TAIPEI: Taiwan’s embattled President Ma Ying-jeou said ties with China are “back to normal” after major protests against a trade pact with Beijing last year, despite continued public unease over mainland influence.
Relations with Beijing have warmed markedly since Ma came to power in 2008. But last March around 200 students occupied parliament for more than three weeks to demonstrate against the trade pact, while thousands rallied in support of what became known as the “Sunflower Movement”.
It reflected public sentiment that Taiwan is leaning too heavily on China economically.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the end of a civil war, but Beijing still regards the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification.
There have been smaller protests in recent weeks against Taiwan’s bid to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and over controversial new Chinese flight routes over the Taiwan Strait.
But Ma insisted that it was business as usual.
“Cross-strait ties suffered a setback following the student movement last year, but the ties have since returned to normal,” he told the Taipei Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
“What we’re working hard on at the present stage is exchanging liaison offices on each side. There is some progress,” he said.
Since February last year, both sides have sent envoys on cross-strait visits—the first official contact in more than six decades — but there is still no permanent liaison office on either side.
Ma’s Kuomintang party suffered its worst ever showing in local polls in November—seen as a barometer for presidential elections in 2016—with its Beijing-friendly policy blamed for alienating many voters.
But Ma defended the policy.
“Before I took office, ties with the mainland were really tense and the United States was also very nervous,” he said.
“For the first time in history the United States can maintain peaceful and friendly ties with Taiwan and the mainland simultaneously.
“What we’ve done is for the benefit of Taiwan,” he said.
Ma, who must step down next year after completing two terms, said regular government surveys suggested a decline in the number of people who oppose the pace of his cross-strait rapprochement.
But opposition figures cast doubt.
“I think the public still mistrusts Ma’s China policies and are concerned that his government is leaning too close to China,” said protest leader Lai Yu-fen, of the Black Island Nation Youth Front.
Legislator Wu Ping-jui of the China-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party said Ma’s China policy had “not been transparent and needs a thorough review”.