Wednesday, 12 November 2008

On the ropes

In September's Africa-Asia Confidential, we reported on Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou's proposed diplomatic truce with China (AAC Vol 1 No 11, 'Dollar diplomacy fails'). No word on the truce yet; but the current chumminess of Ma's Kuomintang (KMT) and China's Communist Party has never been equaled, a development that has been billed appropriately as 'historic'. However, not all the news is positive: Ma's popularity has plummeted, and in recent months Taipei has seen angry protests against his administration.

Last week, Taipei hosted Chen Yunlin, leader of the Chinese department charged with hammering out cross-strait negotiations, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait. Chen is the highest-ranking CCP official ever to visit Taiwan, and his welcome was hardly warm.

Chen was ensconced in the faded grandeur of Taipei's Grand Hotel, which once towered over the city from the elevation of Yuanshan Mountain. Now, surrounded by highway overpasses, the area is a traffic bottleneck - made worse this week by protesters and the seven thousand police mobilized to control them. Passions ran high over the course of Chen's 3-7 November visit.

Police removed the national flag of the Republic of China from areas where Chen's eyes might pass, including, at times, from the hands of protesters. The crowds brandished air horns and signs. A bounty went out to anyone who could strike the Chinese envoy with an egg - NT$1000 for a shot to the body, NT$10,000 for a direct hit on his face. (In Mandarin, 'flying egg' is a homophonous to 'missile' - the bounty's sponsor was drawing attention to the missiles China has targeting Taiwan.)

By 5 November, things turned uglier. To outfox the protesters, Ma and Chen moved up their meeting, the climax of Chen's trip, to an earlier time. Soon after, violence broke out, with injuries among both protesters and police.

So far, the only person with egg on his face is Ma. He blames the opposition Democratic People's Party for inciting unrest. The DPP accuses him of returning to the police-state tactics of former presidents Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-guo. China, meanwhile, seems to have decided to keep further talks on friendly territory: planned delegations to Taiwan have been canceled, but a KMT-CCP forum is still on for December in Beijing.

The deals signed by Chen are uncontroversial: direct daily passenger flights and cargo links have been established, and pandas are on their way to Taipei Zoo. Taiwanese business leaders and politicians from both the KMT and DPP have been pushing for such links for a decade. The protesters object to the speed of the rapprochement and its lack of judicial and legislative oversight.

As for Ma's larger policy goals: Beijing still has not indicated whether it will take up his diplomatic truce. There doesn't appear to be any advantage to China in doing so; diplomatically speaking, it already has Taiwan on the ropes. Taiwan's international recognition stands at only 23 allies worldwide, of which only Burkina Faso, Gambia, São Tomé e Príncipe, and Swaziland remain in Africa.

China's new white paper on relations with Latin America, released 5 November, continues China's insistence that allies adhere to the One-China Principle: 'supporting China's reunification and not having official ties or contacts with Taiwan'. So, no change there.

Both the KMT and CCP will be pleased with Wednesday's big news: former president Chen Shui-bian, much detested by Beijing for his independence-leaning ways, was taken into custody on long-simmering charges of money-laundering and graft. The detention is sure to dominate local coverage, damage the DPP and take some of the heat off Ma.