When is an international flight not just an international flight? That’s what the Taiwanese are wondering, as President Ma Ying-jeou finds himself in hot water for characterizing flights between Taiwan (officially, the Republic of China, or ROC) and mainland China as domestic routes. It appears to have been an offhand remark; at a meeting of the Central Standing Committee of his Chinese Nationalist party (better known as the Kuomintang, or KMT) last month, President Ma, while discussing the aviation industry, tossed off a line likening cross-strait flights to domestic flights in the United States. But it fits a long-established pattern. Indeed, his comments came on the heels of a speech Ma gave a few days earlier in which he said that relations between China and Taiwan are “not international relations.”
The opposition Democratic Progressive party (DPP), Taiwan’s center-left party, has reacted with opprobrium. A prominent DPP legislator said Ma’s remarks show that he is “no longer qualified as a decision-maker on cross-strait relations.” More generally, the DPP criticizes what it takes to be Ma’s disconcertingly pro-mainland attitude and policies. “Ma takes orders from China,” a former DPP legislator charged in the Taipei Times last week. That wasn’t meant as a compliment.
The DPP may be on to something. Since being elected president in a landslide in 2008 (he was reelected in 2012 in a much closer contest), Ma has undeniably taken a conciliatory approach towards Taiwan’s erstwhile enemies in Beijing. The contrast is especially sharp with his immediate predecessor, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, who flirted with declaring independence from the mainland. (To this day, under its constitution, the ROC government in Taipei officially remains the government in exile of the whole of China.)
Under Ma’s leadership, Taiwan opened itself to tourists from the mainland in 2008, and, even more significantly, it inked the Economic Cooperation Framework in 2010, which opened up some 200 sectors of the Taiwanese economy to Chinese investment. Ma also oversaw the advent of those aforementioned cross-strait flights, which have done much to boost Taiwan-mainland ties. (Previously, those wishing to travel between Taiwan and the mainland had to go through a “neutral” territory, typically Hong Kong, adding hours to what should be a short flight.) And he’s not finished. Ma is currently pursuing a free trade pact with Beijing that, polling shows, is opposed by some 70 percent of the Taiwanese public. The DPP—and a large percentage of the Taiwanese public as a whole—opposes the level of economic integration with China that Ma has pursued. The theory is that Ma has so closely aligned Taiwan’s economy with the mainland’s that should China sneeze, Taiwan would end up in intensive care.
All this may seem mystifying. After all, President Ma is the standard-bearer of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, the sworn enemy of the Chinese Communist party. And now he’s seemingly turned the KMT into the more “pro-China” of Taiwan’s two main political parties. Indeed, when Ma was reelected last year, Beijing made no secret that it was pleased. Taiwan’s center-left party, meanwhile, is apparently more hostile to Beijing’s Communist government than the KMT, another puzzlement.
What’s going on here? This isn’t, as some might guess, a simple case of the old “Nixon (or, er, Ma) goes to China” narrative. Rather, to untangle these questions, one needs to take into account Taiwan’s unique status as a kind-of/sort-of nation-state.
Simply put, the KMT, and President Ma in particular, remains loyal to the “one China” philosophy—that someday Taiwan and the mainland should be reunited. According to Sean King, a senior vice president at the consulting firm Park Strategies and a widely quoted expert on Asian politics, “That doesn’t mean KMT leaders approve of Beijing’s undemocratic ways, but I do believe many of them, including Ma, see Taiwan as part of a larger Chinese story.” Hence, Ma’s contention that he did not have international relations with that country, China.
The sense of a shared national identity may be even more visceral for Ma, who was born in Hong Kong, not Taiwan. King also points out that Ma’s father was a member of the Chinese Nationalist Army fighting Japan, a cause dear to the hearts of Chinese nationalists. Moreover, on his deathbed, Ma’s father supposedly urged unification. Today, some of Ma’s opponents accuse of him being on a mission to fulfill his dying father’s wishes. Ma, however, says his guiding policy towards China is the “three ‘No’s”: no independence from China, no immediate unification with China, and no war with China. Elsewhere, he’s said that he supports unification “eventually.”
The point, though, which many willfully obscure, is that being pro-unification does not mean being pro-unification on Beijing’s terms. And so the paradox is that while Ma, at a superficial level, looks like he’s cozying up to the Communists in Beijing, his actions may represent just the opposite: His policies imply that the government in Taipei still considers all of China its territory. Cooperation with the mainland, in this case, represents expansive—and tacitly aggressive—territorial claims.
The DPP, meanwhile, which was founded in 1986 as Taiwan began its transition to democracy, has embraced the idea that the island should be independent. Indeed, as Alan Romberg, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, explains, when the opposition was legalized, “an important part of its reason for being was to oppose the mainlander KMT and the notion that Taiwan had anything to do with the [mainland], historically or otherwise.” Consequently, some in the DPP have frequently suggested amending the ROC constitution.
Remarkably, given that fundamental questions over its status as a nation remain unresolved, the rest of Taiwanese politics looks a lot like that of Western Europe or the United States. There’s plenty of fighting over environmental issues, sluggish economic growth, and income inequality. That’s an achievement in itself, given the 1,600 mainland missiles pointed directly across the strait at this small island of 23 million. It also stands as a rejoinder to those who say that the Chinese aren’t “suited” to democracy. In many important ways, Taiwan is just another normal prosperous, democratic country—even if it’s still not sure that in the long run it wants to be an independent country at all.
Ethan Epstein is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.