Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou might be unpopular at home, but his Q&A session with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) was like a walk in the park.
The exchange, which took place on September 29, was the Taiwanese President’s first video conference with the EP, preceded by only six such events with international research institutions. UK’s Charles Tannock greeted the President by saying he hoped that his successor would be able to visit the Parliament in person. This was a clear reference to former president Chen Shui-bian’s anticipated meeting with MEPs, which had to be cancelled after the president was not granted a visa in November 2001, which most likely as a result of Beijing’s pressure.
Anyone who expected a lively discussion or challenging questions must have been deeply disappointed because the Q&A session must have felt like a walk in the park for Ma Ying-jeou. Ma might be extremely unpopular at home, but his approach to cross-strait policy won him international appraisal. His policies have augmented the general view that Taipei is a responsible stakeholder and this attitude echoed throughout the meeting room of the European Parliament. No difficult questions were asked and the Euro-parliamentarians, who were present, either never heard of the Sunflower Movement, or decided to save the president some trouble and skip the touchy subject. Instead, they provided Ma with a comfortable platform to wrap up his seven years in office.
The meeting focused on three concrete areas: Ma’s South and East China Sea Peace Initiatives, the European Union’s trade relations with Taiwan, and Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations. They were all discussed within the framework of cross-strait rapprochement which – as argued by both sides – has been a prerequisite for expending Taiwan’s international space.
Ma presented his East China Peace Initiative as a success that led to the signing of a fisheries agreement with Japan. According to the president, tension between Taipei and Tokyo over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai island have been successfully defused as no incidents have been reported ever since the deal came into force, as opposed to the average 10 incidents per year prior to the agreement. Moreover, Taiwanese fishermen have been able to double their catch.
Ma agreed that the South China Sea Peace Initiative was much more challenging because it included more stakeholders. He argued that international support was needed to get other parties on board in order to share resources without compromising sovereignty. He added that he expected a fisheries agreement with the Philippines to be signed in the near future. Interestingly enough, China was completely taken out of the picture in this context by both Ma and his EU interlocutors. But that does not mean that Beijing’s role was completely ignored.
Cross-strait relations, stated Ma, are currently at an all-time high with a total of 14 million tourists from the mainland who have visited Taiwan, 120 commercial flights scheduled daily and 23 cross-strait agreements signed. The president concluded that people-to-people contacts, with over 32 thousand Chinese students in Taiwan (the figure was about 800 before Ma had taken office), would last longer than any international agreement.
Ma may be correct in this assessment, but it should be noted that, according to surveys conducted by the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, cross-strait rapprochement on a political level has not brought the peoples from both sides of the strait closer together. Quite the opposite – the more dependent Taiwan has become on trade with China, the higher the sense of Taiwanese identity.
Ma Ying-jeou praised the European Parliament for its ongoing support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations, namely the WTO and ICAO – the UN bodies Taiwan has successfully gained access to. The president also hoped that his country would be able to cooperate with the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change and Interpol.
The significance of international support for Taiwan, argued Ma, has been demonstrated by the case of the Schengen visa waiver program, the island nation joined in 2011. Before it came into force, only 54 countries offered the Taiwanese visa-free treatment. Now, the number has grown into 148 jurisdictions, as other countries followed suit. Both Ma and MEPs agreed that the time for some sort of a free trade agreement between the EU and Taiwan has come. Ma added that conducting relevant visibility studies would be the right first step.
It is noteworthy that despite all the enthusiasm, the European Commission has rejected such suggestions by the EP, citing personnel shortages and its adherence to the one-China policy. Given the fact the EC currently employs 33 thousand people, the latter justification sounds more convincing.
Finally, the sides discussed the China led Asian Infrastructure Bank and Taiwan’s potential participation in the project. After the initiative, along with the New Silk Road, was questioned by one of the MEPs, Ma argued that China would have to play by the rules, because its success relies on international credibility. He added he was confident Taiwan would join the project, and in his opinion, China did not agree for Taipei to be one of the founding members because of its sense of prestige.
Jakub Piasecki (謝佳倫 – Xie Jia-lun) – Graduate of the Faculty of International and Political Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. From 2009 to 2012, he worked for the European Parliament as a Press Officer and Policy Advisor on China. Following close to four years of service at the EP, he moved to Taipei, where he completed a Visiting Fellowship at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he conducts research on Taiwan’s relations with the European Union. His areas of expertise cover Taiwan and cross-strait relations. Fluent in English and Chinese. You can follow him on Twitter: @piasecki82