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Ma on Pengjia: a boring orator, but an OK problem-solver

President Ma Ying-jeou on Friday made his first-ever trip to Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼), in an effort to warn Japan against nationalizing the nearby Tiaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). In his speech on the islet, Ma outlined a negotiation plan that recognizes Beijing's role in the Tiaoyutais dialogue.

Back on Taiwan proper, the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) appraisal of the trip was negative. Former DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen criticized Ma for displaying poor “stature and demeanor.” Ma on Pengjia failed to “clearly and adamantly declare” that the Tiaoyutais belong to Taiwan and, as a corollary, do not belong to mainland China, according to Tsai.

The DPP legislative caucus and Thomas Lee of the People First Party called Ma's speech largely ineffective, even more so because Ma had chosen not to speak on the Japan-administered Tiaoyutais themselves.

The president is unable to protect the Tiaoyutais, so “let the Republic of China's lawmakers do it,” said Lee, who suggested that lawmakers force a landing on the Tiaoyutais to emphatically claim the territory.

Granted, Ma's declaration on Pengjia Islet was not masterful. The sole newsfeed to Taiwan proper briefly lost its signal five minutes into the speech, but Ma had already lost plenty of his television viewers. The president spent the first half of his speech reading dry factoid after factoid with the panache of a pupil reporting on an obscure volcanic rock — who, admittedly, he was. For the second half, Ma got harrowingly pedantic with a literature review of conflict resolution studies, before finally detailing his two-stage format for sovereignty negotiations.

But Ma didn't really under-deliver from his personal best. He has always spoken like this. In fact, what boosted his appeal in his first presidential campaign was that he is a consistently cramped and uninspiring speaker. Not the kind who can ad-lib, or who wants to create a deliberately provocative situation. Voters thought that meant he would be lower-key than his predecessor, and that he wouldn't try out rhetorical flourishes that spark cross-strait ire.

So far, Ma's language and gestures over the Tiaoyutais dispute have been restrained in his typical way. Still, the point that's buried under his efforts is better than “clear and adamant” — it's presidential.

Ma's proposal for two-staged negotiations makes Taiwan the first and only claimant to formally and publicly acknowledge all parties in the dispute. The proposal is also the first to explicitly announce the willingness to share resources and to cooperate in exchange for a peaceful resolution. Ma knows that in a global society, rampant individualism doesn't lead to political and economic success for any nation. Even if it did, Taiwan doesn't have the military or financial resources to pay those kinds of tolls. Cautious cooperation is our only workable option.

As the Tiaoyutais dispute continues to escalate, Taiwan's opposition parties have risen up to press the president to make greater statements of sovereignty and more feverish protests against perceived abuses by regional powers.

They, like Ma, want what's best for Taiwan, even if some days it's hard for anyone to tell what that is. But the difference between Ma and the political opposition is that the latter is free to eye a glorious and prosperous future, without completely working out the logistics of getting us there.

1 Comment
September 10, 2012    chenjohn2@
Poor Ma, that's what we can say about this sad caricature of a political leader. If one compares him to his alumni Obama, one can see how ineloquent he is. In presidential debates, he could not even out speak Tsai or Soong. What kind of a Harvard man? Well, we can assume he never spoke or even attended a Harvard debate.

As a student of history, I find it difficult to comment on his 'soft' approach. I think it will fail because Japan is facing the same problem as in the 1930s, with the ultras pointing a gun at the moderate government. Japan has unleashed the dogs of war. The question is: will Japan's dogs of war win power and guide Japan to another tragedy? Taiwan, prepare for war or peace?
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