Cross-Strait Relations: Time for Problem Solving
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
May 11, 2009
The one year anniversary of the Ma administration's inauguration is approaching. Although the broad outlines remain unclear, President Ma's cross-Strait concepts and policies have increasingly diverged from the Green Camp's. These differences show up in the opening of cross-Strait transportation, tourism, finance, culture, and education. More importantly, the thinking behind Ma's policies is entirely different. President Ma's public declarations since April have made this abundantly clear. His rhetoric has two themes. One is that "geography trumps history." The other is "first economics, then politics." At first glance these two themes are nothing new. But in the context of cross-Straits relations over the past several decades, the differences are quite striking.
His emphasis on "geography over history" stresses Taiwan's geographical location, and not historical disputes. He hopes to take maximum advantage of the world's top five economic regions, including the US to the east, Japan to the north, the Mainland to the west, and ASEAN to the south. He hopes to make Taiwan the hub of these economic zones. Frankly, this is nothing new. Lee Teng-hui's so-called "Asia-Pacific Regional Operations Center" plan and Chen Shui-bian's "global operations center" were also based on Taiwan's unique geographical location. Since this is nothing new, why has it remained stuck in the slogan stage over the past decade, regardless of how many "Such and Such Center" concepts have been floated? The key lies in not thinking in terms of historical disputes.
For a long time the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and politics on Taiwan have remained mired in historical enmities. Countless contradictions and tensions prevented normal interaction and dialogue. This made it impossible for cross-Strait relations to fully enter a post-Cold War, post-Civil War era. By the same token, the historical tragedy has prevented society on Taiwan from fully entering a post-authoritarian, post-colonial era. Japan's Representative to Taipei Masaki Saito said "Taiwan's status is undetermined." This Immediately triggered different reactions and suspicions. It makes no difference whether Saito made these remarks intentionally or accidentally. If the incident escalates, it will surely have serious political consequences. The Ma administration chose to cool matters immediately, The dispute ended quickly. If not for its "geography trumps history" thinking, it could have generated plenty of political hay.
If we want geography to trump history and maximize our marginal utility, we must of course think "first economics, then politics." Ma's public statements have repeatedly stressed that he will only deal with cross-Strait economic issues. After all, current cross-Strait economic issues, such as the signing of a MOU, which affects financial interaction, or ECFA, which affects broader economic cooperation, are complex and difficult enough. They cannot be rushed. They will require considerable consultation and communication. They will require the gradual establishment of relevant mechanisms. Perhaps this is why President Ma told the media in Singapore that he would consider discussing cross-Strait political issues only if he was re-elected in 2012. Perhaps this explains why so far President Ma has not made any high level reponse to the highly political "Hu's Six Points."
Ma's "first economics, then politics" thinking is also not novel or original. But it is an important reversal in the handling of cross-Strait issues. When politics trumped economics, cross-Strait relations remained mired in confrontation and demagoguery, rather than the solving of concrete problems. When the two sides could only engage in confrontation and demagoguery, cross-Strait relations could only remain hostile and trapped in a vicious circle of conflict. The same was true on Taiwan. It could never shake off mutual suspicion and mutual recriminations. A perfect example is the cross-Strait stalemate, which has extended to confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties on Taiwan over the past few years.
Once economics trumps politics, then cross-Strait relations ceases to be a tool for politicians to manipulate. It becomes a means of solving practical problems, one after another. Taiwan is no longer being manipulated by means of such political issues as plebiscites, the authoring of a new constitution, and the founding of a new nation. Such issues intensify cross-Strait conflict and increase confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties. Consultations on cross-Strait shipping, tourism, investment, academic credentials involve only rational calculation, not the manipulation of negative emotions. More importantly, it forces politicians who would plunge the world into chaos to withdraw from the political stage. It permits professionals with specific problem solving abilities to make their debut.
Of course, no one would be so obtuse as set aside all historical disputes on the basis that "geography trumps history." Nor would anyone deliberately ignore political factors because he advocated "first economics, then politics." Indeed many problems are difficult to de-politicize. A leader demonstrates his political wisdom by how he handles such difficulties.