Xi Jinping

Ma Ying-jeou must recognise the new issues in cross-strait relations as Xi takes power

Despite what the Taiwanese president says, there are plenty of problems he has to address

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 3:54am

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has been telling the world that the mainland's new leadership is nothing to worry about in terms of cross-strait relations.

"I don't see any difference in principle policies," he said in an interview with Yazhou Zhoukan, a Hong Kong-based weekly magazine, that covered his expectations for cross-strait relations under new Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping, who succeeded Hu Jintao last week.

Ma's administration said it expected Xi to focus on the mainland's internal problems - social, political and economic - for at least his first two years in office, and that Xi would continue to follow Hu's path in dealing with Taiwan.

That would seem to suggest that Taiwan could sit back and relax for two years while Xi tackles the mainland's internal problems and consolidates power.

Ma is also facing a number of issues on the home front, and he could use two years to focus on resolving them. He's struggling to lift his faltering popularity amid rising public dissatisfaction with his performance and his handling of the island's economic problems.

He's also come in for fierce criticism from both sides of politics - the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party and also the Kuomintang, which he chairs.

But can Taiwan really do that? Can the Ma government adopt a "no change" attitude in approaching any forthcoming changes on the mainland?

Ma's former top national security adviser, Su Chi, says the answer is clearly no and argues that Taiwan has no time to spare in developing strategies to cope with changes on the mainland.

In his last report, to the Communist Party's 18th national congress on November 8, Hu said Taiwan must prepare for political talks with the mainland and that they should include the establishment of a mechanism to improve military ties, to ensure stability and the signing of a peace pact that would pave the way for unification.

Before unification, though, Hu stressed, the two sides should explore cross-strait political relations and make arrangements for them.

That's quite different from what Ma told a Kuomintang Central Advisory Committee meeting earlier this month.

He said then the way to deal with the mainland leadership transition was for both sides to continue to expand and deepen their exchanges, establish cross-strait representative offices, and revise the Statute Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area.

There was no mention of a timetable for political dialogue and peace talks, in keeping with the maxim of solving economic issues before political ones.

Such guidelines are nothing new, having been mentioned by Ma and his government on various occasions since he was re-elected in January for a second four-year term. As such they cannot be used as ways to deal with changes on the mainland, especially when Xi is being seen as the first mainland leader to be familiar with Taiwan - a familiarity built up during 20-odd years as a leading local official in Fujian and Zhejiang , dealing with Taiwanese businesspeople and visiting Taiwanese politicians and academics.

Some media reports said that Hu's report to the party congress was co-drafted by Xi, who advised Hu on cross-strait affairs during his last five years in office.

Most Taiwanese pundits expect Xi to exhibit a delicate touch and be more flexible than Hu in dealing with cross-strait relations. He is also expected to come up with his own ideas, to establish his own political credentials and avoid being overshadowed by Hu. Following that logic, Xi is expected to be more aggressive in dealing with Taiwan.

That puts a question mark over the continued offering to Taiwan of unlimited economic concessions and non-sensitive political dispensations.

There have been growing calls for the island to offer reciprocal treatment to the mainland, especially in the areas of investment and agricultural produce.

With Xi having a freer hand in cross-strait affairs, it remains to be seen for how much longer the unequal exchange will last.

On the cultural front, Beijing criticised Ma's government for failing to reciprocate with the lending of treasures from Taipei's National Palace Museum. The island insisted it would only lend items once the mainland passes a law that would guarantee the safe return of all loaned artefacts.

It remains to be seen whether the new mainland authorities will continue to accept this and agree to unilaterally lend its own treasures for display in Taiwan.

The Ma government cannot afford to delay developing new plans to deal with the new situation.