Pope Francis

Ma Ying-jeou's Vatican trip, which Beijing barely protested, a success

Central government refrains from making loud protests, as it has done in the past, but Foreign Ministry urges Holy See to end ties with Taiwan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 4:09am


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Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's official visit this week to the Vatican, when he became the island's first leader to meet the pope and interacted with other foreign leaders, was hailed as a "fruitful" and "historic" trip by the island's media.

Beijing did not go out of its way to condemn the trip. The Foreign Ministry only urged the Vatican, with which Beijing has no formal ties, to recognise "the Chinese government as the sole legal representative of all China".

However, analysts said it remained to be seen whether Beijing's response represented a tacit acceptance of Ma's modus vivendi, or flexible diplomacy, which he hopes will bring the island more attention from the international community.

Ma, who attended the inaugural mass of Pope Francis, returned to Taiwan late on Wednesday after a three-day visit to the Holy See - the island's sole ally in Europe, and one of Taiwan's 23 allies in the world.

"We have great expectations for our ties with the Holy See," Ma said upon his return, at Taoyuan International Airport, south of Taipei.

Taiwan's foreign minister, David Lin, described Ma's visit as "highly successful" because it promoted ties and enhanced the island's international exposure.

Ma was seen greeting and shaking hands with foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel and US Vice-President Joe Biden.

In addition to briefly engaging with political leaders from countries that do not have formal ties with Taipei, Ma said he was also able to spend some of his time inspecting the island's representative office in Rome.

In his exchange with Biden, Ma said he discussed bilateral trade issues, US arms sales to Taiwan and Washington's inclusion of Taiwan in its visa-waiver programme.

The Italian government, which recognises Beijing instead of Taipei, granted Ma the courtesy and honour it accords to other heads of state upon his arrival in Rome and departure for Taiwan, according to the island's foreign ministry officials.

Rather than protesting loudly as it has in the past, Beijing remained relatively silent on the trip. It did not lodge any protest with Italy for allowing Ma in, but a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman urged the Vatican to dissolve its ties with Taiwan and take steps to create the conditions needed to improve bilateral relations. Ma, who assumed office five years ago, was quoted as telling Taiwanese media in Rome that the trip was the result of efforts to promote flexible diplomacy.

Ma said on Wednesday that there were many Catholics in both Taiwan and on the mainland, and "so it would be best for the two sides to work together, instead of confronting each other politically over relations with the Vatican".

Cross-strait relations, which had been sour since the end of the civil war in 1949, improved after Ma became president in 2008. The result has been what appears to be a tacit diplomatic truce between Taipei and Beijing, which used to spend huge sums to woo each other's allies.

Analysts noted that this time, other than reiterating a few stock lines, Beijing did not criticise Ma for attempting to sabotage the peaceful development of cross-strait relations. Pundits said that this may indicate that China's new leaders don't want to disturb the currently friendly status quo across the strait.

Political analyst Lin Chong-pin, a professor at Taiwan's National Defence University, said Beijing apparently did not want to make a big deal out of the trip, especially when newly elected President Xi Jinping has more pressing challenges on the mainland to cope with.

"The new leader of the mainland, who is familiar with Taiwanese affairs, is likely to adopt a softer and more skilful approach in dealing with cross-strait affairs," Lin said, adding that Xi would use more flexible strategies to win the "hearts and minds" of Taiwanese people.

However, Professor George Tsai Wei, a political analyst at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, warned that it was still too early to say that Ma's so-called flexibility diplomacy works.

"Wait until June to see what Beijing's reaction is," he said, referring to a planned visit to the island by blind mainland dissident Chen Guangcheng .

A human rights group invited Chen, who is studying in the US, to visit Taiwan from June 23, for a trip the group said had Ma's approval. But Ma's office dismissed the reports as baseless.