Taiwan's president said Thursday that voters on the island may need to weigh in on any future peace treaty with China, a statement that appears to signal a retreat from an earlier declaration on the treaty idea.
On Monday, President Ma Ying-jeou said any peace treaty with China would only require parliamentary approval and a "consensus" on the democratic, self-ruled island of 23 million people, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949. Ma placed a treaty among the goals to be achieved over the next decade, suggesting for the first time a timetable for discussion of the sensitive issue with Beijing.
Ma's declaration was lambasted by the opposition, which saw it as a boon to its chances in January's presidential elections because it appeared to make Ma vulnerable to charges that he might be willing to compromise Taiwan's sovereignty. It was also criticized by normally supportive media outlets as an unnecessary embrace of an issue that lacks popularity among Taiwan's mostly China-wary population.
"Swing voters have doubts about the treaty," wrote the pro-Ma United Daily News on Thursday, adding that recent government polls showed a firm bias in favor of Taiwan's political status quo.
The China Times, another pro-Ma paper, likened opening peace treaty negotiations with the mainland to "plunging into a trap set up by Beijing."
China supports a peace treaty with Taiwan as a way of formally ending the civil war between the sides and paving the way for unification.
On Thursday, Ma appeared to back off his original peace treaty declaration _ at least to an extent.
"We will consider a referendum for the peace treaty," he said, justifying the new condition on the grounds that a treaty would have an even greater impact on Taiwan than the landmark trade deal it signed last year with Beijing.
He insisted that a peace treaty would not compromise Taiwan's sovereignty but rather "strengthen the current status of no unification, no independence and no war, a status that now has the support of 80 percent of the public."
Ma's rejigged peace treaty formula reflects the Taiwanese public's strong opposition to any process that could ultimately lead to the island's political integration into China _ for more than six decades Beijing's goal for the territory it still regards as its own.
While most Taiwanese have embraced Ma's policy of linking the two sides' economies closer together by dismantling long-standing trade and commercial barriers, they are far less accepting of a formal political relationship with the authoritarian mainland, because they fear its consequences for their hard-won democratic freedoms.
Ma's commercial embrace of China took another step forward this week, with negotiators from Taiwan and the mainland meeting in the Chinese city of Tianjin to sign an agreement setting up a mechanism for cooperation in the event of a nuclear power disaster in either of their territories.
The agreement was prompted by the serious breakdowns that occurred at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northwestern Japan in March.
In his remarks Thursday, Ma addressed the long-standing opposition of his Nationalist Party to the idea of holding referendums in Taiwan, including on a peace treaty, by saying the constitution of the Republic of China _ the island's formal name _ affords them legal sanction.
However, China opposes referendums in principle because it sees them as the privilege of a formal state, a status it emphatically rejects for Taiwan.