President Ma Speaks about U.S.-Taiwan Relations

On Thursday, May 12, President Ma was invited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies to speak on the topic of “U.S.-Taiwan Relations in a New Era.” The talk reflected on the sensitive bilateral relations between the two countries despite having no formal diplomatic relations.

President Ma virtually attended the conference from Taipei via a teleconference with Washington. Various U.S. media correspondents, U.S. officials, and China experts gathered at CSIS for the event. Among them were officials from the American Institute in Taiwan, W. Brent Christensen, director of the State Department’s Office of Taiwan Coordination and Richard Bush from the Brookings Institute. The five Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices in U.S. also live broadcasted the event at 8:30 am Washington time, inviting guests to participate. In Taipei, local and international correspondents and related officials were at the better end of the time zone and gathered at the Office of the President later that night to join the conference.

I read the full transcript totaling 18 pages from Washington’s Federal News Service. For the first time, Taiwan’s president personally spoke live in such an event to reflect on U.S.-Taiwan relations. Local media reported summaries of the event, but due to time constraints, the coverage wasn’t complete. I decided to more comprehensively cover the event in my column this week.

CSIS isn’t a stranger to the Taiwanese people. It’s known for its impartial standpoint, rigorous operations and scale. Full time staffers alone accounted for 220 people, not including renowned writers from the government and private sector. In 2000, CSIS reorganized under Chairman Sam A. Nunn, previously senator of Georgia, borrowing his 24 years of political experience in the Senate. Previous Chairman, John Hamre is now CEO for CSIS.

In the current interview with President Ma, Hamre was the one leading the introduction, and Charles A. Freeman moderated the meeting. Freeman was well known in Taiwan because he previously studied Chinese in Taichung and was the United States’ chief China trade negotiator specializing in cross-strait relations.

Although Taiwan’s office of president released a news summary about the meeting, it was far from complete in comparison to the full transcript provided by CSIS. President Ma displayed his humor when asked if he was ready. He replied, “Almost,” bringing some laughter from the audience. This is rarely seen in the Office of the President.

President Ma described his China policies as consisting of “three lines of defense.” The first line of defense is institutionalizing the cross-strait rapprochement in which he describes the results from several facets. Last year, the number of tourists from mainland China has increased to 3 million, a 10 fold growth from the previous year. Furthermore, cross-strait trade volume has grown to $140 billion. The number of students from mainland China was 5,600 last year, with 2,000 more coming this fall semester. In addition, since the signing of the cross-strait judicial mutual assistance agreement in 2009, more than 100 fugitives were repatriated to Taiwan.

He pointed out that the administration’s success is attributed to the new approach to cross-strait relations. The “instability, unpredictability and insecurity” of the past have diminished. Before President Ma was inaugurated three years ago, Taiwan was operating under the ill-founded policies of the last decade that threatened to sideline Taiwan in the Asia-Pacific region. After he championed a three-no policy of no unification, no independence and no use of force under the ROC constitution, this fundamentally changed and created a virtuous cycle in cross-strait relations.

Under the adoption of the “92 consensus,” the cross-strait has signed 15 agreements, and the groundwork for ECFA was slowly realized after the six-round Chiang-Chen Talk. Moreover, Taiwan has expanded its visa waiver program from 53 to 113 countries and regions, and working holiday arrangement for young people increased from 2 to 6 countries.

The second line of defense is enhancing Taiwan’s contribution to international development, notably on the economic and diplomatic front. In the past 60 years, Taiwan has established an invaluable asset of an expansive business and personal network in South East Asia. Taiwan’s strategic geographical position, combined with the soft power of democracy and freedom created a “safer society” and enhanced quality of living. President Ma mentioned the special partnership Taiwan has with Japan, as the countries shared many cultural traits, ideas and sense of fashion.

On the diplomatic front, President Ma emphasized Taiwan’s contribution to the world. Taiwan’s role as a responsible stakeholder will directly affect its national security. On humanitarian aid, the president talked about the nuclear disaster in Japan where Taiwan donated $27 million on the very night of the disaster. The donation from the government and private sector totaled $200 million, which made Taiwan the largest donor country so far. In essence, the second line of defense raises Taiwan’s moral ground on the international political stage.

President Ma’s third line of defense is aligning Taiwan’s defense with diplomacy. He pointed out that Taiwan has two priorities. First, Taiwan needs to demonstrate credibility and trust toward its close diplomatic partners, especially the United States. Taiwan won’t create trouble for its friends, and will make full communication with other countries.

He said that Taiwan is confident about succeeding in building a small yet powerful military force. Negotiating with a giant like the Chinese mainland is not without risk. This is why he continues to urge the U.S. to provide Taiwan with necessary defensive weaponry, such as the F-16 and diesel-powered submarines. Taiwan needs to maintain a credible defense to stand on its feet.

President Ma did not avoid the sensitive topic of domestic stability and its importance to international relations. He solemnly said that a country’s overall strategy for security requires a sound political foundation in the domestic setting. The unwavering identification with the Republic of China and its constitution is the common denominator for Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, despite the wide spectrum of political views ranging from those who prefer Taiwan’s independence to those who enjoy the status quo and those who favor reunification with mainland China.

He said he will stick to the old no-frills, no-surprises diplomacy to transform Taiwan into a peacemaker, a contributor of humanitarian aid, a major promoter of cultural exchange, a center for innovation and business opportunities and the standard-bearer of Chinese culture.

After the president’s speech, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in New York invited a few experts to lead a seminar including Jan Barris, vice president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, Donald Zagoria, senior vice president of NCAFP and Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University to comment on the event. Overall, the feedback was quite positive, with a few differences in opinion. President Ma’s speech was overall effective in resolving several misunderstandings and explaining Taiwan’s position. This is the best he can provide at this moment.

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