Ma must act now to remedy crisis management skills

After poor handling of a diplomatic spat with the Philippines over the killing of a fisherman, Taiwan's leader needs to improve his image

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 5:40am

Faced with external and internal problems, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou cancelled a long-planned event on Monday, marking the first anniversary of his second inauguration.

Instead, he attended a Central Emergency Operation Centre meeting to prepare for a massive thunderstorm forecast to hit most of the island.

A weary looking Ma was seen drowsing off at the meeting, only to be prodded awake by an aide who showed him a note captured by television cameras that read: "President, the media is filming you taking a nap."

After getting no more than four hours sleep a night during the previous week as he handled a diplomatic spat with the Philippines over the shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine coastguard, it was not surprising that Ma dozed off.

He could have had something to celebrate at his anniversary, were it not for the Philippines' reluctance to offer a full and sincere apology to Taiwan over the shooting, pay compensation, punish those responsible and hold fisheries talks to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Since May 9, when 65-year-old fisherman Hung Shih-cheng was shot dead, Ma has held a number of national security meetings on how to demand justice from the Philippines and contain widening public outrage over the killing.

Hung was shot dead, while he and three other crew members were operating in waters where the 200-nautical mile "exclusive economic zones" of the Philippines and Taiwan overlap. The Philippine coastguard said the fishing boat intruded into Philippine waters and the small boat tried to ram their vessel. In the end, they said they fired machine guns at the boat, hoping to damage its engine, only to accidentally kill the fisherman.

Calling it an "unintended" incident, the Philippines later offered an apology to the "Taiwanese people," saying it would gather donations from Filipinos and send them to the victim's family. Taiwan, however, found the word "unintended" unacceptable, saying the shooting was "cold blooded murder" and citing the more than 50 bullet holes found on the boat, including two dozens directed at the small cabin where the crew had sheltered.

On May 16, the Ma government announced a series of sanctions against the Philippines, including a freeze on hiring Filipino workers, imposing barriers to tourism and suspending a host of government-level exchange and co-operation programmes.

However, not even the flexing of its military muscle in a two-day joint drill by the Taiwanese navy and coastguard near the Philippines helped persuade Manila to comply. Manila simply ignored the threat, even though Taipei claimed it had a naval force 20 times more powerful than that of the Philippines. And to Manila's secret pleasure, the Taiwanese air force embarrassingly reported it had to ground two types of fighter jets - F16s and Mirage-2000s - following crashes during routine training before and after the joint drill.

It is impossible for Taiwan to wage a war against the Philippines, given already high tensions in the South China Sea and a warning by the US - a formal ally of the Philippines. And diplomatically isolated Taipei appears to have few cards left to play to force Manila to comply.

The stand-off remains unresolved, leading many Taiwanese to describe the Ma government's crisis management skills as disappointing.

Even though it has rejected a joint approach proposed by the mainland to put pressure on Manila - fearing harsh criticism from the local pro-independence camp and warnings from the US - the Ma government could perhaps consider hinting at acceptance of Beijing's proposal, which may get the US to exert pressure on the Philippines.

The government could have used the incident to boost Ma's popularity, which has fluctuated from a high of 23 per cent to a low of 13 per cent in the past year. But it lost this chance ahead of the anniversary.

To be fair, Ma is a clean, upright, honest and hard-working president, full of idealism and with a strong desire to do something for Taiwan and its people. He is also credited with improving Taiwan's relations with the mainland, after years of bitter rivalry after the end of a civil war in 1949.

However, the results of most opinion polls since he took office in 2008 have rated him a failure in improving the island's economy and people's livelihoods - the biggest drag on his approval ratings.

The polls have also found that Ma often introduces reforms at the wrong time, like raising oil and electricity prices to reflect their real cost to the government last year, only to be forced to revise the moves under mounting criticism.

His clean image has also been tarnished by the charging of several close aides with corruption in the past year.

The general impression is that Ma is a nice guy, however, he is an incapable administrator who cannot lead in difficult times.

If Ma is unable to improve economic growth, which slipped to 1.26 per cent last year, and effectively address other issues such as whether to scrap the island's almost completed fourth nuclear power plant, that impression is likely to remain as his legacy.