On Wednesday, Ma Ying-jeou marked his first anniversary as president of Taiwan by calling his initial year "fruitful." And he had just cause for doing so. His most notable accomplishment so far has been a marked improvement in relations between the island republic and China. "In one year, we have transformed the strait from a dangerous flashpoint to a conduit of peace and prosperity," he told reporters in Taipei.
Last month, Taipei and Beijing, which both claim to govern "China," entered into historic agreements covering financial cooperation, regularly scheduled flights and judicial and law enforcement ties. That's on top of deals signed in June 2008. All told, there have been nine pacts inked with Beijing during Ma's first year.
Moreover, there are other signs of reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing dropped its objections to Taiwan participating this week in the World Health Assembly, the yearly gathering of World Health Organization members. And it appears the two sides will complete a wide-ranging Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement sometime in the coming months and maybe even a "peace agreement."
At first glance, the U.S. should be happy with the results of Ma's "diplomatic truce" with Beijing. Chen Shui-bian, Ma's charismatic predecessor, riled both Washington and Beijing with his independence-minded moves, thereby complicating America's relations with the Chinese. Ma has, with some deft moves, taken Taiwan off the list of the world's hotspots. Peace, in a very real sense, is breaking out across the Taiwan Strait.
So what's not to like about recent developments? Unfortunately, a lot. For one thing, Ma's administration has been able to make such fast progress in cross-strait relations by compromising his republic's sovereignty. For instance, the government in Taiwan is now participating in World Health Organization activities, when that institution describes the island as "China (Province of Taiwan)." It's a sign that Ma has made a critical concession to Beijing.
Ma says he has no intention of surrendering to the Chinese, often repeating his "Three Nos" policy of no independence, no unification and no war. Although it is unlikely he wants to reduce his status and become the governor of China's 34th province, there are elements in his Kuomintang party--led by former leader Lien Chan--that clearly want to join the so-called Motherland. From all indications, the telegenic Ma does not control his party and many of its hardline members tolerate him only because he is the Kuomintang's only politician who can win presidential elections.
Although he may not be seeking unification, Ma is pushing his country in that direction nonetheless. The agreements he has sponsored--and the ones he contemplates--will give Beijing economic leverage that will inevitably weaken resistance to Chinese rule. Tellingly, he has refused to submit the China agreements to ratification by the island's legislature. The failure to do so indicates contempt for democratic norms, especially because the pacts were negotiated not by the governments of Taiwan and China but by their ruling parties, and they were signed by nongovernmental organizations.
The failure to allow formal ratification is, unfortunately, just one sign of the erosion of democracy on the island. First and foremost, President Ma has engaged in what June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami has called an "across-the-board-purge-your-opponents effort," starting with former president Chen and continuing through the roster of the previous administration.
Moreover, Ma has been undermining democratic institutions by constricting the right to protest, intimidating the citizenry and pressuring the country's media. Some Taiwanese even fear that the Kuomintang will cancel the 2012 presidential election, and with each passing week that fear seems less like a partisan rant and more like a well-founded concern.
The ruling party is returning not only to its Chinese roots but its Leninist ones as well. Successive American administrations have worried that Beijing would try to alter Taiwan's political status without the consent of the Taiwanese. Up to now, no one thought that the Taipei government might do that to its own people instead.
The pro-China elements in the Kuomintang know that the Taiwanese would never willingly agree to join with Beijing in any type of political union. Although most polling on the island is suspect, the vast majority of surveys show that the percentages of the population considering themselves "Chinese" only, and those wanting to unify with China, are both in the single digits and dropping. So the only way diehard Mainlanders can make the island a part of China is for them to destroy Taiwan's democracy first.
Washington, however, is saying not a word about the worrisome developments. Yet that is a mistake for many reasons.
First, China's authoritarianism is on the march and Taiwan is an inspiration to free peoples everywhere.
Second, America's Asian policy is anchored on defending Japan. As a quick look at a map will reveal, the islands making up Taiwan protect the southern approaches to the Japanese archipelago. It would, therefore, be difficult for America to defend Japan if Taiwan became part of the People's Republic.
If the Pentagon is not able to protect Japan, South Korea would be surrounded and would surely fall into Beijing's lap as well. With its two formal alliances gone, the U.S. would be out of Asia. Taiwan is the key to keeping the U.S. in the game.
Third, ceding Taiwan would undoubtedly embolden a territorially hungry Beijing. China asserts sovereignty over, among other things, the continental shelves of Japan and five southeast Asian countries. Incredibly, Beijing appears to maintain that the entire South China Sea is an internal Chinese lake, thereby impinging on the right of free passage on, under and over international waters. Giving up Taiwan would only embolden China to press its claims with even more confidence and vigor--and it would bolster Beijing's weak legal positions by giving it Taipei's territorial rights.
Finally, losing Taiwan would send horrible messages to American allies, friends and foes in the region--and elsewhere. So we have a lot to lose if Beijing swallows Taiwan whole. That, unfortunately, is looking increasingly possible as the island begins its second year under Ma Ying-jeou.