Ma Ying-jeou, the man widely seen as the frontrunner in Taiwan’s forthcoming presidential election, on Wednesday made a forceful pledge to reinvigorate the island’s economy through more liberal cross-strait relations.
Mr Ma is on trial on corruption charges and could be banned from running in next year’s election if found guilty. But in most opinion polls he remains the most popular politician in Taiwan, and foreign investors hope that Ma victory would bring a new push on economic deregulation.
After being formally nominated as the opposition Kuomintang’s presidential candidate on Wednesday, Mr Ma said he would make economic policy the centrepiece of his campaign.
The KMT lost the last presidential election, in 2004, after voters were more impressed with the Democratic Progressive party of President Chen Shui-bian’s focus on Taiwanese national identity than by the KMT’s economy-driven platform.
Mr Ma said it would be different this time. “Over the past seven years, every sector of the economy and, even more, the ordinary people have suffered an unprecedented blow,” he said, pointing to weak growth in Taiwan’s per-capita income and flat salaries for workers and university graduates over the past decade.
He blamed the DPP for isolating Taiwan economically. “It is not scary if we are marginalised in foreign affairs, but it is scary if we get marginalised economically,” he said, and suggested that official diplomatic ties with other countries were less important than pragmatic trade deals.
The remarks could prove highly controversial as most Taiwanese perceive China’s campaign to squeeze the island off the global stage as an insult to their national dignity. Beijing claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan. It constantly tries to poach the island’s remaining 25 diplomatic allies, and Taipei cannot join most international organisations because China objects.
Mr Ma said that, if elected president early next year, he would do away with restrictions that kept Taiwanese companies from investing more than 40 per cent of their net worth in mainland China. He said he would replace the cap with export controls on only cutting-edge technologies.
“We must get rid of this rule that has failed to meet its goal of limiting investments in China and is hurting Taiwan instead,” he said.
Large numbers of Chinese tourists would also be allowed to visit Taiwan to stimulate the economy.
Earlier the government said it was “not optimistic” that talks with China over a tourism agreement would bear fruit in the short term because Beijing was increasingly politicising the issue.