Ma’s Puzzling Midterm Malaise

Shelley Rigger
Shelley Rigger Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, Brown Professor of Asian Politics - Davidson College

March 10, 2010

It is two years this month since Ma Ying-jeou was elected president of Taiwan. As he approaches the mid-term milestone, President Ma’s record is puzzling. On the one hand, he has made significant progress toward his most important goals. First, he’s stabilized cross-Strait relations. The tension that gripped Taiwan and China during the Chen years has abated, high-level visits have become routine and the two sides are engaged in energetic negotiations on a wide range of issues. Also, after taking a hard hit in the global economic downturn of 2008, Taiwan’s economy is bouncing back. Exports in December 2009 were almost 50 percent greater than December 2008 (admittedly a very low baseline), and economic forecasters predict a 2010 economic growth rate between 4 and 5 percent, although unemployment remains high. Ma has also rebuilt the all-important Taipei-Washington relationship, culminating in the Obama administration’s recent announcement that it would complete a long-awaited arms sale to Taiwan.

What is puzzling is that these successes have failed to endear President Ma to his constituents. On the contrary, his popularity has plummeted since the election, and today his personal approval ratings hover below 30 percent. The dissatisfaction extends to his party as well, and it’s been manifested concretely in elections. Ma’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT), won a far smaller share of the vote in December’s local elections than it captured in the previous round, and it lost 6 out of 7 legislative by-elections in January and February. Municipal elections at the end of this year already are being touted as a bellwether for the 2012 presidential race, when Ma is expected to seek a second term, and the trends do not look good. Hence the conundrum: Why are Ma’s successes in areas believed to be important to voters – reducing cross-Strait tension and reviving the economy – not boosting his approval ratings or his party’s political fortunes?

When Ma Ying-jeou was elected president two years ago, there was a widespread feeling that Taiwan would “get back to normal.” From 2000 to 2008, relations between Taipei and Beijing stagnated, mainly because PRC leaders refused contact with Taiwan’s Sino-skeptical president, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Chen Shui-bian. For eight years, neither Taipei nor Beijing was interested in taking the political risks that reaching out to the other side would have entailed, and in the absence of progress, tensions increased. Thus, the return to power of the KMT, Taiwan’s long-time ruling party, was a welcome development in Washington and Beijing – and in Taiwan, where voters gave Ma 58 percent of the presidential vote as well as a legislature in which his party controlled almost 75 percent of the seats.

If Ma’s election meant things were “getting back to normal,” two years into his presidency we have a clear picture of what “normal” really means in the Taiwan Strait. In Taiwan’s domestic politics, “normal” is a highly-competitive democracy in which the executive is forced to accommodate an active and activist legislature while defending its positions from an energetic – and politically viable – opposition. In cross-Strait relations, “normal” means little overt tension, but no great breakthroughs to permanently resolve the conflict between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

To understand the state of play in the Taiwan Strait it is helpful to keep in mind Robert Putnam’s “two-level game” metaphor for international negotiations. Beijing and Taipei are working together to design a framework for relations that allows for mutually-beneficial economic and people-to-people interactions while balancing the two sides’ long-term goals regarding international status and potential unification. Some of this work is conducted by representatives of the two governments in high-level, formal negotiations. The content of those negotiations is shaped and constrained by what Putnam calls “level two” interactions – more commonly known as domestic politics. In Taiwan’s case, Ma’s domestic weakness constrains the pace and content of cross-Strait rapprochement.

Under President Ma, elite-level interactions have been smoother than ever before, but that only accentuates the ways domestic politics limit Taiwan leaders’ options.  Those limitations are more evident today in part because the game was suspended for most of the Chen era. When Chen took office, PRC leaders paused the game because they perceived little benefit in negotiating with Chen, whom they believed was irreversibly committed to a pro-independence line. In their view, a small group of “stubborn independence elements” had wrested political control from the pro-China mainstream. They hoped that refusing to deal with Chen would help to restore the mainstream to power.

When Ma was elected, Beijing was happy to resume play. In the view of Chinese leaders, Ma was an improvement, not only over his immediate predecessor, but over the previous president, Lee Teng-hui, too. To give Ma a solid start, Beijing was prepared to concede important points. Rather than repeating their demand that Taiwan agree to their One China Principle as the basis for reopening negotiations, PRC leaders accepted Ma’s endorsement of the 1992 Consensus (a bit of verbal hand-waving in which the two sides agreed to set aside the problem of defining the “one China” they both claimed to believe in) as “close enough.”

Once it restarted the game, Beijing quickly discovered that having the right elite-level interlocutor was only the beginning. Many Taiwanese found Chen’s Sino-phobic policies unnecessarily provocative, but that did not mean they were ready to support blindly whatever policy the next administration proposed. As the pace of elite-level interactions accelerated, the focus of the domestic political debated shifted from restraining Chen’s provocations to scrutinizing Ma’s performance. At first, voters gave Ma (and, to a lesser extent, the KMT-controlled legislature) the benefit of the doubt, but new government’s record was disappointing, and voters began to lose confidence.

A number of factors contributed to the public’s waning trust in Ma. The lack of transparency in decision-making has been a particular concern. DPP leaders suggest high-ranking KMT cross-Strait specialists might be willing to compromise Taiwan’s autonomy in order to reach an agreement with Beijing. They argue that the government’s closed cross-Strait decision-making – including on the proposed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) – is dangerous, because these specialists, whether out of perfidy or naïveté, might fail to protect Taiwan’s interests. (For example, the proximate cause of National Security Advisor Su Chi’s resignation in February was his mishandling of beef import negotiations with the U.S., but as Bruce Jacobs wrote in the Taipei Times, many Taiwanese found his resignation “long overdue” because they doubted Su’s commitment to Taiwan.)

To protect Taiwan from a badly-negotiated deal, Ma’s critics are demanding ECFA be subjected to formal ratification, either by popular referendum or in the legislature. Legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, a KMT member, has said the legislature might overrule the ECFA deal if it does not meet lawmakers’ standards. President Ma chairs the KMT, so the lack of support for his policies within the party reinforces the sense that he and his inner circle lack a firm hand for dealing with opponents – and a firm hand is exactly what they need to deal effectively with the ever-tough negotiators from Beijing. Several of the KMT’s recent electoral set-backs resulted from local politicians rebelling against Ma’s attempts to clean up local politics, a development that further reinforces this impression.

Declining confidence in the Ma government also reflects the public’s sense that their leaders have not responded well to domestic crises. The government’s reaction to the disastrous typhoon last summer attracted enormous criticism, much of it focused on the perception that Ma had failed to register the impact of the disaster and react swiftly and proportionately. The government also has been hammered for dismissing popular fears about H1N1 vaccine and beef imported from the U.S. A DPP official suggested, “Ma just doesn’t seem to speak the people’s language.”

Paradoxically, Ma’s political weakness at home may help him protect Taiwan’s interests in negotiations with Beijing. Taiwan’s economic, political and military power all are declining relative to the PRC, so the negotiations are in danger of becoming perilously uneven. The practical difficulty of ratifying a cross-Strait deal in Taiwan’s nervous domestic climate helps balance that asymmetry. In his discussion of two-level games, Putnam argues that authoritarian states are at a disadvantage in international bargaining for precisely that reason: they cannot plausibly claim that certain agreements will fail the test of domestic ratification. Leaders from democratic states can make that case, and they can extract concessions from the other side on those grounds. The dynamic that Putnam describes may benefit Taiwan, but it is no fun for the man caught in the middle: President Ma Ying-jeou.

Beijing is unlikely to find any Taiwanese leader easier to deal with than Ma, so it is in China’s interest to keep the relationship on a positive track – even if that means accepting slower progress than it would like. That logic helps to explain why, even as Chinese leaders fulminated against the U.S. for its decision to follow through on arms sales to Taiwan, they chose not to direct their venom at Taipei. Likewise, the PRC continues to send high-level representatives and delegations to Taiwan despite large protests, including one in November 2008 that trapped PRC representative Chen Yunlin in a hotel for hours. And in December 2009 the two sides signed three technical agreements, even after Taipei nixed a fourth proposal. 

Beijing has even made limited concessions on Taiwan’s demand for international space, which Ma stated last year: “There is a clear link between cross-strait relations and our international space. We’re not asking for recognition; we only want room to breathe.” The two sides are conforming to a tacit “diplomatic truce” proposed by Ma shortly after his inauguration; neither has poached a diplomatic partner from the other since that time. In 2009, Beijing even withdrew its opposition to Taiwan’s efforts to secure observer status at the UN World Health Assembly. The Ma administration touted that development as a breakthrough, but his political opponents took him to task for the opacity of the process and for overstating the benefits Taiwan derived from the deal. In fact, the WHA decision was less a precedent-setting breakthrough than a one-off deal that could be revoked in the future – but the alternative was continued exclusion and isolation.

In sum, Beijing is so far tolerating the measured pace of cross-Strait engagement imposed by Taiwan’s domestic politics. PRC leaders seem confident that over time, their position will strengthen, so there is no need to push for faster progress now. The slow pace works well for Taiwan, too, where even baby steps make many people nervous. Still, there is a sobering side to this picture. If the process slows too much, PRC leaders may determine that no Taiwan leader, including Ma, is capable of delivering any of what Beijing is seeking and so lose patience. That would mean game over for the Ma Ying-jeou approach to cross-Strait rapprochement.