Q&A of The Straits Times' interview with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou

With a month to go before Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou leaves office, he sits down with Senior Regional Correspondent Li Xueying for an exclusive interview at the presidential palace in Taipei.
Taiwan president Ma Ying-Jeou will leave office in a month. He speaks to The Straits Times in an exclusive interview at the presidential palace.
Taiwan president Ma Ying-Jeou will leave office in a month. He speaks to The Straits Times in an exclusive interview at the presidential palace.PHOTO: AFP

Straits Times: Thank you, Mr Ma, for taking this interview with us today. I want to start with a very topical question: the deportation of the Taiwanese from Kenya to China. Your government has lambasted what it calls “illegal abduction”. Why is there this situation now at the tail end of your term when you have invested so much in cross-strait relations in the past eight years? And some people believe this is an issue of sovereignty - it is part of Beijing’s strategy of flexing its muscles ahead of May 20. Do you think that it will work?

Ma Ying-Jeou (in Mandarin): Both sides across the Taiwan Straits do share the concurrent jurisdiction over this matter and this is not the very first time we have had such cases. Back in 2009, both mainland China and Taiwan concluded an agreement on joint crime fighting and mutual judicial assistance and, based on this agreement, both sides should have consulted beforehand, and confirmed which party has the right to handle this matter together.

Our dissatisfaction now is over: first, there were no prior consultations with Taiwan from the mainland side; and second, the procedure was not transparent enough, so there was no sufficient evidence or facts to tell us what kind of crime was committed and why they have such measures to handle this case. So, strictly speaking, this is not a matter of sovereignty but it’s rather a matter of division of labour.

ST: So the fact that mainland China did not adhere to those procedures this time - is that meant as a signal to Ms Tsai ahead of May 20 as some people have speculated?

MYJ: Many people believe so. However, for me, this may not be the only reason. In the past when we handled similar cases, maybe mainland China believed that the punishment for these fraud suspects was not heavy enough, so they are not very happy with the trial results.

However, Taiwan’s judicial system is purely independent and we have no right to interfere with the court’s decision. So whether it’s for the Ministry of Justice or for the prosecutors, if they want to impose heavier penalties they have to follow the law and if they are not happy with the result, of course, they can file for a retrial or appeal. Maybe we can reflect or review our legal system and when the prosecutors are working on this case, if they would like to file for heavier penalties, they can think of some ways to do it. 

And, if possible, we hope we can propose a clear guidance for handling similar cases in future. In terms of the Kenya case, it would be quite difficult for us to get a final result before May 20 because mainland China is still working on the investigation and we have to gain a better understanding and maybe have more observations of how the whole case will evolve. 

So I think it will be quite difficult for us to take the suspects back to Taiwan before they finish the investigation. Over the course of the time, similar events would happen from time to time, so it takes great wisdom and patience to handle this kind of case.

ST: Beyond the Kenya crisis, there have been various moves by Beijing from the establishing of the ties with Gambia to the drop in mainland tourists and now I understand that Taiwan has yet to receive the WHA (World Health Assembly) invite. People have seen this as a pattern of Beijing trying to flex its muscles before May 20. Do you yourself concur with such an analysis and do you think it will work in influencing Ms Tsai and, more importantly, will it actually incite a backlash among the Taiwanese people against mainland China?

MYJ: Some people do have such an impression. Gambia and mainland China established ties in March this year. However, it was two years ago that the Gambia broke off formal diplomatic ties with the ROC (Republic of China), so why now? Of course, that is why we are all concerned about this matter. 

As for the drop in number of mainland tourists, some people are panicking. For example, some people from Kaohsiung are concerned about this issue because ever since I took office, the number of inbound tourists to Kaohsiung increased by five times and there were a lot of beneficiaries, including the hotel managers, transport providers as well as department stores. So, of course, they’re concerned and they do care about this matter. 

As for our participation in the World Health Assemby, some other countries or groups who participate as observers have already received the invitation from the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, the ROC has yet to receive the official invitation. So this is an extremely intricate and sensitive issue and critically important for the ROC. Currently, we have been striving to ask the WHO to send us an official invitation and we also told the incoming government that they should work even harder. 

But, of course, this is no easy matter. And the reason why starting from 2009 we could participate in the WHA was because both sides across the Taiwan Strait in my term of office reached a very important political foundation - that is the 1992 Consensus. 

ST: Do you think that such hardline tactics by Beijing will work in winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese public?

MYJ: Of course there are some disputes regarding how Beijing handle such problems. But it is vital for us to use our wisdom so that we will be able to reach a consensus and resolve the disputes.

ST: Why is it that despite your “wisdom” in handling cross-strait relations in this regard, Taiwanese public are still ambivalent about it?

MYJ: Actually a large number of Taiwanese people support our approach. On Nov 7 of last year I met with mainland Chinese leader Xi Jinping and we reached a very important conclusion - that the political foundation for both sides across the Taiwan strait is to support the 1992 Consensus. 

After I came back from the meeting, we conducted an opinion poll asking people, if we refer to the One China as the Republic of China, would you support it? Over 60 per cent of people support our approach. That is the majority, not the minority. 

And the 1992 Consensus is in line with the ROC’s Constitution. It is not that mainland China proposed it and forced us to accept it, but rather the 1992 Consensus was proposed by the Taiwan side and mainland China accepted later . So I don’t really know why would people oppose the 1992 Consensus. If we don’t even accept the things that we propose, of course then people would criticise our approach. 

So I believe that for any presidents that follows the ROC Constitution, it won’t be difficult for him or her to accept the 1992 Consensus.

ST: Do you think that Ms Tsai has the wisdom that you spoke of?

MJY: We hope that she does. During her visit to the United States last year, Ms Tsai mentioned that in handling cross-Strait relations, she would follow the constitutional system of the Republic of China. So if that’s what she believes then it won’t be very difficult for her to accept the 1992 Consensus.

ST: She also spoke of the popular will of the people, not just about abiding by the ROC Constitution. So according to some polls, there’s been a growing proportion of Taiwanese who are against the idea of unification. And given that trajectory, do you think that this is something that will be harder for her or any future leaders to adhere to?

MYJ: I think you might have some misunderstanding regarding Taiwan’s public opinion because I think most of the people here would support the maintenance of the status quo. 

Starting from 20 years ago, when I was serving as deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, we conducted polls asking people whether they would support reunification, independence or maintenance of the status quo. And all the way until now, over 80 per cent of the people would support maintenance of the status quo in a broad sense. 

As for reunification, the conditions are not ripe yet. As for declaring independence it is not really necessary. So the best approach would be to maintain the status quo. 

Three months ago when we had the presidential election, the three major candidates when talking about cross-strait relations would support the maintenance of the status quo. For me it’s quite strange because in most of democratic countries when they have elections, most opposition parties would say change, change, change. But strangely enough in Taiwan’s presidential election, when it comes to cross-strait relations, all the three candidates would say maintenance of the status quo, status quo, status quo. 

So, on the one hand, I was surprised by their response; but, on the other hand, I feel quite pleased because the status quo they support is the status quo that we have been working on over the last eight years.

ST: And yet, voters delivered a stunning indictment of you, your policies and the KMT (Kuomintang) on Jan 16. What do you think led to such a state of affairs? I know you blame it on communications failure, you’ve said: “Actually there are many good policies that the public don’t understand because we haven’t communicated them enough.” Is that all there is? Do you feel you’ve been misunderstood?

MYJ: Regarding our efforts to promote some policies, maybe some people believe that we don’t communicate or explain enough. Ever since I took office, we have advocated the policy of no unification, no independence and no use of force, as well as the 1992 Consensus. 

Eight years is not a short period of time. So maybe people take it for granted. However, maybe some people do not really understand that the status quo that they enjoy does not come from heaven. And that’s the result of our eight years of efforts. And I have to stress that the 1992 Consensus is part of the status quo. So let me repeat myself. The 1992 Consensus is part of the status quo. So without the 1992 Consensus there will not be such kind of status quo that we enjoy now.

ST: The recent story of you and your bian dang was very popular among the mainland netizens. Ma Ying-jeou’s bian dang is one of the most popular search terms on Weibo. How do you feel about being more popular among mainlanders than among the Taiwanese public?

MYJ: Their bian dang is not as good as ours!

ST: But why do you think that they seem so enamoured of you as opposed to the Taiwanese people, and how does that make you feel because you represent the Taiwanese people?

MYJ: In terms of promoting cross-strait policies we should rely not only on the Taiwan consensus but rather we have to create a cross-strait consensus because when we are promoting cross-strait ties, Taiwan’s consensus is not enough. It has to be accepted by the mainland side as well, so that we will have stable development of ties.

Some people might misunderstand that if we reach a consensus with mainland China, then Taiwan would have to sacrifice its sovereignty, systems, democracy and freedom. However, this is a big misunderstanding. Over the last eight years, when we’re promoting our policies we did not sacrifice our freedom, democracy, human rights or rule of law. 

In the first free presidential elections (from 1996), mainland China would take some drastic actions, whether it’s verbal or military threats, to influence the results. However, starting from my election in 2008, we rarely see mainland China taking this kind of drastic action. And also four years ago and even the election this year, mainland China mostly remained silent, rarely expressing their opinions. 

So we have seen that mainland China has started to show greater respect for a democratic society, also in line with the expectations of a democratic society. And Taiwan can now elect our own president, our own national parliament and handle our own affairs. We also see great progress from their side in showing respect for us. Four years ago when I ran for re-election, mainland Chinese audiences were able to watch the election process on the Internet. So, after learning of the news I was surprised and also pleased to find out this is what happened. So that is how both sides should get along with each other.

ST: Do you worry tensions will rise again across the Taiwan Strait?

MYJ: After the presidential election over the last three months, when I travelled through Taiwan meeting different people, they have different levels of anxiety or concern. 

And every week I receive foreign dignitaries from all over the world and they also express different levels of concern. So domestically or internationally we hope that we will be able to maintain the status quo at home and in international affairs. However, whether there will be tensions or conflicts in the future, it’s up to the next leader of Taiwan. No matter how hard I try, my term expires on May 19. 

ST: Moving on to South China Sea, under your leadership the ROC has tried to navigate its way through these troubled waters and you have announced your South China Sea peace initiative. However, Taiwan is not party to the Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) arbitration. It faces constraints on these fronts. So under such circumstances, to what extent can it really be a player in influencing the developments?

MYJ: Over the years the ROC has always claimed that the surrounding waters and also the islands of the South China Sea are the inherent territory and the territorial waters of the ROC. So of course the ROC is an important claimant in the South China Sea. But due to some difficulties in our political and diplomatic situation, we were not invited to participate in the arbitration proposed by the Philippine side vis-a-vis mainland China. However, we do have sovereignty and effective control over the Taiping island and other islands, and this has been a reality over the last 70 years. So what can we do? What we can do is that we should not let our rights be influenced.

In late November of last year at the hearing organised in the Hague regarding this arbitration, the lawyers from the Philippines side claimed that Taiping island is not an island but rather a rock and there is no potable water, there is no arable soil on the island and all of the supplies rely on imports. However, all these claims are ridiculous. We have effective control of Taiping island over the last 70 years. On the island you can find high quality fresh water. We can grow crops. In fact there are over 20 kinds of vegetables and fruits grown there. We raise chickens, goats and dogs over there, and some 200 people are living on the island. So all these claims were ridiculous and are not in line with the facts. 

So we have to show to the world that the facts as claimed by the Philippines side were not facts at all. Therefore we have taken a series of active measures to tell the international community the real situation on Taiping Island. This case involves not only the ROC’s rights. In the past there were not many cases from the international court that face a similar situation. Taiping Island is an island that can grow crops and has fresh water but if this island is downgraded and people do not believe this is an island, even more parts of the world could not be deemed as islands and that will have great repercussions. 

So I sincerely hope that these people can come to Taiping Island and see for themselves and ask the courts to make the right decision. If the decision is not correct, it may affect the impartiality of the court and that also may violate Article 121 of the Unclos and thereby causing great harm to the ROC’s rights. So , I also would like to call upon the international community and also the parties concerned, they are invited to go on site visits. But hopefully, better do it before May 20th.

I sincerely hope that when the court is making the decision, either it can leave the Taiping Island issue alone since the Philippines did not list Taiping Island as an item for which it requested a verdict by the tribunal, or if it would like to determine the status of the Taiping Island, it should make its decision based on the facts and the law, that is, Taiping Island is an island not a rock.

I would also like to tell you that the history of Taiping Island is over 3 million years, even longer than that of Taiwan.

ST: I know we don’t have much time and so I want to ask just two more questions. One is about the broader societal trend of an increasingly assertive Taiwanese identity. And in view of that, how do you think that the KMT should reform or evolve to meet such a challenge? Second question is, someone said that there can be few other positions that are more difficult than being the president of Taiwan in the past eight years. So how do you feel about that? Do you feel that it has been very difficult and what do you want to be remembered for after you step down?

MYJ: More and more people especially the young people are starting to display a stronger Taiwan identity. I think this is very natural because we are born here, we are raised here and we are all Taiwanese people. However, the rise of the Taiwan identity should not and does not necessarily have to contradict with cross-strait peace, reconciliation or cooperation. 

Taiwan identity does not mean Taiwan independence. It is not viable and it is not a necessary approach. As I said before, we now already elect our own president, our own parliament, we handle our own affairs. Who do we have to be independent from? Since 1912 the ROC was already an independent sovereign country. We have been in existence for the last 105 years. So we already have independence. So we do not really need to declare independence again. 
So it’s not a bad thing for Taiwanese people to develop the Taiwan identity. We show our love for our land, for our country and we work together. 

We shouldn’t take an irrational attitude towards mainland China, but instead we should work on cooperation and peace from both sides. If both sides are now able to work on joint crime-fighting, why can’t we cooperate because joint crime-fighting actually involve sovereignty. And under reasonable arrangements, we can have division of labour. And over the last eight years, step by step we have gradually realised this dream and also we have proven that all these matters have been doable. So what I said before are not just empty slogans but rather they are viable approaches. 

ST: On your legacy, what do you hope to be remembered for?

MYJ: When I ran for presidency eight years ago, I proposed three major goals: to build a free, fair and just and prosperous Taiwan. The second is to create peaceful cross-strait relations. And thirdly is to create friendly international relations. 

So over the last eight years, I think relatively I have achieved all three goals although there are still some difficulties in terms of the international situation. We encountered three major economic downturns over the last eight years. So the rate of our economic growth was not as good as expected. 

Other countries are having a difficult time (too). So despite the difficulties, we still try to forge ahead. So in terms of international ranking, Taiwan has been doing quite well. What matters is that over the last eight years, we have created a sound domestic and external environment for Taiwan. So I believe I can leave this question for the people of Taiwan. They can be the judge.

A previous version of the story stated that chickens, goats and ducks were raised on Taiping island. This has been corrected to chickens, goats and dogs instead.