Thursday, June 10, 2010

Former top advisor assesses the first two years of Ma's administration

On May 28, Dr. Su Chi, the former secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council was the guest speaker at a luncheon discussion at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford University. The event was part of a larger seminar on “Trends in the Strategic Triangle: US-China-Taiwan Relations in the Coming Decade.” The informal luncheon was hosted by Professor Larry Diamond, director of CDDRL and was on the topic “Assessing the first two years of the Ma Ying-jeou Presidency: A Conversation with Dr. Su Chi.”

Key problems facing the Ma administration

Su began by listing the problems that have dogged the Ma administration since assuming office in May 2008. “Economically, we were hit by the tsunami, the worst since 1929. We were surprised and ill prepared… Then in September 2008, the US economy had a heart attack. We were able to save Taiwan’s banking sector, but could not save our export sector,” he said. This in turn cast doubts on President Ma and his ability to turn things around.

Politically, public trust in government and democracy was at an all-time low. Former President Chen Shui-bian was convicted of embezzling official funds and was detained in jail. The Taiwanese people used to celebrate their democracy, but by the end of 2008, it was hard to celebrate. The opposition party also played a part in manipulating Taiwanese fear of China, according to Su.

In dealing with these issues, the Ma administration has focused on instilling trust, both internal and external, noted Su. Many Taiwanese people felt that the government had betrayed them and it was incumbent on the government to rebuild that trust within the country. Externally, Taiwan also needed to build a good relationship with the US and to prove itself trustworthy again, he said.

Rebuilding trust with the US

Taipei did not want to put the US in the position of again having to mediate between the two sides across the Taiwan Strait, where Washington needed to tell China “I love you” and then reassure Taiwan, but “I love you too,” said Su.

Much to the amusement of the audience, Professor Tom Christensen of Princeton University interjected that the State Department likely did not use “love”, maybe “like.”

Now Taipei is able to communicate directly with Beijing, sparing Washington the need to be the go-between. Since Ma took office, Taiwan’s international standing has improved, stressed Su.

Also, in the early days of the administration, Ma’s government strived not to make promises it could not keep. Ma himself was “surprise-free and low key,” said Su. This meant no hanky-panky, but being predictable where the administrations would consult each other fully. The Ma administration has also not rushed to claim victory at every round, said Su.

Professor Diamond noted the similarities between President Obama and President Ma. The former is noted for being “No Drama Obama,” while the latter is “surprise-free and low key.”

Focus on pragmatism

The Ma administration has focused on pragmatism, according to Su, approaching issues in a pragmatic fashion and not from an ideological standpoint. If it could be done, it would be done. It has not been a matter of what should be done. If it couldn’t be done, then it wasn’t attempted, said Su. As an example, a direct flight to Shanghai took 80 minutes. It made sense to allow direct flights between the two countries, but not direct flights to Taichung since it would be across Taiwan’s central line and not defense savvy, he said.

Pragmatically, the Ma administration sees Taiwan in geographic terms and in terms of US, China and Japan, said Su. Taiwan may represent only 1 percent of the world’s GDP (US - 25%, China - 7% and Japan - 7%), but nobody else is as close to the top three. Besides, Su joked, “we speak better Chinese and Japanese than the Koreans.”

“We have gone from being enemies to being good neighbors with China,” said Su. Eventually, maybe the two countries can be good friends, but Beijing has to show Taipei that they are trustworthy also, he said.

If the FTA-like Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) is signed between Taiwan and China, then fear of China will decrease and economic relations across the Taiwan Strait will be closer. However, people should not expect things to get easier as Taiwan and China become more integrated economically, said Su. The ECFA is shaping up and that by itself is getting more difficult, because both parties are now talking about specifics and fighting to gain ground on the early harvest list. It is the nature of things, Su concluded.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.