- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

In tone, the inaugural address of Taiwan’s new president, Ma Ying-jeou, differed distinctly from that of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, eight years ago. In substance, they were remarkably alike, particularly in setting Taiwan’s stance toward mainland China.

After being sworn in Tuesday, President Ma was conciliatory, saying: “We will launch a new era of cross-strait relations” with the People's Republic of China that claims sovereignty over the island.

In contrast, President Chen was defiant at his inauguration, declaring: “Taiwan stands up,” an echo of China’s communist leader, Mao Tse-tung. Mao stood atop Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in Beijing in 1949 to proclaim: “China stands up.” Both pronouncements were intended to be declarations of independence.

President Ma sounded less bold than President Chen but nonetheless asserted that Taiwan would resist Beijing’s attempts to take control of Taiwan, saying: “We will maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” the 100-mile wide waterway that separates Taiwan and China.

Therein lies the peril of continued confrontation that would be contrary to the conventional wisdom of many American and other Western “China hands.” They have contended that the return of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, to power heralds better relations between Taipei and Beijing. David Brown, of Johns Hopkins University, lauded “Ma’s more positive attitude toward China.”

With Mr. Ma having made the overture to fresh negotiations, it is Beijing’s turn to respond. Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu think tank, suggested the politburo in Beijing may be pondering what to do. “Beijing knows how to deal with an unfriendly government in Taipei,” he said, “what Beijing doesn’t know how to handle is a friendly government in Taipei.”

President Ma’s soft rhetoric masked a firm line that becomes apparent with scrutiny. He said negotiations, which broke down during the Chen regime, should resume based on a 1992 consensus that called for mutual acceptance of a “one China” principle with different interpretations. Beijing has vigorously rejected that approach.

During his four-year term, Mr. Ma said, Taiwan would not unify with China. He urged China to discard its threat to use military force against Taiwan. Beijing has insisted that Taiwan is part of China and has given no evidence of giving up the threat of force. Indeed, China’s Peoples Liberation Army would surely oppose any hint of such policy.

Mr. Ma said: “We will strengthen bilateral relations with the United States, our foremost security ally and trading partner.” China has asserted that the United States has been interfering in the internal affairs of China. Mr. Ma said Taiwan would “acquire necessary defensive weaponry to form a solid national defense force,” which meant buying more arms from the United States, which Beijing has repeatedly condemned.

The new president said his government would “enter consultations with mainland China over Taiwan’s international space and a possible cross-strait peace accord.” For years, Beijing has sought, with considerable success, to block Taiwan’s entry into the United Nations and other global organizations, and to establish normal diplomatic relations with other nations.

A peace accord between Taipei and Beijing would require Beijing to recognize the government in Taiwan, at least tacitly, as legitimate. Mr. Ma said, “Taiwan doesn’t just want security and prosperity. It wants dignity.” Beijing has shown no inkling it would be willing to accord Taiwan the stature and dignity Mr. Ma seeks.

Perhaps the only element in President Ma’s speech that Beijing might applaud was his commitment that Taiwan would not declare formal independence while he was president.

President Hu Jintao and his comrades in Beijing might consider President Ma’s comments on democracy a bit of a taunt: “Taiwan is the sole ethnic Chinese society to complete a second democratic turnover of power.”

The first was President Chen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, having taken over from the Kuomintang in 2000. “By succeeding,” he said, “we can make unparalleled contributions to the democratic development of all ethnic Chinese communities.” Communist Chinese leaders have often asserted that democracy, with elections, unfettered press and other freedoms, has no place in rising China.

At home, President Ma, who was born in Hong Kong in 1950 and came to Taiwan as a child with his parents, sought to assure his constituents, even those who did not vote for him, that his loyalty was unquestionably to Taiwan. “Taiwan is not my birthplace, but it is where I was raised and the resting place of my family,” he said. “I will protect Taiwan with all my heart.”

Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.