Economist : Ills at home obscure Ma Ying-jeou’s breakthroughs abroad

The most recent issue of The Economist" on October 4 uses the ongoing struggle between Ma Ying-jeou and Wang Jin-Pyng of the KMT as a backdrop for a report on Ma's recent diplomatic achievements. The article starts out by saying that "Taiwan may well have one of the most unpopular elected presidents in its history," before delving into a quick look at some of the hopes the administration harbored when Ma first took office as president in 2008.

Although the article is generally negative on the overall achievements of the Ma administration, it focuses on the fact that for the first time since Taiwan left the United Nations in 1971, the island has sent representatives to participate as ‘guests’ in a UN-related event, the 38th session of the International Civil Aviation Organization ( ICAO). Taiwan was specifically identified as a guest of the ICAO Council President, Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez, at the meeting which concluded Friday in Montreal. This, says the article, shows that Ma is still capable of achieving diplomatic breakthroughs at times. With China doing its level best to suppress any participation in UN-sponsored activities anywhere around the world, the opportunity to attend the ICAO Assembly, even as a non-voting ‘guest.’ is clearly a major breakthrough for Ma.

The article notes that the month-long squabble between Ma and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng has helped drive down Ma’s ratings in opinion polls to an unprecedented 9.2% and has also fomented anger among opposition legislators that has brought the law-making body almost to a complete halt. All these domestic troubles have obscured the success of the administration in getting a foot in the door at ICAO.

The article also points out the sea change that came with Ma’s winning of the presidency in 2008. Ma entered into a series of trade agreements with China which is still unfolding today, a move that has been instrumental in easing strained relations across the Taiwan Strait. Ma’s stated goal has been to reduce the level of antagonism between Taiwan and China without impairing Taiwan’s standing in the international community. Since last year, Ma has foregone the island’s decades-long quest to gain re-entry to the UN to requests to participate in a number of UN-sponsored organizations as an observer, in essence following a path that has been forged by Palestine to some success despite the organization’s lack of official status as a full-fledged state.

Taiwan has participated as an observer in the UN World Health Organization (WHO) since 2010, and more recently the government has sought to gain permission to join ICAO as well as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as an observer. Taiwan’s admittance as a guest at ICAO events represents a remarkable achievement in light of China’s interference in the past, although the ultimate-term goal of observer status in the organization still appears to be a distant dream for the island.

The rest of the Economist article goes on to lay out the background to the ‘September struggle’ between Ma and Wang, which has only recently started to show signs of resolution as it stretches into October.

The article also notes that ICAO president Gonzalez told reporters from Taiwan that the invitation to attend the ICAO meeting as guests came at the suggestion of China. Although Taiwan’s presence at ICAO was fully supported by the US, Ma’s perceived tendency to kowtow to and compromise with China is seen as the factor that eventually secured the invitation to ICAO. As the article points out, practically any mention of involvement on China’s part makes many people in Taiwan see Ma as selling out Taiwan to the government in Beijing.

George Tsai, Vice-president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, opines that while China refrained from blocking Taiwan’s presence at this year’s ICAO, it is likely to continue sabotaging any attempt by Taiwan to obtain observer status. Still, says Tsai, Taiwan’s participation at ICAO indicates that Beijing sees Ma as “workable" despite the mounting troubles he faces at home.