no one wants to move toward conflict, and that is one of them. One of the issues that have been under negotiation but never came to fruition under the Chen Shui-bian government but I think will under the Ma administration is PRC tourism. There is a certain amount of travel to Taiwan from the mainland; there is extensive travel to the mainland from Taiwan but travel to Taiwan has been quite limited. Ma has said he wants to have a target of 3,000 people from the mainland a day and then let that grow. There are some people who would be concerned that among all of those people there would be spies or they would somehow come to dominate the economy in a way that would be unhealthy for Taiwan. I think that the idea of having large numbers of PRC tourists here to boost the economy is actually quite a popular one.

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