Dr. Ma Ying-jeou, former president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), has been studying the dynamic across the Strait for over 30 years. In 2015, Dr. Ma met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore, the first face-to-face meeting between leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Strait since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In an interview recorded on October 18, 2023, Dr. Ma shares insights and recommends solutions based on his personal experiences to the current sharp tensions in U.S.-China and cross-strait relations.
STEPHEN A. ORLINS: It’s a pleasure and an honor to host the former president of the Republic of China Ma Ying-Jeou for today’s discussion. As everyone knows, he was president from 2008 to 2016. Before that, he was in a series of very important positions, including mayor of Taipei and Minister of Justice. He was educated at Taiwan National University and received his LLM down the street at NYU and his SJD at Harvard.
His career in a lot of ways emphasizes why it’s so important that people from Asia, students from Asia, come here to the United States study, go back home and have enormous impacts on their societies. I met the future president in 1976, I think when you were just starting at Harvard Law School and I was just finishing at Harvard Law School, and our mentor—the mentor of both of us, Jerry Cohen, introduced us.
He says there’s this fellow from Taiwan—not knowing that he would then go on to be president of the Republic of China. You know, under his leadership, we all remember cross-strait relations were peaceful and prosperous with agreements between Taiwan and mainland China reaching new levels that had never been seen before. I was fortunate at that time to own a business in Taiwan and had about 1200 employees then.
It’s funny, I still remember one day—you were president—and I got up in the morning and I had breakfast with my colleagues in Taipei. I went to the airport. I took a flight to Shanghai. I took the maglev from Pudong Airport to downtown to have lunch. I then took the maglev back, got on the nonstop from Shanghai to New York and had dinner on the same day with my mother.
So I got off the flight, had dinner with my mother. I thought that cross-strait relations, because of you, because of what was going on, had permanently changed. In retrospect, I was wrong. At the end of your presidency, you met, I believe it was 2015, you went to Singapore and met with Xi Jinping. Tell us about that meeting and tell us kind of what it felt like to kind of meet with Xi Jinping and have these discussions since no leader of the Republic of China had done that before.
MA YING-JEOU: That is a very important decision in my life to meet as president of the ROC with the president of PRC. And with that, of course, we have to do a lot of preparations. And when we met, we discussed many issues that concerned us, and I found out that we do have many things in common and we should work on that.
And particularly when the news was out that I’m going to meet with Xi Jinping—it’s very interesting—the reaction of the leader of the DPP. They certainly didn’t like that very much. But on the other hand, the current president Tsai Ing-wen said she also wanted to meet Xi Jinping. I think that’s good because I think dialogue is better than confrontation and we need a lot of dialogue. We don’t need confrontation.
And Xi Jinping, when we met with him, I particularly told him that the two sides should stick to the ‘92 consensus. That is One China-respective interpretations. And when we said we want to have our own interpretation, that won’t be Two China, One China, One Taiwan, or Taiwan independence.
I did that because I wanted to make sure that we’re working on a situation which both sides could benefit. This is probably the only way to solve the problem between Taiwan and the mainland. And unfortunately, after I stepped down, the government was taken in by the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and they do not seem to know very much about how to deal with this situation, so the cross-strait relations wasn’t very stable, and particularly after I left, this is something that worries me very much. And for Taiwan, I think the only hope is to have a talk with the mainland, stabilize the situation, and try to make it better. Not just for Taiwanese but also for the mainland, so this is what I want. So I certainly welcome your comments on what I did in the last 10, 20 years, and I hope we have a chance to realize what I have said for many, many years.
ORLINS: When you say “realize,” what do you mean? That we see some political solution to the cross-strait issues?
MA: Not in a short time, but in Taiwan, we do have our problems. The DPP, the Democratic Progressive Party, wouldn’t want to have that kind of relations with the mainland. But so far, my successor (Tsai Ing-wen), has been in power for seven years but very little can be done. This is what worries me because the two sides have to get together, have dialogue and try to work out solutions to the current problems we have.
You know, sometimes people talk about 2027—that’s the end of Xi Jinping’s term—and whether something critical could be done by then. I hope not so. I hope we could through our efforts gradually stabilize the situation and make the cross-strait relations something that will help both of their countries.
ORLINS: Let’s go back and talk about your administration and some of the—what I made reference to—some of the firsts as I had was in Taiwan. There were all of these things which your administration was able to do because of the ‘92 consensus—the mainland was willing to compromise on a number of issues. Talk about some of those and how they benefited the people in Taiwan.
MA: The ‘92 consensus was reached in 1992. I was personally involved in all of this, and it’s very important that the other side was willing to come along in all this issue. So in my eight years of presidency, we have concluded 23 agreements with the mainland. That is unprecedented, and I think it’s very good for Taiwan. It’s very good for the mainland.
And certainly, it was not really succeeded by President Tsai Ing-wen, so this is something I believe we should do. So the first recommendation that I want to make is that the leaders of Taiwan should strictly adhere to the constitution of the Republic of China and the Act Governing Relations between Peoples of the Taiwan Area and of the Mainland Area (Cross-Strait Act).
This means returning to the common political foundation that existed during my tenure, which is the 1992 consensus meaning One China-respective interpretations. Only through these can mutual trust be established between Taiwan and mainland China, and tensions across the Taiwan Strait can be reduced. At the same time, mainland China should also exercise patience and seize military and quasi-military actions that threaten the use of force in order to reassure the people of Taiwan.
I think you all remember that on November 16, 1992, a new era began in cross-strait relations with the establishment of the 1992 consensus. According to the consensus, both sides of the Taiwan Strait adhere to the One China Principle in their respective constitutions. However, they can verbally express the different interpretations of One China, which constitute the essence of the consensus, meaning seeking common ground while respecting differences. Because of the 1992 consensus, Taiwan and mainland China were able to sign 23 agreements, which is unprecedented in the history of the two sides, covering almost all walks of life.
All of my ministers during my tenure have direct and corresponding channels of communication with their mainland China counterpart to address issues of mutual concern. Through this approach, we were able to overcome many of the challenges we face. So the existence of the 1992 consensus serves as a guardrail for cross-strait peace. However, since I left office, the subsequent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has consistently refused to accept the 1992 consensus, which may escalate tension across the Taiwan Strait, making the future of cross-strait relations highly uncertain.
The upcoming presidential election in January 2024 is therefore crucial. If the new president is willing to accept the 1992 consensus, the possibility of peace becomes likely and viable. My single recommendation is that friendly countries, including the United States, should encourage Taiwan to have a dialogue with the mainland rather than encourage Taiwan leaders—particularly the Democratic Progressive Party—to move toward Taiwan independence and even transforming Taiwan into a second Ukraine.
In Western societies recently, there is a saying “Taiwan is Ukraine. Today’s Ukraine is tomorrow’s Taiwan.” This is absolutely wrong. Taiwan is not Ukraine and cross-strait relations differ greatly from the Russian-Ukraine relations. Russia and Ukraine are two independent states while Taiwan and mainland China are not. After the separation across the Taiwan Strait that started in 1949, both sides maintain the One China principle in their respective constitutions.
For the Republic of China, One China means the current constitution refers to the Republic of China itself. According to the respective constitutions on both sides, cross-strait relations are not relations between two countries but between two regions—Taiwan region and the mainland region of One China—which are fundamentally different.
Our constitution, as well as the mainland’s constitution, affirms that cross-strait relations do not involve separate countries and leaves room for the possibility of future integration. We should distinguish it from Russian-Ukraine relationship. The current ruling party—President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party—has repeatedly advocated that the People’s Republic and the Republic of China are not subordinates to each other. 兩個互不隸屬, in Chinese. 兩個互不隸屬 (each is not subordinate to the other).
They have also changed the Republic of China’s National Day to Taiwan National Day. Before I came to the United States, before our National Day October the 10th, I refused to attend the National Day ceremony in Taipei because I said, you put in the billboard Taiwan National Day. But it’s not a country, it shouldn’t have a national day. It should be Republic of China National Day. I took it very seriously. And that gave rise to a lot of discussions. So this statement is in violation of our constitution and is seen as provocative towards closer relations, potentially escalating tensions and deterioration. Present ties actions are effectively signaling a move toward Taiwan independence on the international stage, which poses the risk of dangerous military conflict through the Taiwan Strait.
This is a stance openly opposed by countries, including in the United States, Europe and Japan, and the majority of the Taiwanese people. However, I have noticed that the deteriorating relationship between the United States and mainland China has provided room for the Tsai Ing-wen government and the Taiwan independence agenda to develop, especially recent statement and positions from some individuals in the United States have shown a tendency to turn Taiwan into a second Ukraine.
I must strongly emphasize, the people of Taiwan vehemently oppose such assertions and actions. I will give an example. This year, comments from former U.S. officials, congressional members and some think tank reporters have almost uniformly mentioned the shocking idea of destroying the TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which is a giant in the production of semiconductors) and to put the TSMC in advance to prevent it from falling into the hands of mainland China, which has deeply unsettled the people of Taiwan.
Even former U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien has also advocated for the Taiwan government to issue an AK-47 rifle to everyone as the preparation for countering the invading mainland China forces in the city. The vast majority of Taiwanese people consider this looked ludicrous and unimaginable suggestion. I most solemnly emphasize, while we appreciate the support of our American friends, we do not welcome thinking that completely disregards the real situation in Taiwan, ignores the cross-strait relations, and even considers the weaponization of Taiwan.
I believe the best way to prevent further escalation of tension between the United States and China, which could impact global order, is for the United States and Western society to encourage peaceful negotiation between Taiwan and mainland China. This approach aims to prevent a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The United States should play a role in encouraging dialogue between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and seeking peace.
Those individuals who view TSMC, the chip company, as a weapon [who] intend to turn Taiwan into a battlefield without considering the safety and well-being of the Taiwanese people, as well as those who replace facts with rumors and interfere in Taiwan’s elections are highly unwelcome to the people of Taiwan. The U.S. government should strongly address such action.
So, in fact, there’s a lot of room for dialog and cooperation between the two sides. On March 27 this year, I led a group of 30 Taiwanese university students and two professors on a 12-day visit to mainland China. During our visit, I not only paid respect to my ancestors’ hometown in Hunan Province, but also engage in academic exchanges with Hunan University, Wuhan University, and Fudan University. This marked the first visit of mainland China by retired president of the Republic of China.
Throughout the visit, many domestic and international openness opinions viewed our journey as a new chapter in cross-strait exchange, easing the tension in cross-strait relations in recent years and sending a message of peace to the entire region and the world. In July, mid-July this year, we also invited 37 mainland Chinese university students to visit Taiwan. In addition to the three universities mentioned earlier, we expanded the list to include three Beijing universities and Tsinghua University, led by former President Hao Ping, You probably know him of Beijing University. This visit is also highly successful in that enables further exchanges between students from both sides. The future of cross-strait relations belongs to the younger generation. After all, when young people from both sides increase, their mutual understanding and friendship, the risk of war and conflict is inevitably reduced.
So these two visits have effectively reduced the tension and confrontation that have prevailed across the Taiwan Strait for the past seven years since the DPP came to power. They have also drawn international attention to the fact that closer relations do not necessarily have to lead to armed conflict and that peaceful outcomes are attainable through engagement. In fact, during my visit to the mainland, China opinion polls in Taiwan indicate that 77% of the people supported my decision.
This is ample proof that the people of Taiwan yearn for a return to peace, stability, and prosperity in cross-strait relations. Earlier this month, I went to Singapore to participate in a forum commemorating Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, where Prime Minister Li Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister, invited me to share my thoughts. I emphasized the importance of inviting representatives from both sides of the Taiwan Strait to engage in dialog and attempt to find peaceful solutions.
This is a fantastic opportunity to enhance the mutual understanding if Taiwan and mainland China, and each can reach some sort of consensus and also reduce conflict between mainland China and the United States. Upon finishing my speech, the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause, indicating a strong agreement with idea in Singapore. I once again urge Western countries to encourage Taiwan and the mainland to engage in dialogue over how to address the current tense situation. I hope that people who care about the situation not only in Asia but also all around the world, can encourage Taiwan and mainland China to resume dialog and find a solution.
During my eight-year presidency, from 2008 to 2016, no country in the world believed that there will be a war across the Taiwan Strait. From my experience in office, it is clear that cross-strait peace is entirely possible.
I hope that in the Republic of China next year’s presidential election in January, the President, elected by the people in Taiwan, can chart a path that opposes independence, seek peace and avoid war. I do. I believe this is the most essential development needed in the world right now today, so that Taiwan will not become a second Ukraine. Thank you.
ORLINS: So we talk about applause, you talk about polling, you talk about it—but Taiwan is a democracy. Isn’t the test going to be in January election that if people think we should move back to the ‘92 consensus that they’ll vote for the KMT, [and] if they believe that the DPP policies are correct, they’ll stay with the DPP?
MA: Well, this is a very important moment for the people in Taiwan to decide.
ORLINS: But is this election in January going to be a referendum on the ‘92 Consensus? What’s the outlook for the KMT.
MA: So far our candidate’s support is slowly going up. This is a good sign, but he still needs more support in order to get elected.
ORLINS: So you have the DPP candidate, [and] you have three other candidates. Are they splitting the anti-DPP vote?
ORLINS: Yeah. What are the chances that we’ll see two of those three candidates drop out so that you only have one candidate?
MA: Generally speaking, we think probably we need one more month to know the result. Now all these three, four people are competing very seriously.
ORLINS: So we should expect that come the end of November—
MA: It will be much clearer. It will be clear. Yeah, well, the election will take place on the 13th of January. Right.
ORLINS: So as long as the dropping out occurs before January 13th, it’s okay, you know. When do—is there early voting in Taiwan? No. So people have to go back to Taiwan.
MA: That’s right. That’s right.
ORLINS: To voters, the economic benefits that were accrued to the people on Taiwan as a result of your presidency, were quite obvious, you know. Why did the DPP win the election in 2006? And what lessons are there for 2024?
MA: Again, that’s something to do with our candidate at the time. [We were] not united. But this time people understand that this issue really will affect our life and our children’s life.
ORLINS: So the KMT candidate should make the argument this is existential for Taiwan, that the choice of the KMT candidate would be a choice for peaceful cross-strait relations, whereas the—
MA: War or peace.
ORLINS: When you step down and you were term limited—so you didn’t lose the election, you were term limited—did you foresee that this is what would happen in cross-strait relations? So when you stepped down and Tsai Ing-wen was elected, did you kind of understand what the progress was going to be, or the lack of progress in cross-strait relations?
MA: I didn’t foresee the situation could be this bad.
ORLINS: So, we often debate in the United States, you know, among Taiwan experts, people who focus on U.S.-Taiwan relations, and we all recognize how bad it is today, did the change occur because there was a decision in Beijing, or did the change occur because of the election of Tsai Ing-wen?
ORLINS: Both. Talk about Beijing. When Tsai Ing-wen made her inaugural address, you know, she talked about the ‘92 consensus in a way that wasn’t what you had done, but it wasn’t a total rejection either. Beijing could have accepted that and continued discussions. Why do you think Beijing didn’t for this?
MA: I think when Tsai Ing-wen was first elected, to Beijing, [they were] watching what she is going to do and eventually they are very disappointed.
ORLINS: So [you’re] saying that if she had been—if she had completely accepted the ‘92 consensus, we would have seen a different result.
MA: I think so.
ORLINS: So Beijing was open to that. So during your eight years, Taiwan lost one diplomatic ally, I believe. Is that right?
ORLINS: So there was only one country that established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic. During Tsai Ing-wen’s term, we’ve seen, I think, nine additional [countries that established relations with the PRC]?
MA: Yes, nine.
ORLINS: Why do you think the mainland continues to allow Taiwan to have any? Couldn’t they just buy everybody and just, Taiwan wouldn’t have diplomatic relations with any country?
MA: I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of [that], you know. But of course, when I was president, I care very much about our diplomacy, and our friends. So I was able to keep nine members (diplomatic allies). Originally 21.
ORLINS: There were 21 [countries that diplomatically recognize the Republic of China] and then it dropped down to 13 now.
MA: That’s right.
ORLINS: Or 12.
MA: But even that, I think we still have 13 still.
ORLINS: But why does China allow for even the 13?
ORLINS: Yeah. Why is it in their interest?
MA: They were not able to get more anyway.
ORLINS: Oh, so you think that this is the limit that they can get?
MA: No, they probably have the potential to get more, but not at that time.
ORLINS: Will you see Xi Jinping again? Do you want to see Xi Jinping again?
MA: Well, I don’t have any plans at the moment. When I went to mainland early this year, I decided to stay out of Beijing.
ORLINS: Right, I saw that.
MA: So I was able to pay tribute to my dead grandfather and all that. And certainly, I will be planning to do it again next year, and I will see whether there will be a good opportunity to see the people I want to see.
ORLINS: Also with students. Yeah. It’s great to see so many young students in the audience today. It’s really, I think the idea that this is the next generation is absolutely right. I think that is precisely what the issue is—
MA: Maybe you should ask them to tell, to speak their story. 裡面還有同學願意舉手講話的？(Are there any students who’d like to raise their hands and speak?
ORLINS: Yes. Yes. We will in a moment. The most dangerous moment in the last eight years, in fact, the most dangerous moment in a very, very long time, possibly since the actual fighting in the civil war ended was when Speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan.
MA: That’s right.
ORLINS: Should she have visited Taiwan?
MA: No. I think even people that believe that it wasn’t the best moment for her to visit.
ORLINS: And was the DPP unable to say, please don’t come?
MA: I assume the DPP might have wanted her to come.
ORLINS: They wanted her to come? Because clearly that was a very dangerous time. It required the U.S. government and the Chinese government at a time when U.S.-China relations were extremely difficult.
ORLINS: Required us to meet every day, required the U.S. government, the Chinese government, to literally meet every day to make sure there was not a mishap that caused a loss of life. So that was that was that was troubling. Xi Jinping still wants to have peaceful reunification.
MA: Xi said, in principle, they will use peaceful unification, but that they will never forgo the use of force.
ORLINS: The use of force. Yes. So what does that look like in your mind when we talk about peaceful reunification, or what does Taiwan look like? Does it maintain its government? Does it maintain its military? Does it maintain its way of life? What is the concept of peaceful reunification?
MA: A very good question. I think very few people have sort of thought about that. But in my view, to take my presidency as an example, I think that is probably [what] people will accept we maintain relations with the mainland, with 13 our diplomatic allies and trade, as you know—last year it was about $350 billion and Taiwan had a favorable imbalance.
Yeah. I’m sure that people in Taiwan can accept that. And we and people are also after my trip to the to the mainland earlier this year, the opinion poll in Taiwan shows that 77% of the people supported.
ORLINS: But the question more is, you know, when we talk about—clearly, in my view, it’s in U.S. interest to see a peaceful relationship, one where there is no threat of military force between the mainland and Taiwan. But the question, so if you’re going to move in that direction, what does Taiwan put on the table to?
So let’s say the ‘92 consensus is accepted. Again, whether, you know, William Lai decides he’s going to accept it, which would be very surprising, or the KMT candidate says we’re going to accept it. So what do we talk about with the mainland? Keeping the military? So Taiwan retains its military, keeping the government, keeping everyday life, you know, just having kind of a fiscal kind of unification, but politically remains completely independent?
MA: Well, it really depends on how you interpret it, the situation. Certainly, the people of Taiwan want peace. And people in Taiwan also, they want not only their identity, but also—that’s exactly what the status quo means.
ORLINS: Yes, but I’m looking beyond the status quo. I’m looking at what, you know, a way where we can have real peace, you know, kind of in the in the days when you were president. And I would talk with the 台辦. But, you know, they really were talking about ways that we could have real peace for forever. Clearly those kinds of conversations don’t occur anymore.
ORLINS: So. Two quick questions and then we’ll end this part of the program. President Xi and President Biden are likely to meet next month on the sidelines of the APEC meeting. What would you tell President Biden to say about Taiwan?
MA: Very interesting question. Well, for the moment, for the time being, certainly we want to maintain the status quo. I mean, that we should keep the 13 diplomatic allies and we should—the two sides should maintain peace without any military adventurism. And then also keep the interflow of people across the Taiwan Strait. And as you know, the amount of trade has reached roughly $350 billion, with Taiwan having a relatively large trade surplus. This is, I think, is what the Taiwanese people would like to have.
ORLINS: You’re addressing an American audience. This video will be viewed by tens of thousands of Americans. So last question is, what do you want the American people to know about Taiwan? What’s the most important thing?
MA: Yesterday, the day before yesterday, I invited my professor, Jim Cohen.
ORLINS: And my professor.
MA: And he loved to tell us an old joke that when he talks about Taiwan, to ask the people what they think about Taiwan. And the American people say, oh, I love Thai food. And they mixed up Taiwan and Thailand. So he loves to tell that story. So the Americans might not understand very well what is the difference.
But there are 23 million Taiwanese and they have had a very viable economy and a very high quality of citizens. So this is part of the status quo. It has to be maintained. And looking the future, let me tell you, you should remember that when I was president, I was able to conclude 23 agreements with the mainland and keep the relations very smooth. I’m sure our people will support that, at least for the moment.
ORLINS: Yeah. So I guess the elections in January will tell us where the people are. That’s one of the great benefits of democracy, is people then get to decide, do we want the ‘92 consensus or do we want a continuing relationship as it is today? But thank you.
MA: But don’t forget, the DPP tried everything possible to tell people that the ‘92 consensus is One Country, Two Systems. Do you understand the difference? “One Country, Two Systems is the slogan mainland Chinese used for their policy towards Taiwan.” That is something that our people do not want. Okay, so they (the DPP) want to mix the two.
ORLINS: But you’re saying that the Chinese have said that’s the policy toward Hong Kong, not towards Taiwan.
MA: That’s right.
ORLINS: Yes, yes, yes. And the last election, I think the KMT was hurt by the events in Hong Kong.
MA: That’s right.
ORLINS: That made people very worried about cross-strait relations and potential violence, etc..
MA: So that’s why in a number of occasions, I make it very clear we don’t accept One Country, Two Systems. And particularly, I don’t want Taiwan to become the second Hong Kong. But I was born in Hong Kong.
ORLINS: Yes. Well, thank you so much for doing this. I mean, it is wonderful that a former president of the Republic of China can come in English and address the tens of thousands of people who will be watching this. Thank you so much.