TAIPEI, Taiwan – Under Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's signature policy of improving relations with China, this month's Beijing-inspired cancellation of a visit to the island by the governor of an important American state wasn't supposed to happen.
Since taking over the presidency 2-1/2 years ago, Ma has insisted that lowering tensions with the mainland would result in greater "international space" for the democratic island, including more respect for Taiwanese sovereignty, and greater Taiwanese participation in international organizations.
While some progress appears to have been made, the circumstances behind the nixed visit of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon — reportedly under pressure from Beijing and first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Dec. 7 — raise doubts Ma's policy is bearing fruit, particularly given a series of additional Chinese snubs toward Taiwan in recent months.
Any perception that China is disrespecting the self-ruled island could play into the hands of China skeptics in the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party ahead of Taiwanese presidential elections in March 2012 and undermine the tenuous peace Ma has helped establish across the Taiwan Strait.
Ma has a delicate path to tread. In the 61 years since Taiwan split from the mainland amid civil war, the island has established its own identity, and the vast majority of its 23 million people strongly favor a robust Taiwanese presence on the international stage.
But with Beijing insisting that Taiwan has always been part of its territory — and China's worldwide clout rising sharply — Taiwan's international expectations are constantly subject to the mainland's veto.
Ma registered an important achievement in May 2009 when China agreed to permit a Taiwan observer to attend the yearly meeting of the top decision-making group of the U.N.'s World Health Organization. It was the first time Taiwan had participated in any UN forum since the China seat on the world body was transferred from Taipei to Beijing in 1971.
But there also have been setbacks, including China's boycott of the opening ceremony of the July 2009 World Games in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung — because it didn't want to recognize Ma's status as Taiwan's president — and its recent demand that the Taiwanese delegation to an international film festival in Japan appear under the name "Taiwan China." That appellation makes it appear the island is directly under Beijing's sway.
But the cancellation of this week's scheduled vist by the Missouri governor may be the most serious case yet. According to a letter sent to Nixon on Dec. 2 by Mike Jones, chairman of a local commission seeking to launch a Chinese freight hub at St. Louis airport, a senior Chinese diplomat in the U.S. had pressed for the trip to be abandoned.
"Jeffrey Yang, the Chinese consul general to the Midwest ... officially contacted (our commission) to express his strong concern that your proposed visit to Taiwan would be misunderstood in Beijing and would probably affect our chances for success," Jones wrote to Nixon.
"Given the foregoing facts ... (the commission) respectfully requests that you find a diplomatic way of avoiding your trip to Taiwan, which would undoubtedly be counter-productive to our China strategy."
The next day Nixon announced he was canceling the trip because of "travel challenges," but later acknowledged that his decision was connected to the Taiwan-China issue and his push to assure Chinese participation at the hoped-for St. Louis freight hub.
Ma spokesman Lo Chih-chiang declined to comment on the scrapping of Nixon's trip, referring the question to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which said that it was unable to confirm that Chinese pressure was behind the governor's action.
In Beijing Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said she was unaware the background to the Nixon cancellation but said that "China handles Taiwan's exchanges with other countries under the 'one China principle'," a reference to Beijing's insistence that Taiwan belongs to it.
Political scientist Tung Chen-yuan of Taipei's National Chengchi University, who served as vice chairman of Taiwan's Cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council under the previous, pro-independence government, said the cancellation was part of "a systematic effort by China's diplomatic officials to limit Taiwan's diplomatic space."
"We have seen clearly that President Ma's efforts for a diplomatic cease-fire with China have only achieved limited results," he said.