'Conditions Aren't Ripe'

The next presidential election in Taiwan is more than two years away, but there's already a front runner. Ma Ying-jeou, the 55-year-old mayor of Taipei, is seen as a shoo-in to be the candidate for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which favors closer ties with China and eventual unification. Admired for his clean image and movie-star good looks, Ma led his party in trouncing the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in local elections earlier this month, making him the man to beat in 2008. The mayor and KMT chairman spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Adams about what his party would do to nudge Taiwan closer to China, and why conditions aren't yet "ripe" for unification. Excerpts:

MA: We did well, but not because the KMT has really improved itself. Rather, the DPP has become so corrupt, and so inept, that people have lost confidence in them.

The DPP is somewhat handicapped by their ideology. They have to keep a distance from mainland China. They have been very timid, very conservative and very reserved in pushing ahead a productive policy toward the Chinese mainland. If the KMT is able to get back in power, we will open up direct flights with the mainland in two years. That's critical to Taiwan's economy.

Taiwan is located very close to the mainland, but we haven't really used this geographical advantage. By keeping a distance, we have actually moved Taipei [as far away from China as] Jakarta. A direct flight from Taipei to Shanghai takes only 80 minutes. But now [because travelers must take an indirect route], it takes seven hours. It's just so unwise, if not stupid, to do this. If we could shorten the travel time, then companies wouldn't have to move their headquarters to the mainland; they could stay in Taiwan.

Actually, the mainland is not pushing unification anymore. They don't want to see de jure independence for Taiwan, but they are not talking about [unification]. Their hands are full. But if Taiwan makes a provocative move, they would be left with no choice but to use force. So the most important thing for Taiwan is to maintain the status quo, not to provoke the mainland, but increase trade and investment and to relax cross-Strait relations.

For our party, the eventual goal is reunification, but we don't have a timetable. At the moment, we don't believe that either side is prepared to have unification... The conditions are really not ripe yet.

If you had asked me the question 10 years ago, I would have said no. But things are changing rapidly on the Chinese mainland, and we don't know how far they will go with democratization. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have thought that they were ready to have local elections. But they are doing it now. Of course, the nature of communism is to [hold] power for as long as possible. So it would be very naive to think that they will become as democratic as Taiwan in the near future... I think we may not be able to solve the sovereignty issue in our lifetimes--whether it's one China or two, or whatever.

It would be very unlikely. Some of us here would like to see that happen. But for the mainland, they have similar problems with Xinjiang, with Tibet. So they feel that if they loosen up for Taiwan, they might encounter difficulties elsewhere. On the other hand, Taiwan is very different from the provinces in mainland China that have independence or autonomy [aspirations] because our situation is very much linked with the rest of the world. Any military move against Taiwan would certainly involve the United States.

We think that if we want to have very stable relations [with China], arms purchases are only one of the things that we have to pay attention to. Certainly we also have to negotiate some kind of arrangement to reduce the tensions.