Surprise, surprise

On January 27, Taiwan’s Presidential Office surprised the country (and probably the international community) by announcing that outgoing President Ma Ying‑jeou will visit Taiping Island (Itu Aba) in the South China Sea this Thursday. According to Presidential Spokesperson Charles Chen (陳以信), the purpose of Ma’s trip is to visit Taiwanese soldiers stationed on the island, ahead of the Lunar New Year. The presidential office also invited President-elect Tsai Ing‑wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to send representatives joining Ma. DPP Secretary‑General Joseph Wu has reportedly declined the invite, saying that his party did not plan to send any representative.

Since the announcement comes just a couple of weeks after Taiwanese coastguard vessels “expelled” Vietnam fishing boats south-east off Taiping Island on January 6, the timing of Ma’s visit indeed will not help but perhaps only intensify rising tension in the South China Sea. Vietnam has so far expressed a stern response on Ma’s visit to Taiping Island, which Hanoi considers a part of its territory. Vietnam’s Representative to Taiwan told a local paper that he would issue a formal protest to relevant Taiwan authorities.

Although Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lin said that the US, Japan, and other relevant countries were already notified of Ma’s planned trip, American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) spokesperson Sonia Urbom reportedly said that “we are disappointed that President Ma Ying-jeou plans to travel to Taiping Island.” “Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea,” she added.

Ma’s planned trip might not contribute to the peaceful resolution of regional disputes, but it can, however, further cement his desired historical legacy as a peacemaker across the Taiwan Strait. During his 2016 New Year message and response to the Pope’s World Day of Peace message, Ma repeatedly reiterated how he spent the past seven-plus years transforming the Taiwan Strait from a flashpoint of conflict into a path to peace. It seems as though in his remaining term, Ma aims to anchor the policy direction of the central government to a certain “China”-centric basis, with or without the support of the new Legislature.

Ma’s visit is announced only eleven days after his party lost the Presidency and Legislative majority to the opposition DPP in the January 16 elections. Some legislators of the DPP and the New Power Party (NPP) commented that the timing of the visit was “inappropriate” and that Ma should refrain himself and behave like a “caretaker” President in the interim before the transition of power can take place later this year. Newly elected NPP legislator Hsu Yung‑ming (徐永明) further noted that “sources suggested that the US prefer Taiwan not to get involved in the South China Sea disputes”. Ma’s decision will only “make noises” between the US-Taiwan Relations, Hsu said.

Regardless, Ma’s approach has received support from ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) legislators and some academics. KMT legislators Lin Te‑fu (林德福) and Ma Wen‑chun (馬文君) said that in his capacity as President, Ma’s visit could reinforce Taiwan’s sovereignty claim over Taiping Island. Similarly, Soong Yan‑huei of Taiwan’s highest academic institution Academia Sinica described Ma’s visit as a “red envelope of peace” to the international community ahead of the Lunar New Year. He suggested that Ma could reiterate his South China Sea Peace Initiative during his visit and show the international community that Taiwan would handle the South China Sea issue by peaceful means.

No caretaker” in my dictionary

Perhaps, to Ma Ying‑jeou, he is more than a “caretaker” president. Addressing an open event earlier this month, Ma made it very clear that the word “caretaker” was not in his dictionary. The recent actions taken by Ma in the South China Sea suggests that despite his South China Sea Peace Initiative, the outgoing President still wants to prove that Taiwan is not a marginal player in the region.

Ma’s administration has voiced its stance to the international community through various relevant authorities. Last week on January 23, a delegation of senior government officials including three Ministers (Foreign Affairs, Mainland Affairs Council, and Environment) visited Taiping Island to conduct surveys. With statements issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Council of Agriculture, Taiwan tried to engage with the arbitration case initiated by the Philippines and provide further evidence on Taiwan’s claim that Taiping meets the definition of an island under UNCLOS Article 121.

Earlier this month, Taiwan placed an advertisement in a US newspaper highlighting the importance of the island in the region and the peaceful purpose of Taiping Island. Shen Lyushun, Taiwan’s representative to the United States, said the purpose of the ad was to tell people that Taiping Island was a naturally formed island that could not only claim 12-nautical-mile territorial waters but also an exclusive economic zone stretching 200 nautical miles.

Mounting tension and uncertainties during transition period

That Ma once said, “I still have four months before the Presidential inauguration on May 20”, indicates that he will make the most out of his remaining term. An active President will not necessarily be a good thing for political stability, especially during the power transition, when the Presidency and the Legislature are headed by two different parties.

Within Taiwan, Ma never ceases to surprise the public and local media with “breakthrough” announcements, such as his meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Two months later, Ma has now surprised the island again by announcing his planned trip to the disputed Taiping Island, which is scheduled to take place just a few days before the new Legislative Yuan opens on February 1.

Despite the DPP’s call for Ma’s administration to serve as a caretaker government, it seems as though the outgoing president wants to further consolidate his Beijing-friendly policy before he steps down. As Ma no longer heads the KMT and the next national elections are two years away, he does not need to bear the pressure whether his mandate will damage the KMT’s prospects in the future election.

On the issue of the South China Sea, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister David Lin once said he believed that Beijing would understand the spirit and the principles of the “South China Sea Peace Initiative” which is initiated by President Ma.

Although diplomatically Beijing has avoided direct comments on Ma’s initiative and Taiwan’s claim over Taiping Island, its calculus is that the U-shaped line claimed by Taiwan could indirectly bolster the Chinese presence in the region vis-à-vis other ASEAN claimants. In the wake of the elections, Beijing-leaning local paper China Times expressed worry that the DPP’s stance on the South China Sea would lean toward the US and Japan and that such development would stir uncertainty across the Taiwan Strait.

On the economy, Ma said that no one should “rule out” deals with China because such a policy would not only be mistaken, but also potentially fatal for Taiwan. The Economics Minister John Deng just last week said that the negotiation of the goods in trade pact “would not be completely suspended”. If Ma is determined to push forward negotiations of cross-Strait trade deals during the power transition period, apart from strong opposition from a DPP-headed Legislature, Ma’s administration will probably face a blistering attack from the NPP caucus which holds a hardline stance on negotiations with China.

After tomorrow, President Ma will be the second Taiwan leader to have visited Taiping Island. Apart from that, Ma has fourth months left to turn his remaining bucket list into a reality. As the power transition period has just started, it seems like the outgoing president will continue to contest whether the new Legislature is able to make the caretaker government refrain from making major policy decisions.

(Feature photo by 玄史生, from wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0)


Gwenyth Wang

Gwen is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Warwick. She has a Master’s degree in democracy and democratisation from the University College London. She has previously worked in Taipei, Los Angeles and London – in fields ranging from think tanks to academia. She is currently based in Taipei and tweets at @GwenythWR.