Taiwan’s President in Mumbai
Just before Ma Ying-jeou got elected as President of Taiwan in 2008, he paid a visit to India,where he was the first Taiwanese to be given VVIP protocol at the airport and during his subsequent visit. The courtesy was due to not only the importance of Taiwan as a high-tech platform and as a source of investment, but because of the fact that the KMT argued for Indian independence throughout the 1930s and subsequently. In fact,both Generalissimo Chiang and his elegant spouse Soong Mei-ling often annoyed UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill,in whose view the people of India were unfit for freedom and unable to create a democracy.
Both were proud to be Asian,and saw the continent as being not much removed in time from repeating its glorious past,when it was far and away the lead continent on the globe.Today,the vision of Chiang and his wife is coming true, now that Asia has become the biggest economic force on the planet, a situation in which China has played the key role since the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping during 1978-83. Although there are leaders in the KMT such as former presidential candidate Lien Chan who have adopted a policy of subservience towards Beijing, in the case of Ma Ying-joeu,the object of his admiration is not the Communist Party but the Chinese people. As President of Taiwan,he has unblocked several of the people-to-people pathways between the PRC and Taiwan that had remained closed since 1949,and in four years,has seen a huge increase in cross-strait contacts,so much so that nearly a thousand pairs of flights take off from the two sides each week,in contrast to just around a dozen between India and China,who together have a population of nearly 2.5 billion people. The tourists from the PRC who visit Taiwan have long crossed the million mark,and each of them have seen for themselves how a population that is also ethnic Chinese enjoys a vigorous democracy. Those who claim that democracy goes counter to the Chinese ethos have been proved wrong by Taiwan,and this is having a powerful effect on visitors from across the Taiwan straits,who marvel at the debate and the differences of a democracy. The leading opposition party,the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is led by Tsai Ing-wen,a brilliant former professor who has worked all her life for human rights.Unlike Ma,Madame Tsai has not yet visited India,although several of her admirers in this country look forward to welcoming her here this year.
Unlike former president Chen,who adopts a confrontational approach towards China,Madame Tsai knows that both sides of the strait need each other to live together peaceably and responsibly,and has gently sought to alter the contours of DPP policy towards cross-strait ties The engagement with India that began under Chen Shui-bian (and which has enthusiastic support from Tsai Ing-wen) has blossomed further under President Ma. The unprecedented stopover of the Presidential aircraft in Mumbai and the dignified response from Beijing are indicative of a change in dynamic from Zero Sum to Win Win between not only Taipei and Beijing but between Beijing and Delhi. An arc of peaceful cooperation has to form across the region - and finally the continent. The avoidance of harsh words by China to this simple gesture of courtesy by India to the leader of a party that seven decades ago campaigned for India’s freedom indicates that such an era may not be long distant, and could possibly include Pakistan as well.
President Zardari made a superb impression on his Indian hosts,as did Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar earlier, and those who for long have been tracking tensions now are seeing instead the pleasant breeze of cooperation assume centrestage Because President Ma is a proud representative of the ancient Chinese race,and his party has excellent relations with the CCP, the Government of India broke precedent once again in his case,this time by allowing the aircraft carrying him and the Presidential party to stop over in Mumbai a week ago while en route to Burkina Faso.Although the stopover was only for a couple of hours,yet it had immense symbolic value,in that by that gesture,India has moved closer to the position of the US,which allows not only stopovers but “stayovers” by Taiwan presidents,including those who are critical of China. Such a courtesy cannot be objected to by any side,and it is a sign of not only the much better relations between Taipei and Beijing but between China and India that there seems to have been no formal reaction from the Chinese side to the stopover.Although there was a media blackout of the event when it took place,information reached Beijing in hours about the incident,so effective are the intelligence contacts that the PRC has on the Taiwanese (and indeed the Indian ) side. Over the past four years,President Ma has taken a considerable political risk by refusing to disavow his links with China,and as a result,went through many anxious moments during the 2012 Presidential election campaign,which he won by a smaller margin than in 2008. By his deft statesmanship, he is emerging as a leader who can command the respect of not only 23 million Taiwanese but 1.3 billion ethnic Chinese, just as Taiwan is serving as an example of how democracy works in a Chinese context.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.