Taiwan has only just been recovering from all the excitement of President Ma Ying-jeou traveling to Singapore for an 82-second handshake and a one-hour meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.
Yet, already, never-resting talk show commentators and media are starting to throw theories around about the need for the Ma-Xi summit to be succeeded by a similar meeting with the next president of Taiwan.
Whatever motivations the president might have had in timing his encounter with his Chinese counterpart on November 7, the most recent polls show that any impact of the summit on the presidential election is likely to be negligible.
Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen had the backing of 42 percent of the public, Kuomintang Chairman Eric Liluan Chu could count on 22 percent, and People First Party Chairman James Soong would still receive 8 percent if an election were held soon, a poll conducted on behalf of Business Weekly concluded after the Ma-Xi summit.
In other words, any meeting between Xi and another KMT president looks far, far away.
Indeed, the only possible outcome of the January 16 presidential election looks like Tsai will win, be elected president, and be sworn in on May 20 as the island’s first female and second DPP head of state.
The same Business Weekly poll claimed that Tsai’s biggest headache during her eventual first term as president until 2020, would not be Chu or Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, or not even outspoken Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je, but Xi.
One could draw the conclusion that Tsai needs to hurry up and draw up a blueprint for dealing with the Chinese leader, but nothing could be further than the truth.
What Tsai needs to do after she becomes president, is to tackle the needs and wants of the Taiwanese people, not those of a foreign head of state who is hardly a friend of Taiwan.
The new president will have her plate full with meeting the expectations of the public, and like in any other country, those focus more on domestic social and economic issues than on foreign policy.
Of course, Taiwanese voters want stable foreign and cross-straits relations, with above all a defense of the island’s democratic values and sovereignty. Tsai will have to work on those too, but the first place on her agenda should still go to fixing the economy which has done so badly under the past more than seven years of the Ma Administration.
The KMT returned to power in 2008 with the promise to straighten up the economy, with its presidential candidate launching the later much-derided 6-3-3 formula. The objectives were not met, and instead of economic growth peaking at 6 percent, people are now worrying whether it will even make 1 percent for this year.
Food safety, or rather the lack of it, also became an issue affecting daily life in Taiwan. Ma opened his second term in office with a strong campaign for allowing the import of beef from the United States treated with ractopamine, a feat which caused his approval ratings to slip within months of his re-election victory.
Tsai will have to rebuild the faith of the public in government not just by launching a thorough campaign, but by setting up criteria to govern the handling and labeling of foods. Convincing the public that their daily food is safe to eat and that the government can be trusted when it awards safety certificates will be an uphill struggle for the new administration.
Tsai is showing she is already on the right way by appointing a toxicologist and food safety expert, Wu Kuen-yuh, at the top of the DPP’s list for the Legislative Yuan’s at-large list.
The people of Taiwan also crave for affordable housing, which would be an effective instrument in fighting the gap between rich and poor, which became one of the country’s top concerns during the Ma Administration. Tsai will have to derive a national policy based on what Ko is doing in Taipei, providing homes for young people and others who cannot afford the present sky-high prices for apartments close to their place of work.
Eight years of Ma has damaged Taiwan’s social and economic structure, and the prime task of the new government, with Tsai at its head or not, will be to right the wrongs of the past and to put the country back on the right track.
While China is important because of its size, its close presence and especially its attitude toward Taiwan, the new government’s priority will be to put its own house in order first before tackling Beijing.
One of the elements of righting the nation’s ship will be of course to halt the slide of Taiwan’s economy into the hands of China, but a meeting between Tsai and Xi is hardly likely to contribute to such a cause.
The DPP candidate has expressed her willingness to meet with the Chinese president, as long as he does not set unreasonable preconditions and as the process is transparent and democratic.
Most observers say such a meeting is unlikely in the near future, mainly because of the Chinese side’s attitudes toward the Taiwanese opposition, but it could not be excluded a couple of years into a Tsai presidency.
The DPP leader has already shown that she has positive intentions on cross-straits relations by invoking her wish to maintain the status quo. The formula previously was used as a weapon in the hands of KMT governments against Taiwan Independence.
However, Tsai has turned the concept around, and is now using it against Ma’s rash rapprochement with Beijing. The status quo now means the protection of Taiwan’s sovereignty, democracy, human rights and economic independence from China or from any other challenger.
The formula tells Xi that he cannot hope for any move to political talks during at least the next four years, but Tsai has not closed the doors on dialogue. On the contrary, she has been fair and open about what Taiwan needs.
A direct dialogue between Tsai and Xi some time during the next four years cannot be excluded, but it will not be needed in the short term.
Tsai can serve Taiwan better by focusing all her energy on domestic troubles, and on bringing the nation’s economy back on track before addressing more complicated issues in the relationship with China.
President Tsai will need all the support she can muster in turning Taiwan again into a model of economic and social progress for the region, including China.