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President Ma Interviewed by The Straits Times

President Ma Ying-jeou was interviewed by The Straits Times, a Singapore-based publication, on April 19, 2016. Interview topics included cross-strait issues concerning legal jurisdiction in the transnational telecommunications fraud case in Kenya, cross-strait relations in general, Taiwan's identity, and South China Sea sovereignty.
Following is a translation of the interview:
Q1. Thank you, Mr. Ma, for taking this interview with us today. I want to start with a very topical question: the deportation of the Taiwanese from Kenya to China. Your government has lambasted what it calls "illegal abduction." Why is there this situation now at the tail end of your term when you have invested so much in cross-strait relations in the past eight years? And some people believe this is an issue of sovereignty—it is part of Beijing's strategy of flexing its muscles ahead of May 20 [the end of President Ma's term as president]. Do you think that it will work?
A1: The Kenya case is, I believe, basically a criminal case over which Taiwan and mainland China have concurrent jurisdiction. This is not the first time that the two sides have handled such a case. According to the Cross-strait Joint Crime-Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement signed in 2009, in this kind of situation the two sides should first hold consultations to determine which side should handle the case, or if it should be handled jointly. In a case in the Philippines in 2011, about five years ago, mainland China conducted the initial investigation, in which Taiwan prosecutors also took part. After mainland China had completed its work, the suspects were returned to Taiwan, whereupon we continued to proceed with our investigation. In other words, there are precedents that we can follow. What we are unhappy about this time is that first, mainland China did not consult with us beforehand, and second, its procedures were not transparent enough, causing a lack of understanding concerning the facts and evidence mainland China has built its case on. Strictly speaking, these issues are not related to sovereignty but, rather, to the division of labor between the two sides.
A special task force formed by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the Mainland Affairs Council, and the Straits Exchange Foundation will be traveling to mainland China tomorrow [April 20] to discuss concurrent jurisdiction and the division of labor in the Kenya case. We should have general procedures that apply to not just this case, but the Malaysia case and other cases as well. These procedures should allow for concurrent jurisdiction and a cooperative division of labor.
Q2: So the fact that mainland China did not adhere to those procedures this time—is that meant as a signal to Chairwoman Tsai [President-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Chairwoman of Democratic Progressive Party] ahead of May 20 as some people have speculated?
A2: This is what many people think, but I do not believe that this is the only reason. The main reason is that mainland China has not been happy with the results of trials in Taiwan in similar cases in the past. Because of the significant gap in the sentences given in Taiwan and mainland China, the mainland has the impression that Taiwan gives light sentences, which is why it is unhappy when suspects are deported to Taiwan. As for our judiciary, first, we cannot intervene in court operations; the judiciary is independent. Second, trials are conducted in accordance with the law. The MOJ and prosecutors can urge a judge to hand out heavy sentences and appeal to a higher court if their request is ignored, but they cannot make the final decision. On this point, our judicial system is different from mainland China's. However, we can review and explore how prosecutors could seek heavier penalties in such cases. In fact, our law does not call for light sentences only. Because the suspects usually commit fraud more than once, we could seek consecutive sentences for each offense, which can result in longer sentences. This is what we should examine. If this is possible, I believe we will have a clear principle that can be applied to such cases.
Of course, it will not be easy to get concrete results in the Kenya case within a month's time, that is, before May 20, because it is still under investigation in mainland China. We could follow up closely to understand and observe the situation, but there is little chance we can bring the Taiwanese suspects back before the investigation is completed.
The Philippines case, for example, occurred on February 2, 2011, and the Taiwanese suspects only returned to Taiwan in July that same year. Investigations continued and a trial was held after they returned. Twelve people were convicted and two were found not guilty. Actually, we do prosecute suspects. It is just that Taiwan and mainland China have different systems and procedures, and our results are also different, and mainland China is very dissatisfied about that. In this case, only two defendants were found not guilty, and 12 received sentences, albeit light sentences.
Q3: For Chairwoman Tsai, maybe this isn't such a good start?
A3: Occasionally, unusual incidents do occur in cross-strait affairs, which need to be handled with wisdom and patience. We have dealt with such cases in the past. Of course, we have signed a mutual judicial assistance agreement with mainland China, which means that the mainland is aware that this is not simply a sovereignty issue. If it was only a sovereignty issue, mainland China would not need to consult with us, and just handle all of these cases themselves. Obviously, that is not mainland China's position. We did participate in the Philippines case five years ago. Some people in Taiwan are not aware of this, so whenever a problem like this arises, they assume it is a sovereignty issue. An initial misjudgment could eventually lead to unforeseen consequences. This is a lesson that we must keep in mind.
As I said at the very beginning, this is an issue of concurrent jurisdiction. There are alternatives to exclusive jurisdiction. Some people do not understand this and demand that all suspects be returned to Taiwan whenever an incident occurs. In fact, mainland China is where the results of the crimes occurred, and where the victims reside. It is easier to investigate evidence and subpoena witnesses there. So of course mainland China does have jurisdiction. We have to discuss with mainland China how the two sides can set principles for the cooperative division of labor in cases of concurrent jurisdiction. The agreement on joint crime-fighting was signed with this in mind.
These are not cases of exclusive jurisdiction, because both sides have agreed that the other side can participate, and shares jurisdiction.
Q4: Beyond the Kenya crisis, there have been various moves by Beijing from the establishing of the ties with Gambia to the drop in mainland tourists, and now I understand that Taiwan has yet to receive the World Health Assembly (WHA) invitation. People have seen this as a pattern of Beijing trying to flex its muscles before May 20. Do you yourself concur with such an analysis, and do you think it will work in influencing Chairwoman Tsai and, more importantly, will it actually incite a backlash among the Taiwanese people against mainland China?
A4: Some people do have this impression about the three situations you just mentioned, since mainland China and The Gambia established diplomatic relations in March of 2016. But in fact, The Gambia severed relations with us more than two years ago. So why it picked this particular time to restore relations is part of what concerns everyone. Second, you mentioned the drop in the number of tourists coming to Taiwan from mainland China. It has dropped a bit, but there has been considerable panic. I most recently went to Kaohsiung, and the people there are very worried. This is because the number of tourists coming to Kaohsiung since I took office has increased roughly five-fold, benefiting hotels, travel agencies, the transportation sector, and department stores. So people there are really concerned, and quite worried.
In addition, you mentioned our participation in the WHA. In fact, the majority of other countries and groups with observer status—the ROC's official status in the WHA—have already received their invitations. However, as of now, we have not yet received ours, so this is an intricate and sensitive issue that is critically important for the ROC. We worked very hard to secure an invitation from the World Health Organization (WHO). We also told them that the next administration has already asked Mr. Lin Tzou-yien (林奏延) to be Minister of Health and Welfare. Since the WHA begins on May 23, only three days after Chairwoman Tsai is inaugurated as President, we will do everything we can. But we can only do so until May 19. From May 20 onward, the next administration will take over. During the transition process, we have also informed our friends in the Democratic Progressive Party that they must now begin to come up with solutions to this problem, which is in fact not very easy to solve.
I might add here that when we lost our representation in the United Nations back in 1971, there was no opportunity for us thereafter to take part in the meetings or events of specialized agencies under the UN umbrella, including the WHA. However, this administration resumed participation in 2009. If we can still participate this year, it will be the eighth time after an absence of 38 years. We have taken part in the general assembly seven times previously with official observer status under the name "Chinese Taipei," and not just in technical meetings. The invitations we have received have been addressed to our Minister of Health and Welfare, and all communication has been direct, without going through a third party. We corresponded directly with WHO headquarters. The situation we created over the last eight years is thus quite different from the past. We, of course, hope that this situation can continue regardless of which political party is in power. We all hope to be able to accomplish this. Therefore, beginning in February and March of this year, we have been giving this issue a lot of attention, continually corresponding with the WHO and asking allies to assist us. We hoped that the WHO would issue the invitation to us as scheduled, but so far we have not received it.
We have been able to take part since 2009, but were not able to do so in any of the eight years before 2008. The major difference was that our views regarding the shared political foundation for cross-strait relations─the 1992 Consensus—were consistent with mainland China's.
Q5: Do you think that such hardline tactics by Beijing will work in winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese public?
A5: Of course, mainland China's approach is not above reproach. Nevertheless, only if the two sides can reach consensus can problems be resolved. Wisdom is required to deal with these issues. This is why Taiwan was unable to participate during the previous 38 years, but could by the second year of my administration.
Q6: Why is it that despite your wisdom and intelligence in handling cross-strait relations in this regard, the Taiwanese public are still ambivalent about it?
A6: At least on these issues the Taiwan public really supports our approach. I met with Mr. Xi Jinping (習近平) on November 7 of last year. During that meeting, both sides reaffirmed support for making the 1992 Consensus the common political foundation between the two sides. A public opinion survey conducted after I returned asked the public "If the 'one China' of the 1992 Consensus of ‘one China, respective interpretations' is the Republic of China, do you support this or not?" Over 60% of the public supported it. Over 60% is a majority─so a majority, over half the public, support it. This is because supporting the 1992 Consensus of "one China, respective interpretations" fully accords with the ROC Constitution, it comes from our Constitution. Furthermore, this advocacy was not forced upon us by mainland China. In fact, we suggested it to mainland China in 1992 and they accepted it. Only then did it become the 1992 Consensus. I really cannot see why anyone would want to oppose it. If we ourselves pursue something, and then we ourselves do not want it, we cannot blame others if they criticize us. Therefore, I feel that for any president who upholds the ROC Constitution, it should not be difficult to follow the 1992 Consensus.
Q7: Do you think that Chairwoman Tsai can accept that?
A7: I'm afraid that it would be more appropriate for you to ask her directly.
Q8: So what do you think her cross-strait policy direction is?
A8: During her visit to the United States last year, she said that she would deal with the cross-strait relationship under the framework of the ROC Constitution. If this is what she advocates, then I feel it should not be that hard to accept the 1992 Consensus.
Q9: In Taiwan, there are people who support Chairwoman Tsai's ideas and oppose unification with mainland China. What is your take on this? She also spoke of the popular will of the people, not just about abiding by the ROC Constitution. So according to some polls, there's been a growing proportion of Taiwanese who are against the idea of unification. And given that trajectory, do you think that this is something that will be harder for her or any future leaders to adhere to?
A9: Public opinion in Taiwan supports maintaining the status quo, and this opinion is nothing new. Ever since I was deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council over 20 years ago, public opinion polls on this issue have been taken, asking the people whether they support unification, independence, or the status quo. Support for maintaining the status quo in a broader sense has been expressed by over 80% of the people polled. In other words, the public believes that the conditions for unification are not yet ripe, and that there is no need to declare independence. Therefore, the best course of action is to maintain the status quo. This is precisely why three months ago during the presidential elections, all three major candidates also called for maintaining the status quo. This is actually a bit odd, for, as you probably know, in democratic elections around the world, all opposition party candidates demand that the status quo be changed. They always chant "change, change, and more change!" However, in our election, all three major candidates called for maintaining the status quo. I feel both surprised and gratified, for we have worked hard these last eight years to shape the status quo.
Q10: And yet, voters delivered a stunning indictment of you, your policies and the Kuomintang (KMT) on January 16. What do you think led to such a state of affairs? I know you blame it on communications failure, you've said: "Actually there are many good policies that the public doesn't understand because we haven't communicated them enough." Is that all there is? Do you feel you've been misunderstood?
A10: When promoting government policy, we might not have spent enough time in explaining to the public the reasons for our actions. However, in terms of cross-strait relations, since taking office, we have upheld the "three-no's" principle, namely no unification, no independence, and no use of force, under the framework of the ROC Constitution, as well as the 1992 Consensus of "one China, respective interpretations." We have advocated these ideas for eight years, which is quite a long time, and the people have taken them as a matter of fact. In other words, the people accept these principles and are happy to support them in light of our achievements thus far. Of course, some people fail to understand that these achievements in maintaining the status quo did not just simply appear out of thin air. In fact, they are the result of our eight years of hard work, with the 1992 Consensus playing a key role. I must reiterate that the 1992 Consensus is an integral part of the status quo, and that one cannot possibly maintain the status quo without it.
Q11: The recent story of you and your bian dang (lunch box) was very popular among the mainland netizens. Ma Ying-jeou's bian dang is one of the most popular search terms on Weibo. How do you feel about being more popular among mainlanders than among the Taiwanese public?
A11: Their bian dang is not as good as ours!
Q12: But why do you think that they seem so enamored of you as opposed to the Taiwanese people, and how does that make you feel because you represent the Taiwanese people?
A12: I must stress that my cross-strait policy not only represents consensus in Taiwan, but also consensus on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. This is because in promoting cross-strait relations, we cannot just focus on consensus in Taiwan, but must also arrive at a consensus acceptable to the other side. This is the only way to make cross-strait relations more stable.
Some people mistakenly think that to reach consensus with mainland China, Taiwan's sovereignty, political system, democracy, and freedom will be sacrificed. That's all a misconception. Over the last eight years, our policy has not brought about sacrifices. Instead, there's more respect for Taiwan's freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law than there was before.
You can see that from the last few presidential elections in Taiwan. The most recent election was our sixth, and at times during the first three elections, mainland China reacted strongly with both harsh warnings and military threats. However, since the election campaign leading up to my first presidential term, we have seen much less of such behavior. For instance, in the elections four years ago and this year, mainland China has been rather quiet, keeping criticism to a minimum, especially during this year's election. Don't you feel that mainland China's aforementioned performance has met the expectations of a democratic society better than in the past?
I feel that this point is extremely important, as Taiwan has been able to elect its own president and legislature and handle its own affairs unhampered. In reality, mainland China has shown a certain amount of respect and has refrained from taking overbearing and aggressive actions to interfere in our elections. This should be viewed as progress. Therefore, I must stress that by interacting with mainland China under the above principles, Beijing has come to respect our democracy.
During my re-election campaign four years ago, no news of our election was broadcast in mainland China. In contrast, this time people in mainland China could observe Taiwan's electoral process online. To me, this development was unexpected, but also gratifying. This is the way the two sides should interact.
Q13: Moving on to the South China Sea, under your leadership the ROC has tried to navigate its way through these troubled waters and you have announced your South China Sea Peace Initiative. However, Taiwan is not party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitration. It faces constraints on these fronts. So under such circumstances, to what extent can it really be a player in influencing the developments?
A13: The ROC has consistently maintained that the South China Sea Islands and their surrounding waters are an integral part of ROC territory and waters. The ROC is therefore a very important claimant in the South China Sea. However, due to political and diplomatic factors, the ROC has not been invited to take part in the arbitration initiated by the Philippines against mainland China. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that the ROC has possessed the South China Sea islands, including Taiping Island, for the past 70 years. Even though our country is unable to participate in the arbitration, we hope that, at the very least, our rights and interests will not be affected in the process.
In the second half of November last year, during an arbitration hearing held in The Hague, lawyers retained by the Philippines attempted to make the argument that Taiping Island is not an island, but a rock. They said that the island possesses neither potable water nor arable land, and that all supplies used on the island are imported from elsewhere. Such an argument is preposterous, and completely contradicts the facts. The ROC has governed Taiping Island for more than 70 years; high-quality freshwater is present on the island and agricultural crops are cultivated on it. In fact, nearly 20 types of vegetables and fruits are produced on the island, and chicken, goats, and dogs are also raised. Furthermore, almost 200 people live on the island. Since mid-December of last year, four groups of people—including ROC government officials, international journalists, as well as scholars and experts—have traveled to Taiping Island for inspections. The results of these visits have helped everyone understand that the Philippines' statements concerning Taiping Island made at the arbitral tribunal have absolutely no basis in fact.
Because our nation has actively explained the reality of the situation on Taiping Island to the international community, the arbitral tribunal in The Hague sent a letter to the Philippines and mainland China in February of this year, asking them to respond to the remarks I made on Taiping Island on January 28. The two sides replied in March. On March 23 we arranged a visit to Taiping Island for at least 10 international media outlets. In fact, over the past four to five months, more than 426 reports have been published by international media on related issues. Meanwhile, the Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law has submitted an amicus curiae brief with various attachments totaling 400 pages. This highly detailed document will allow the tribunal to gain a better understanding of the situation. The tribunal has confirmed it received these documents, and has forwarded them to the five arbitrators.
In fact, I stated on both January 28 and March 23 that the ROC sincerely invites the Philippine government to dispatch representatives or lawyers to Taiping Island. I have also formally invited the five arbitrators of the tribunal in The Hague, the Members of the Court, to visit Taiping Island. I have done so because the rules of procedure of the tribunal allow for site visits by tribunal staff if deemed necessary.
The potentially serious impact of the arbitration award will not be limited to the ROC alone. Cases such as this one have been rare in international courts. If the award to be announced states that Taiping Island—despite the fact that all necessary items can be produced on the island itself and that it possesses fresh water—cannot be called an island, then I don't know how many islands across the globe will no longer be considered islands! The potential impact of this arbitration is thus enormous. The ROC hopes that the Members of the Court can visit Taiping Island and issue a correct award. An incorrect award by the arbitrators would call into question the tribunal's fairness, contravene the provisions of Article 121 of UNCLOS, and have a profoundly negative effect on our nation's rights and interests. Again, we reiterate that the ROC welcomes the international community to visit Taiping Island.
In fact, on April 14 we organized an international academic seminar on South China Sea issues, which was attended by scholars from many different countries. The day after the seminar, some of these scholars visited Taiping Island through arrangements made by our government. These scholars were from the UK, Germany, the US, and Greece. On the evening of that same day, I had dinner with them to gain a better understanding of their views. I think it is not difficult to accept the fact that Taiping Island is an island. It has fresh water, arable soil, as well as a hospital that employs not only general physicians but also dentists. With the help of the hospital on Taiping Island, more than 20 medical rescue operations have been conducted in the past 10 years for fishermen from Myanmar, the Philippines, and mainland China. Taiping Island thus serves peaceful purposes. Indeed, we hope to transform Taiping Island into an island for peace and rescue operations, as well as a low-carbon island. Solar power equipment has been installed, which generates 17% of the island's electricity. At the same time, we hope that it becomes an ecologically friendly island. Scientific teams are based on the island to examine various aspects of how, historically, the island was formed. Taiping Island is unique because it is the only feature among the 100 to 200 islands, reefs, and sandbanks in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands that has fresh water. Why? This is related to its geological characteristics, which should be further examined. Therefore, we hope that the tribunal either does not deal with the issue of Taiping Island—since the Philippines did not list Taiping Island as an item for which it requested a verdict by the tribunal—or, if its award does touch on the status of Taiping Island, it understands the relevant facts and laws and classifies Taiping Island as an island, not a rock.
Let me also add that Taiping Island has a history of more than three million years, longer than Taiwan itself.
Q14: Professor Jerome Cohen has suggested that, after May 20, you should set up a foundation for international peace or international maritime law and continue to exert your influence on regional issues. What do you think about that idea?
A14: I know Professor Cohen will follow my future endeavors with great interest, because he was my advisor when I was writing my thesis. He has long expressed hope that I do my best to set up an international conference center on Taiping Island to promote peace. This is a very good idea. After I leave office, I will continue to closely follow these issues, because a key aspect of my administration's foreign and cross-strait policy has been to advocate "Peace in the Three Seas" surrounding Taiwan.
In fact, the idea for the international academic seminar held by Soochow University in Taipei this past April 14 came from Professor Cohen. However, he himself was unable to participate due to prior commitments. He also hopes that an international conference can be held on Taiping Island. This should be possible. Of course, we aim to further enhance the transportation infrastructure for the island. "Peace in the Three Seas," which I just mentioned, refers to the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea, which are to the west, north, and south of Taiwan, respectively. To the east of Taiwan is the Pacific Ocean, where we do not share borders with other countries. These three seas are of great importance to Taiwan, mainland China, and the rest of the world. For example, one-third of global trade goods pass through the South China Sea. In addition, oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea exceed 11 billion tons, offering tremendous potential for future development. I will continue to take a keen interest in related issues, hoping to promote greater peace and prosperity in the region.
Most importantly, our fundamental positions on the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea are consistent. First, we have been rational. Second, we have been peaceful. And third, we have been transparent. Generally, we hope that all of these issues can be resolved through international or domestic law. In other words, we are in favor of a rule-based approach, which is completely in line with current international trends.
Q15: I know we don't have much time, and so I want to ask just two more questions. One is about the broader societal trend of an increasingly assertive Taiwanese identity. And in view of that, how do you think that the KMT should reform or evolve to meet such a challenge? The second question is, someone said that there can be few other positions that are more difficult than being the president of Taiwan in the past eight years. So how do you feel about that? Do you feel that it has been very difficult and what do you want to be remembered for after you step down?
A15: You said that a growing number of people, particularly young people, identify themselves as Taiwanese. This is a natural development that was bound to occur. After all, we have all grown up in Taiwan, and are Taiwanese. Nevertheless, such identification will not, and need not, create friction on the path toward greater reconciliation, peace, and cooperation with mainland China. As I said earlier, if the "one China" of the 1992 Consensus of "one China, respective interpretations" refers to the ROC, 60% of Taiwan people support it. Thus, it depends on how you promote cross-strait relations. I believe that using Taiwan identity to pursue Taiwan independence is a dead-end, and a path that should not be taken anyway. We already elect our own president, choose our own parliamentarians, and manage our own affairs. Can we be more independent than that? There is absolutely no reason to follow that path.
In the past, international media [CNN] have asked me why Taiwan does not declare independence. My response to the journalist [Christiane Amanpour] was to ask whether she had ever heard of a country that declared independence twice. In 1912, we established an independent, sovereign nation that is now in its 105th year of existence. Should a country with such a long history really declare independence for the second time? There is no need for that. It is not a bad thing that there exists such a strong Taiwan identity among our people. This demonstrates they love this land, they love this country, and stand together to pursue a better future. However, this does not mean we should adopt an irrational attitude toward mainland China. The two sides can coexist in peace, and cooperate with each other. You see, if we can work together on issues such as fighting crime, is there anything we cannot cooperate on? Particularly, over the past eight years, all the things I just mentioned have become a reality, demonstrating that we have not been using empty slogans. They are the results of concrete efforts over these past eight years.
Q16: On your legacy, what do you hope to be remembered for?
A16: In my first presidential election campaign eight years ago, I had three goals: first, a free, equitable, just, and prosperous Taiwan; second, a peaceful Taiwan Strait; and third, a friendly international environment. Looking back, I see that these goals have been attained for the most part. In the meantime, the world has experienced some major challenges, especially in the last eight years. All countries around the world have suffered from three major economic catastrophes: the global financial crisis, the European debt crisis, and shrinking exports worldwide. As a result, Taiwan's economic growth has failed to meet expectations. However, from many international reports, one can see that, although our economy is not performing well, the economies of other countries are not faring well either. All countries have to press forward despite the tough conditions. However, according to various international rankings, we really haven't performed that poorly. More importantly, over these last eight years, we have had the opportunity to improve the environment for Taiwan at home and abroad. The people of Taiwan can make their own assessments in the future based on these achievements.
Q17: Do you worry tensions will rise again across the Taiwan Strait?
A17: Since the elections three months ago, I have been traveling all over Taiwan to meet with the people, who have varying concerns. Every week many foreign guests come to visit me and express their own concerns. In the end, the people from home and abroad all share one hope in common—that Taiwan will maintain the status quo both domestically and internationally so as to avoid tension and conflicts. However, this depends on the wisdom of the incoming leader. No matter how hard I try, my term expires on May 19.