Taiwan: George Bush meet Abba Eban

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Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s new leader, is committed to lowering tensions with Beijing, a long-standing US objective. But his success requires strong domestic consensus, which, in turn, depends on open American support. Inviting Ma to Washington before his inauguration would signify such critical backing. Instead, President Bush seems determined to miss this unique opportunity to promote US interests.

By Alan D. Romberg – On March 22, KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou won an overwhelming victory. Ma has consistently backed a policy of lowering tensions with
Beijing and promoting greater economic exchange. Despite campaign charges against him, he is not prepared to to “sell out” Taiwan’s prosperity, security or robust democracy. But though he won 58 percent of the vote, the 42 percent of the people who voted against him harbor varying levels of suspicion—some quite deep—that Ma will do just that. Thus, to succeed with his ambitious plans, including accommodation with the PRC on Taiwan’s participation in the international community, Ma will need to overcome such suspicions and forge a broad-based domestic consensus.

Ma’s first priority will be to restore economic dynamism. But even that will depend importantly on deepening cross-Strait ties, including more frequent charter flights and eventually regularly scheduled flights and robust tourism from the Mainland.

But Ma’s vision goes further, to creating a cross-Strait peace accord that could last for a very long time until more permanent arrangements are possible. PRC President Hu Jintao also supports such an accord. Negotiating it will not be easy, but at least there is political backing at the very top of both governments for trying. However, Ma will need popular backing within Taiwan for any such agreements. Otherwise, even deeper fissures would emerge in Taiwan society, benefiting no one, including the United States and other nations that have supported movement in this direction.

Despite questions recently raised about U.S. concern over closer cross-Strait ties, most people who follow these issues, including President Bush, support these goals. Even if Americans worried about unification, it is not “on the table” and will not be for a very long time, probably decades. So the practical question is whether stronger cross-Strait economic and social links and reduced tensions serve U.S. interests. The answer is unambiguously “yes.”

That said, in light of the deep mutual mistrust between Washington and Taipei in recent years, and even some American unhappiness with Ma for seeming not to follow through on commitments made during his 2006 US visit, active steps are needed to forge a closer relationship and demonstrate American support.

Under US restrictions regarding Taiwan’s leaders, Ma will be unable to visit the United States once he is in office, though he could briefly transit American territory on his way elsewhere. But the period before he takes office provides a unique opportunity for Ma to sit down with top Washington policymakers—as well as, perhaps, the three presidential contenders—to at least establish “chemistry” with them and to lay out mutual hopes and concerns that can then be addressed with greater sense of confidence in the years ahead.

The Bush Administration, however, seems to have fallen into the realm of former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban’s quip that the Arabs “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” with Israel. That is, Mr. Bush appears determined not to miss the opportunity to miss the opportunity of a Ma pre-inauguration visit. The decision was apparently made hastily and without serious reflection, perhaps based partly on assumptions about PRC objections and partly on pique that yet another Taiwan leader was springing surprises on Washington. (Without prior consultation, Ma “announced” his hope to visit Washington in answering a press question the night of his election victory.)

If so, this badly misses the difference between inviting a sitting Taiwan president and an elected one, a difference quite evident in PRC President Hu Jintao’s willingness to meet recently with Ma’s vice president-elect, Vincent Siew, at an economic conference in southern China. And it ignores the fact that Ma’s avowed intention is to restore trust, not take steps that undermine it.

One assumes Ma can get beyond his disappointment, but that will not make up for the U.S. having squandered an opportunity to establish a relationship of trust with him—and to convey that to the Taiwan public—that would manifestly serve US interests.

It is highly unlikely this decision will be reversed. But in light of the Hu-Siew meeting it should be, and it would serve US interests if it were.

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