TAIWAN: Media responds to inauguration speech

Most American commentators welcome the new president, while Taiwanese media split along party lines

By Shiyu Tan
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ma Ying-jeou's speech during his inauguration ceremony at Taipei Arena was received with mixed responses as the Kuomintang (KMT) party member took office as Taiwan's third elected president on Tuesday, May 19, 2008.

The Taiwanese media was divided along party lines regarding their opinions of Ma's inaugural address, which emphasized "peace and co-prosperity" between Taiwan and China and urged dialogue between Taipei and Beijing.

In an editorial, the island's pan-blue English daily, The China Post commended Ma for quoting Chinese President Hu Jintao in illustrating China and Taiwan's common objectives: "The way to prosperity isn't strewn with roses. Plenty of obstacles lie ahead. They can be removed if the people, who have a new unity of purpose, join hands to get things done. Ma is working to get that unity of purpose. People have faith in him. He has inspired them to work for a better future, not just for Taiwan but for the other side of the Strait as well."

However, new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen criticized Ma for talking so much about improving cross-strait relations in his inaugural speech, reported pan-green newspaper Taipei Times.

"In his entire inaugural speech, Ma didn't say Taiwan or the Republic of China is a sovereign state. He didn't even mention that Taiwan's future should be decided by all Taiwanese people -- something he repeatedly said during his presidential campaign," said Tsai, who was sworn in as DPP head last Wednesday.

A Taipei Times editorial said the former Taipei mayor showed "little rhetorical interest in mending the political divide at home" in his inaugural speech, and therefore "missed his first opportunity in his capacity as head of state to deal positively with the bitterness generated by an intense and divisive presidential race."

Because the United States' Taiwan Relations Act states "the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services" so that Taiwan can "maintain a sufficient self-defense capability," relations between the two countries has strained in the past eight years during former President Chen Shui-bian's administration with his pro-Taiwan independence stance. Most American commentaries welcomed Ma's goal of diffusing China-Taiwan tension and plan to maintain the status quo regarding Taiwan's sovereignty.

Peter Hannaford, for conservative U.S. monthly magazine The American Spectator, wrote, "What the U.S. most wanted, and didn't get, in the DPP years, was predictability and stability in the Taiwan Strait. What it got was uncertainty. Neither Beijing nor we wanted -- or could afford -- a shooting war there." Hannaford concluded that Ma's speech "seems to have been well received on the other side of the Taiwan Strait and in Washington (with a sigh of relief)."

Gerrit W. Gong, a political science professor at Brigham Young University and a former diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, said in a commentary for the Mercury News that Ma's inaugural speech created an opportunity for the United States that "does not require changing U.S. policy, but it does require U.S. policy attention." He encouraged the United States to "nurture a supportive environment" for Beijing and Taipei to discuss improving cross-strait relations, to "recognize that Asia-Pacific peace and prosperity" are important to U.S. interests, and to "continue to sell Taiwan appropriate defensive weaponry within the established framework of U.S.-People's Republic of China communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act."

Claude Barfield, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said with a more China-friendly Taiwan president, the United States could push for a free trade agreement with Taiwan, even though China has warned all countries against it. Barfield wrote, "In launching a formal FTA negotiation in the coming months, President Bush will no doubt bear the brunt of Beijing's initial anger, but if he reiterates a strong commitment to the 'one China' policy at the same time, he will leave a legacy on Taiwan that both advances American interests and assures that Taiwan has the opportunity to thrive within an increasingly integrated East Asian region."

J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, said that while Taiwan may make overtures, cross-strait relations couldn't improve unless China returns them in kind. He also said that while the issue of independence returns to the status quo, it would always remain a conflict between the two countries until resolved.

"While neither of the two referenda held along with the presidential vote on Taiwan succeeded due to the stringent requirements for their passage, the number of votes they garnered clearly indicates that an overwhelming majority in Taiwan view their government as a sovereign entity. Until this issue is addressed, it will plague negotiations on the economic, commercial and cultural-exchange agenda that Ma hopes to promote," wrote Pham.

Meanwhile, quake-hit China places its media spotlight almost wholly on relief efforts and national mourning. It took two days after Ma took office for China to release its official statement through state-owned Xinhua News Agency, pledging to seize the opportunity to "create a win-win situation to concretely work for the improvement and development of cross-Strait relations," while safeguarding Taiwanese rights and interests.