Ma must set right pace for closer ties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am


Second terms are rarely easy for leaders of democracies. The one Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou has embarked on will be especially challenging, starting as it has with island-wide protests against his policies and record low opinion poll ratings. Domestic issues centred on the economy and job creation will consume much effort in the coming four years, matters he acknowledged in his inauguration speech. But whether Taiwanese like it or not, meeting expectations largely lies in moving closer to the mainland.

Many of the island's people realise this. By voting for Ma and his Kuomintang party in January, they showed they were eager for the status quo with the mainland. That means ever-warmer cross-strait economic ties, as unveiled by the returning president in his updated policy. But since there is no touchier subject than unification, especially among supporters of the opposition Democratic People's Party, relations have to be approached gingerly.

Ma has set off on the right foot, reiterating that the status quo means 'no unification, no independence and no use of force'. He also took pains to explain the 'one country, two areas' concept laid out by the KMT's honorary chairman, Wu Poh-hsiung, during a meeting with President Hu Jintao two months ago. He said that when speaking of one China, it was the Republic of China that was being referred to. This may not exactly fit Beijing's one-China principle, but it finally lays bare an important matter of discussion. Only by broaching such politically sensitive subjects can there be a path towards greater understanding and mutual trust.

This is the sort of clarity that Ma needs, but has lacked in trying to tackle Taiwan's economic challenges. Wages are flat, unemployment is rising, inequality is high and property out of the reach of the majority. Taiwan's export-driven economy still relies heavily on the troubled European and North American markets. Regional economic integration, with the mainland at the centre, is where the future lies.

The forward-looking policies of Ma will make this possible, but they have to be broadened and deepened. Decades of sabre-rattling with the mainland all but ended with his election in 2008, followed by the signing of deals that have brought a host of benefits for both sides. There are now 558 direct flights per week, three million mainland tourists can visit and import tariffs have been dropped on 800 items. During his second term, there are plans to cut tariffs on 5,000 Taiwan-bound goods and 6,000 headed in the opposite direction. Beijing and Taipei want to sign mutual investment protection agreements by the end of next month. Economic integration is necessary and inevitable. Taiwan has to move closer to the mainland, for the sake of its economy and people. Ma's success lies in setting the right pace.