Taiwan's Leader Keeps Low Profile Abroad

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Pichi Chuang / Reuters

A poster of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in front of a watermelon stall in Ma Village, Taiwan, a traditional village where most residents also have the family name "Ma"

During his campaign for Taiwan's presidency, Ma Ying-jeou struck a conciliatory note with rival China, telling TIME he wanted to "make friends" with Taiwan's giant — and often very unfriendly — neighbor. Since sweeping to a landslide victory in March, Ma has largely followed up on that sentiment, inaugurating the first non-stop charter service between China and Taiwan since the two split during China's 1949 civil war, and taking steps to loosen regulations limiting Taiwanese investment in the mainland's booming economy.

So when Ma embarks on his first overseas trip as president on August 12, he will be doing his best not to upset that fragile détente. Trips abroad by Taiwanese leaders are always diplomatically touchy since China does not recognize the island as an independent nation. But Ma is determined to keep his campaign promise of charting a smoother course with the mainland. Unlike his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, who regularly traveled in a chartered 747, Ma will fly on a commercial airline to the U.S. on his way to attend presidential inaugurations in Paraguay and the Dominican Republic. And unlike Chen, whose 2001 trip to Latin America included controversial transit stops in New York City and Houston, Ma will try to avoid antagonizing Beijing by slipping through the U.S. as quietly as possible, changing planes on the west coast and not attending public events. "We are keeping this simple and low-key," says Henry Chen, a spokesman for Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

That approach stands in stark contrast to Chen, who rankled China in 2001 by meeting with U.S. lawmakers and posing for cameras in cowboy regalia as though he was on an official state visit. China claims Taiwan as a renegade province, and thus regards diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the U.S. as an affront to Chinese sovereignty. The U.S., which acknowledges China's position but supplies Taiwan with military material, also treads cautiously, frequently denying Taiwanese leaders permission to visit the U.S. in order to avoid unnecessarily upsetting China. Ma "differs from his predecessor," says Lin Chong-pin, President of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies. "He is more sensitive to what Beijing feels."

Nor is Beijing keen to undermine Ma's conciliatory stance, says Andrew Yang, Secretary General of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. Although Beijing refuses to recognize any Taiwanese government, in early April Chinese President Hu Jintao met informally with Ma's vice presidential running mate — a signal that China is open to further rapprochement across the tense Taiwan Strait. "I think Hu Jintao will put cross-Strait interests first because that serves Beijing's long-term strategic benefit," says Yang. "On the diplomatic front, I think Beijing will try their best not to upset the Taiwanese and send the wrong message." Indeed, unlike Chen's U.S. visit, which drew strident condemnations from China, Ma's overseas trip has thus far generated only muted reaction.

But the Latin America jaunt could still prove politically fraught for Ma, whose domestic popularity has been slumping in parallel with Taiwan's economy. Paraguay is one of the few remaining countries that maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan rather than with China. Incoming populist President Fernando Lugo has said he favors reversing that policy in order to take advantage of skyrocketing Chinese investment in Latin America — roughly a quarter of China's total overseas investment, according to one estimate. His government has asked Taiwan for a $71 million aid package — seen by some analysts as enticement not to change its diplomatic allegiance.

Ma has promised to stop the "checkbook diplomacy" that previous leaders have practiced for decades. Indeed, Taiwan's long-standing practice of wooing small, often poor, international allies with economic aid has occasionally proven embarrassing. In May, a scandal erupted when middlemen commissioned by Taipei to help seduce Papua New Guinea away from Beijing were accused of absconding with $30 million of government funds. Even if, as analysts expect, Taiwan doesn't offer Paraguay the full $71 million, by going, Ma risks being seen as continuing the practice of bribing impoverished nations in Latin America and Africa for their support. "Ma should not expose himself to this kind of open blackmail," says Loh I-Cheng, Taiwan's former ambassador to South Africa.

According to Lin, Beijing also would like to see an end to the era of jockeying with Taiwan for allies. "Their attitude is: 'We have 172 countries recognizing us. Taiwan has 23. If we gain one or two more, it doesn't make too much difference to us, but it would cause a huge negative impact on the ruling administration in Taiwan.'" Aside from undercutting Ma's overtures toward détente, heavy-handed international maneuvering by Beijing could backfire by emboldening Taiwan's pro-independence faction. Lin says that in order to forestall that outcome, think tanks affiliated with China's government have come to Taiwan to discuss how to handle requests by Taiwan's allies to switch allegiances. Beijing's goal is to "win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people," Lin says. "Beijing would shoot its own foot if it tries to steal another ally."

But Ma also has hearts and minds to win. Only months after scoring the biggest electoral rout in Taiwan's history, Ma's approval rating has dropped to around 35 percent, both because of Taiwan's sluggardly economy and because of a leadership style that some see as too subdued for the island's raucous political arena. "The issue is his personality," says Yang Tai-shun, a political science professor at Taipei's Chinese Cultural University. "He's cautious and tries not to say more than he can promise. He puts too much stake on cross-Strait relations, but it's not the panacea for everything." Ma may avoid ruffling feathers with his flight overseas. It's the homecoming that could be turbulent.

—With reporting by Natalie Tso/Taipei