Unification with China unlikely 'in our lifetimes': president-elect
By Peter Enav, AP
May 16, 2008, 12:00 am TWN
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Taiwan's new leader Ma Ying-jeou said yesterday that unification with longtime rival China is unlikely "in our lifetimes" because Taiwanese oppose the mainland's authoritarian rule.
Ma's comments came just five days before his inauguration. Throughout his campaign, he pledged to improve ties with Beijing after several rocky years, but cautioned that he would not seek to open negotiations about unification during his presidency. Ma, 57, can serve a maximum of eight years.
His latest declaration, which came in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, threw expectations of unification even further into the future.
"It is very difficult for us to see any unification talks even in our lifetimes," Ma said. "Taiwanese people would like to have economic interactions with the mainland, but obviously they don't believe their political system is suitable for Taiwan."
Ma spoke at length on relations with the United States — the island's most important foreign partner — and Taiwan's willingness to help China cope with the earthquake that killed at least 20,000 people earlier this week.
But the bulk of his comments were about the island's tense political relations with the mainland, from which it split amid civil war in 1949. Taiwan has grown increasingly democratic over the past two decades, but authoritarian government remains entrenched in Beijing even as China has abandoned communism in all but name and developed into an economic giant.
While insisting he wants to maximize opportunities between Taiwan and China, especially in business, the Harvard-educated Ma went out of his way to downplay the question of unification — Beijing's long-held goal.
Ma said he believes China's leaders understand his attitude but acknowledged they are scrutinizing his actions after eight troubled years in which the openly pro-independence policies of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, led to angry confrontations.
"Of course, they are watching me very attentively," Ma said.
Ma said he was committed to restoring the trust of the United States, Taiwan's strongest ally, which was eroded during Chen's administration. Washington frequently criticized Chen's policies, saying they threatened to provoke an armed reaction from China.
"We want to rebuild mutual confidence between the United States, which has been badly damaged as a result of what I called 'diplomatic adventurism' on the part of the current administration," Ma said. "That period is really in the past."
Ma declared that his government wants to send teams to China to help cope with the damage from the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that has decimated large areas of Sichuan province.
Taiwan's experience in dealing with its own big quake in 1999 gave it a special ability to deal effectively with such devastation, Ma said.
"Taiwan is in a unique position to offer help," Ma said. "The earthquake provides a good opportunity for the two sides to work together."
Ma said he had personally contributed US$6,000 to the Red Cross to help survivors.
Ma said it was understandable that China has so far refused to let foreign rescue workers help, but the time has come for Beijing to open its doors. China has flooded the zone with troops for rescue efforts, but access has been difficult in some areas.
"Sooner or later, they have to face the very tough question how to relocate the affected people," Ma said. "Yesterday ... I watched TV and heard more than 4 million people became homeless. This is really astronomical. So they do need help from the outside."