Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou spoke Monday evening by video-link to a group of distinguished scholars at Stanford University. Although nothing Mr. Ma said was particularly surprising, his remarks did have three important features.
In the first part of his the speech, the president reviewed the basis for re-engagement with China after his first inauguration in 2008 and the cooperation that has been subsequently forged. This was not, of course, the first time that Ma has reviewed this record, and by now the process is well and widely understood. Yet it is still a story worth re-telling, if only to remind us that nothing about cross-Strait relations after 2008 was fore-ordained. Leaders in both China and Taiwan had to take certain risks for a more stable relationship. They had to find a mutually acceptable premise for interaction (the 1992 consensus). And agree just as clearly on what would be discussed (easy, mainly economic, issues) and what was off the agenda (e.g. independence or unification). What new agreements will be signed and whether the two sides move toward political talks is quite uncertain at this point, but what has already been achieved was neither trivial nor automatic.
Later on, Mr. Ma provided a concise yet clear statement of Taiwan’s national security strategy. To quote him in full: “The first part involves institutionalization of the rapprochement with mainland China so that neither side would ever contemplate resorting to non-peaceful means to settle their differences. The second part involves making Taiwan a model world citizen by upholding the principles of a liberal democracy, championing free trade and providing foreign aid to the international community. The third part involves strengthening national defense capability.” The first of these is particularly interesting, because it expresses an essentially liberal, internationalist approach to ensuring peace and stability: that is, binding a potential adversary to a cooperative relationship so that the stakes of initiating conflict are just too high. But the other two parts of the president’s strategy clearly indicate that he is not placing all his eggs in a Chinese basket.
In discussing Taiwan’s relations with the international community, President Ma properly cites an important, recent achievement. That is the agreement reached between Taiwan and Japan on April 10th on fisheries. Taiwan fisherman are of course pleased because it clarifies their right in their traditional fishing grounds, but such an accord would not normally command any interest beyond the two countries concerned. But in this case it should. The matter is part of the nexus of issues that include territorial disputes over maritime land forms, the quest for natural resources, the rules of engagement of maritime vessels of contending countries, and coping with popular nationalism. The Japan-Taiwan agreement is important because it does not try to resolve all issues for all time but addresses the most pressing matters in a pragmatic and mutually beneficial way. It offers a way forward for other countries to reduce the temperature on their maritime disputes and reduce the risk of wider conflict through accident and miscalculation. As President Ma said, the pact “sets a good example of how the concerned parties can find ways to settle their dispute and preserve peace and stability in the region at the same time.” He may not have intended to allude in this remark to China, whose maritime vessels have been operating in a rather edgy way of late. But the shoe certainly fits.