Peace talk plan ignites presidential race

Recent initiatives submitted by Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou about signing a peace agreement with China within 10 years to end hostilities have sparked intense public debates on one of the most sensitive topics of cross-Taiwan Straits engagement in the run-up to the January presidential election.

In fact, it was not the first time the topic was mentioned in the presidential campaign.

King Pu-tsung, chief executive manager of Ma’s re-election campaign office, first floated the idea on Sept. 12 during his visit to the US from Sept. 9-20, saying that cross-strait engagement does not rule out any possibility, including a peace agreement, if Ma was elected to a second term.

The Presidential Office denied the claim the following day, with the presidential spokesman Fang Chiang Tai-chi saying that there is no urgency in launching political talks with China, nor does Ma plan to visit China in any capacity any time soon.

However, Ma said in a presidential press conference on Oct. 17 that his administration would “cautiously consider” whether Taiwan should sign a peace agreement with China within the next decade, adding that such a move would require three preconditions – genuine needs of the country, strong domestic backing and supervision by the legislature.

The proposal was questioned by the opposition Democratic Progressive party (DPP).

Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP’s presidential candidate and Chairperson, told a press conference on Oct. 19 that the proposal exposed Taiwanese to four serious risks — the sacrifice of Taiwan’s sovereignty, a change in the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, the jeopardizing of Taiwan’s democratic values and damage to the nation’s strategic depth in bilateral negotiations

Ma’s proposal was “irresponsible and impetuous” and that it amounted to the manipulation of a highly sensitive political issue to cover up his administration’s failures, as well as a bargaining chip that benefits his presidential campaign, she said.

To answer the criticism, Ma said on Oct. 20 that a national referendum would be required before signing any peace agreement with China.

The DPP went on to urge Ma to launch talks on amending Taiwan’s Referendum Act to include articles requiring that cross-strait political negotiations be subject to referendums. The KMT rejected the invitation, saying that an amendment is “unnecessary.”

While several pro-China newspaper had lambasted the referendum idea, which has long been seen as one of China’s “red line,” China did not make an official response until Oct. 26, when Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Yang Yi said that the move was good for both sides, but criticized the referendum initiative without mentioning Ma.

A poll conducted by Taiwan’s Research, Development and Evaluation Commission in May showed that less than 40 per cent of people were satisfied with Ma’s cross-strait policy. The results were not released until early October.

Surveys have consistently shown strong public backing for talks between Taiwan and China, the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) said in an Oct. 24 statement.

The timing and intention of Ma’s initiative were intriguing.

Most observers agree that cross-strait policy is Ma’s biggest advantage over his DPP rival, since he has reduced tension across the strait. That could be the reason why Ma decided to shift the focus of his campaign from domestic affairs back to the China policy.

The proposal could also be an attempt to “marginalize” the campaign of People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong, who holds similar China policy with Ma and could jeopardize Ma’s bid at the ballot box, because voters would likely choose between the KMT or the DPP if China policy became the central theme of the campaign and there would be no room left for the third candidate, observers said.

Regardless of what intentions Ma might have, the initiative appeared to have hurt his campaign with recent poll showed that his lead over Tsai had shrunk from 5 to 8 per cent to 3.7 per cent.

Chris Wang is a political analyst, writer and editor with the Taipei Times.