Wednesday September 30, 2020


August 14, 2013


On August 11, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou departed for a twelve day tour of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners in South America and the Caribbean. Ma will attend the inauguration ceremony for Paraguay’s president and visit Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Ma’s trip also includes stopovers in the U.S. Ma visited New York on August 11 and 12 and plans to visit Los Angeles on his way back to Taiwan.

Ma’s trip comes as Taiwan is currently experiencing wide-spread protests. The protests began in reaction to what was seen as an incomplete investigation into the death of an army conscript. The protests have since expanded from a critique of the military justice system to broader criticisms of the military and Ma’s KMT government at large. Ma’s foreign trip may be an attempt to remove pressure from domestic issues by highlighting Ma’s foreign policy gains. However, even in the U.S. Ma could not escape the controversy, as pro-DPP supporters protested outside Ma’s hotel.

Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with foreign countries is a politically fraught issue. Almost every country in the world now recognizes the People’s Republic of China, which means most countries have no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China). Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners are mainly located in Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Western Pacific islands. Yet Taiwan is very protective of its international space, and Ma’s tour to the Caribbean and Paraguay may be an attempt to shore up its support in a region that has seen increasing amounts of Chinese investment in recent years.

Ma’s stopovers in the U.S. are also an important sign of an improving U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Since the U.S. has no diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, Ma’s visit was considered a private trip, which meant highly restricted media coverage and limits to Ma’s ability to interact with the general public. However, Ma’s 36 hours stay in New York City included many high-level meetings: Ma met with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, House Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao as well as a group of U.S. business leaders. Ma also visited New York University, his alma mater, and took a tour with NYU President John Sexton. After leaving New York, Ma wrote on his Facebook page that his stopover in the U.S. had been more cordial than ever before.

Commentators in the U.S. and Taiwan saw Ma’s brief visit to New York as a sign of improved U.S.-Taiwan ties. The Obama administration would not have agreed to such a stopover unless it both was willing to grant Ma this political favor and trusted him to behave appropriately, keeping his visit “low-key” and “discreet”. Ma’s visit also highlights Taiwan’s good relationship with the U.S. Congress. While U.S. Presidents and State Department officials tread carefully when it comes to interactions with Taiwan, members of Congress are generally more likely to be outspoken about their support for the island, especially for continuing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Thus it is no surprise that Ma met with two members of the U.S. House of Representatives during his brief time in New York.

Ma’s visit to the U.S. also obliquely points to great improvements in the cross-strait relationship between Taiwan and the mainland. Beijing and its official media sources have overlooked the visit, meaning the government has decided the visit is not a threat. Beijing may be granting its tacit approval as a way of bolstering Ma politically, rewarding him for his continued engagement with the PRC.

Ma’s comments on his visit acknowledged his balancing act between improving ties with Beijing and fighting for more international recognition of Taiwan, which is sure to alienate the PRC. Ma described the approach of his trip as being “about passively improving cross-strait relations and taking a more active role in consolidating ties with allies and strengthening relations with nonallied nations”. The passive-active distinction is important: improving cross-strait relations is a thorny subject in Taiwan’s domestic politics, while increasing Taiwan’s international role has almost universal support. Thus Ma claims to be taking a “passive” approach to the former while actively pursuing the latter.

Ma’s trip was an “active” effort to shore up ties with Taiwan’s diplomatic partners and unofficial friends (such as the U.S.). However, Ma’s mention of cross-strait relations while on a trip to the Caribbean implied what many observers state outright—Taiwan’s international role is highly dependent on maintaining a good relationship with China.


For media coverage of Ma Ying-jeou’s trip, please see the following news sources:

Focus Taiwan –  “President’s transit stop in New York ‘smooth:’ AIT chief”

Focus Taiwan“Ma wins support from U.S. political leaders in New York”

Reuters –  “No ties? No problem as China courts Taiwan’s remaining allies”

South China Morning Post – “Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou transits through US, meets lawmaker”

Taiwan Today – “Ma highlights importance of state visit”


For Chinese language commentary on Ma’s trip, please see the following news sources:

BBC 中文 – “台总统马英九取道纽约出访拉美”

Huaxia (华夏) “钟厚涛:美国高规格接待马英九过境 不合时宜”

People’s Daily (人民网) “马英九过境美国纽约将参访母校  遵循低调、零意外”

Phoenix (凤凰网) “吕宁思:马英九低调过境美国 照顾大陆情绪”

Voice of America (美国之音) “台湾总统马英九访纽约”


Compiled and Edited by Shannon Tiezzi