Taiwan president says peace deal with China not a top priority

As he started his second term Sunday, Taiwan President Ma said trade liberalization would take priority over any peace accord with China, for which there is little public support.

Wally Santana/AP
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou takes questions during a press briefing with international media after his inauguration ceremony at the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan, May 20. Ma began his second four-year term Sunday, signaling a continuation of the China policy that has substantially reduced tensions between the sides, while offering Beijing little early hope of realizing its long term goal of unification.

Taiwan’s president said this week that signing a peace accord with old foe China would be shelved for lack of popular support, as the island looks to economic and trade deals to keep improving ties between the two sides that once braced for war.

As he kicked off a second term in office on Sunday, President Ma Ying-jeou told a news conference that signing a formal peace deal was not “urgent.” More trade, investment, and economic cooperation deals will help the two sides build trust that may some day parlay into political accords, his government says.

Sixteen pacts signed in Mr. Ma’s first term, all business-related, raised the confidence level while bringing billions of US dollars to Taiwanese companies. But the president, often criticized at home for getting too close to China, considers a peace accord too risky without public support, experts say. Mr. Ma floated the idea last year as he sought reelection but dropped it when the anti-Beijing main opposition stirred up complaints.  

It’s unclear how a peace accord would be worded or carried out while the two sides lack formal diplomatic ties, says Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. Some fear that a peace agreement, though reassuring by itself, would open doors to less welcome deals that merge the two sides politically. 

“Political trust is very low,” Mr. Huang says. “Even if you sign an accord with champagne, people will still think that if [China] gets mad, they would tear up the agreement and fire at us.”

How will China react?

“Taiwan will first handle easy but pressing issues with China, and only then handle harder ones, putting economic issues before political ones,” Ma said. “In that vein, there is no urgency to discuss a peace accord now with mainland China, and Taiwan’s people must first express a high level of support, including a voter referendum.”

Leaders in Beijing will not welcome the deferral of a peace accord, says Raymond Wu, managing director of the political risk consultancy e-telligence. They see deals with Taiwan as steps toward political unification between the two sides.

But officials in China are preoccupied with domestic economic problems and a leadership transition over the next year, Mr. Wu says, so unless Taiwan declares independence, they may stay quiet.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. Ma’s Nationalist Party, which once ruled all of China, fled to Taiwan in that decade and set up a rival government. Communist China has never ruled out the use of military force to capture the self-ruled island

Support in Taiwan

Ma, who won 51 percent of the vote in January, added on Sunday that he had broad support for the current pace of improved relations with China.

Forty-five percent of Taiwanese people back today’s momentum, he told the news conference. Ten to 20 percent favor picking up the pace, and 20 to 30 percent advocate a slower approach, he said. About 70 percent support his current policy of neither unifying with China nor declaring de jure independence, the president said.

Tensions rode high before 2008 as Ma’s predecessors toyed with the idea of seeking independence for the island, which lies just 160 kilometers (100 miles) away from China. Beijing test-fired missiles near Taiwan in the late 1990s and reiterated the threat of force in 2005. China has about 2 million active military personnel compared with Taiwan’s 290,000.

In a signal of how Taiwan’s public might react to a peace accord, thousands of people blanketed Taipei over the weekend to protest against Ma’s government. Many shouted slogans or wore T-shirts to advocate a more cautious approach toward China.

 “We want to let President Ma know how angry we are,” says Chen Hsien-che, a cosmetics worker from northern Taiwan. “China is a communist country. To suddenly be impacted by China, people on this island after living here so many years wouldn’t be able to carry on.”

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