Written by Steve Tsang.

One does not need to agree with the students who occupy the Legislative Yuan in Taipei to see that the first major step to finding a solution is for President Ma Ying-jeou to go to the Legislative Yuan and talk in person with the students there.  There is no better alternative.

Taiwan is a democracy that will not, rightly, tolerate excessive force being used to remove the students from the Legislative Yuan. The massive outpour of public support on Sunday March 30 will only reinforce the students’ determination to hold fast at the Legislative Yuan. The longer this is dragged out, the more difficult a compromise will be.

At heart are two issues. The trigger was the violation of the agreed procedures for the legislative scrutiny of the Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement, an important agreement between Taiwan and Mainland China that is controversial in Taiwan. The more basic problem is a lack of public confidence and trust in President Ma and his administration in their commitment to uphold and defend Taiwan’s best interests. The more President Ma digs in his heels on the Agreement, the greater the public mistrust in him.

This is regrettable. As the state President, who is committed not to help the opposition DPP win the next general election, Ma Ying-jeou cannot afford to forsake Taiwan’s interests in favour of the Chinese Mainland. It is against Ma’s personal and party interest to take a course of action that will ensure his successor in the Kuomintang cannot win the next general election in 2016 – appearing to ‘sell out Taiwan’ will ensure such an outcome.

The analytical logic of Ma’s personal and party interests is one thing, but neither is going to help him regain public trust and confidence. To do so Ma has no choice but to take a bold action to recapture the public imagination.

President Ma needs to see that of the two issues at hand, what is fundamental is not the Services Trade Agreement, but regaining public trust and confidence. Without the latter, what remains of his presidency will be marked by political paralysis and he will be a lame-duck until the end of his tenure. He will also not be able to implement the Services Trade Agreement that he sees as crucial for Taiwan’s interest.

Bowing to the will of the people should not be seen as a sign of weakness for a democratically elected leader. It is what elected leaders do in a democracy when they find out that a policy they passionately believe in turns out to be unacceptable to the general public.

Admittedly the actions of several hundred or thousand demonstrators are not the best way to block a government policy or a carefully negotiated economic agreement. But the massive outpouring of public support on 30 March has changed that. It provides a basis for the President to re-think how this matter has been handled so far.

The time has come for President Ma not to summon students to see him at the Presidential Palace but for him to visit the students in the Legislative Yuan to engage in a real dialogue. President Ma will need to acknowledge that the actions of the students are honourable and their concerns legitimate. He will also need to promise that their concerns will be taken on board by him and his administration, which will work with the entire Legislative Yuan to scrutinize the agreement as the Legislative Yuan sees fit. President Ma will have to acknowledge that if parts of the Services Agreement should fail to pass legislative scrutiny, he will seek to renegotiate with Beijing.

There is no guarantee that Beijing would agree to renegotiate. But the democratic government in Taipei cannot impose such an agreement on its people against their wish, even if such an agreement is in the best interest of Taiwan.

Democracy is not about securing the best trade deal or policy; it is about governing with legitimacy and the support of the people. President Ma should bet on Beijing tolerating the limits of what any administration in Taipei can do. If Beijing wants to win over the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan, it will have to accept that any major development in cross-Strait relationship must be acceptable to the majority of the citizens of Taiwan. If Beijing prefers otherwise, Taiwan will have to find an alternative to relying on the economic complementariness across the Taiwan Strait.

Steve Tsang is Director of the China Policy Institute and Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.