In the less than three months Ma Ying-jeou has been Taiwan's president, relations between Taiwan and China have arguably seen the most rapid advancement in the six-decade standoff between the two governments. Ma launched direct weekend charter flights between China and Taiwan for the first time, opened Taiwan to mainland tourists, eased restrictions on Taiwan investment on the mainland and approved measures that will allow mainland investors to buy Taiwan stocks. Yet the road towards his ultimate goal peaceful relations with Beijing is still fraught with political challenges. Ahead of his first international diplomatic trip, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, 58, spoke with TIME's Zoher Abdoolcarim and Michael Schuman on relations with China, the economy and his domestic political problems.
TIME: It seems to us that you are taking quite a low-key approach on your overseas trip. Are you trying to make it easy for both the Chinese leadership and Washington?
MA: We have made quite a few accomplishments in our relations with the mainland, the United States and Japan in the last two and a half months. [After] many, many years, now the U.S., Japan and Southeast Asia can rest assured that hostilities or even confrontation is unlikely in the Taiwan Strait. This is the reason why when I will transit in the U.S. I don't want to do things not compatible with the purpose of transit. Why? There is no need for me to do that. I don't have to do things that will hurt the high level of trust.
TIME: You've said you want to end "checkbook diplomacy". But by stopping it you run the risk that some countries will switch their recognition to China. How do you walk that line?
MA: Mainland China and Taiwan should not court and win over recognition of the other sides' allies. But we should certainly strengthen the existing relationships with our allies. That is totally justified. It is our international duty to help countries that need our support. But we have to do it according to international standards. You have to distinguish between purely giving money to somebody and developmental aid.
TIME: The term "checkbook diplomacy" implies a bribe in return for diplomatic recognition. Are you saying that you want to move Taiwan away from that to a more mainstream conventional program of aid?
MA: The so-called "checkbook diplomacy" was prompted primarily by the vicious circle created by the almost unlimited contest between mainland China and Taiwan in the international arena. We shouldn't give [allies] cash only for political purposes. The most important thing is that we attack the problem at its root: cross-Strait relations. That's why we want to use the current improvement of relations with the mainland to extend that to the international arena. If we are able to have a truce in the diplomatic area, both of us will not try to court and solicit and then win over the recognition of our allies.
TIME: What would you like to see as your next, maybe more difficult step with Beijing?
MA: We have just done a very small step by allowing charter flights. That has to be improved. If you fly from Shanghai to Taipei you still have to fly over the airspace of Hong Kong. The air controllers of Taiwan and the mainland are still unable to talk to each other. Now we have to change that, and we may be able to change that in the next couple months so that we can save a lot of fuel and time, from 2.5 hours between Taipei and Shanghai to only 80 minutes. Then we have to allow charter cargo flights, which are very important to our electronics industry. Then we open up direct navigation between the seaports in China and Taiwan. From there we hope next year we could negotiate an air transport agreement with the mainland to convert the weekend charters to everyday charters and then to scheduled flights just like everywhere else in the world. Beyond that we are now working on a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement which will cover a large range of issues from investment guarantees, avoidance of double taxation, opening our financial services industry to the mainland, and joint exploration of oil and gas in the Taiwan Strait.
TIME: What about Taiwan's participation in international organizations?
MA: This is more difficult in the sense that many international organizations require statehood as the basis for admission. But for organizations like the World Trade Organization, which could take in countries under the name of a separate customs territory, we did exactly that. We were admitted in 2002 with a very awkward name: Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan. Chinese Taipei for short. This is a new model. We are trying to get into the World Health Assembly. The first obstacle is the name we are going to use, pretty much like WTO, we're not using Taiwan or Republic of China. We will be flexible on the names. We are seeking observer status, not full membership. Now we are still negotiating with the mainland. We hope that next year we can make some progress.
TIME: You came in with a very large mandate in the election. Now your approval rating is slipping. How does that affect your ability to continue to improve cross-Strait relations?
MA: I don't see any basic change of my ability to do that, because the cross-Strait policy of mine is the most popular part among people here. What we are trying to do is to make the investment climate and the management environment in Taiwan much more flexible and free. So we're trying to open up, to deregulate, to liberalize as much as possible. All of these measures are intended to make Taiwan a more competitive area in our part of the world.
TIME: We've had Taiwan people tell us that they are worried that closer ties with China will dilute the character of Taiwan, which is freer, more spirited and more independent.
MA: I wouldn't worry about that at all. Almost every country in the world welcomes mainland tourists. It is a golden opportunity for Taiwan not just to make money but to also to establish more friendships with mainland people. The education ministry has also decided to recognize mainland diplomas and many mainland students will come to Taiwan to study. And that is also my policy. I want to make young people of the two sides have an opportunity to get to know each other at a relatively early stage of their lives. This is the best way for mutual understanding. If we continue to do that, in the next ten years, you will have mainlanders in Taiwan, and Taiwanese on the mainland, a very close interrelationship. I don't see you could start a war like that. This is the best national defense.
TIME: Can Taiwan change China?
MA: The influence would be tremendous. Even before [mainland people] come to Taiwan, many of them watch Taiwan TV. On March 22, my election day, the vote counting process after the booths were closed lasted for about 2 to 3 hours. It was televised live worldwide. We estimate that at least 300 million overseas Chinese and mainland Chinese were watching that. Three years ago when we had local elections, the same thing happened. I was so impressed and so astonished. They didn't even know the candidates. Why would they want to watch that? It just happened that in the next few days I had a chance to visit the website of the People's Daily and people sometimes leave comments on current events, I saw one saying: "Why can an ordinary Taiwanese just go to an elementary school and cast his vote. Why can't we? Are we second-class citizens?" When you look at those questions, you know what kind of impact Taiwan would have on the mainland. For those who come to Taiwan, they know that Taiwan is not like Hong Kong. Both places are free, but here, this is a full democracy.
TIME: Two years ago you told us you didn't trust the Chinese mainland leadership. How do you feel now?
MA: I think we are developing mutual trust, gradually. I think it started in March, just four days after our victory, President Bush talked with Hu Jintao over the phone. Hu said both sides of the Taiwan Strait believe in the one China principle, but both sides have different definitions. This is what we call one China, different interpretations. This is the first time a leader in mainland China recognized that. That paved the way for mutual trust. I think the Chinese leaders are interested in having this kind of interaction with Taiwan. After all, they don't want war. They don't want an unstable international environment. They certainly want to see a Taiwan that is not pursuing de jure independence. This is in conformity with their policies for the moment.
TIME: What is the sense you have of President Hu, as a man and a leader?
MA: In the interaction between Taiwan and the mainland I think he is a tough but sophisticated person, and he has demonstrated flexibility.