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Beijing's absurd stand on arms sales to Taiwan

Published May 5, 2010


TAIWAN'S leader Ma Ying-jeou did something unusual last week. With the next presidential election almost two years away, he held a televised debate with the leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ing-wen, thereby giving her status and media exposure that she badly wanted.

It was a daring and high-risk move, but he did it because his support ratings were so low that he was having difficulty convincing the electorate that a key economic agreement with China that he has been pushing for was in Taiwan's interests.

All indications are that he succeeded in pulling it off. According to polling by the United Daily News, on March 18 - two years after his election in a 2008 landslide - his support rating was only 27 per cent. However, immediately after the April 25 debate, it rose to 38 per cent.

The opposition may have lost the debate but it is far from being crushed. The support rating for Ms Tsai is 50 per cent, substantially higher than that for Mr Ma.

While the chances of success for the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) now look distinctly better, Mr Ma is still weak and any setback in the next two years could turn him into a one-term president.

Ironically, that is probably good for him.

Mr Ma has proven a somewhat less than inspirational leader save in the area of cross-straits relations, where he has performed brilliantly. His government over the last two years has concluded 12 agreements with China on such things as flights, food safety, tourism and mutual judicial assistance.

Of course, those achievements were possible only because of China's cooperation. China appreciates Mr Ma's rejection of the pro-independence policies of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. But it has made clear that its ultimate goal remains political unification between the island and the mainland.

This topic is always on the minds of Chinese leaders. Last Friday, the day President Hu Jintao opened the Shanghai Expo, he declared the exposition the 'pride of all Chinese people, including those across the Taiwan Strait' and again called for the two sides to work together to realise the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.

Mr Ma has made it clear that he will discuss only economic, not political, issues. Certainly, he knows that he will not be able to carry the Taiwan public with him if he enters into political negotiations, even if he were so minded.

President Ma has made no secret of his real reason for negotiating a trade agreement with China. His fear is that Taiwan, like North Korea, will be excluded from the network of trade accords that increasingly link all the other countries of the region. He hopes that once an ECFA with China is done, Taiwan will have China's blessing to sign free trade agreements with other countries.

It is far from clear that Beijing will go along. But the likelihood of Beijing continuing to make concessions to Taiwan is much greater if Mr Ma's domestic political situation appears precarious. In fact, the weaker Mr Ma appears, the more likely China is to shore him up since it does not want the pro-independence opposition party to regain power.

So far, China has been unwilling to budge on the issue of arms sales. President Ma, in a recent CNN interview, pointed out something that China has refused to acknowledge. 'If the US reduces arms sales to Taiwan below the current level,' he said, 'it will reduce confidence in this part of the world. Taiwan needs the arms to defend this country.'

China has not yet recognised that the way to winning the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan is not to make them feel weak and vulnerable. It takes confidence for Taiwan to embark on negotiations with China that could prove fruitful in the long term. And Taiwan needs arms to bolster its confidence.

However, even on the arms sales issue, Beijing has been relatively benign towards Taiwan. While Beijing excoriated Washington for selling US$6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, it has not uttered any criticism of Taiwan for having requested the weapons in the first place.

A glimpse into China's position was provided last week at an East-West Centre conference in Hong Kong. Prof Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University told the audience that Taiwan, in fact, has a right to purchase arms from abroad. It is just that no country has the right to sell arms to Taiwan.

A more enlightened China would certainly recognise the absurdity of such a position.

The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator