Fri, Mar 01, 2002 - Page 12 News List

Editorial: Nervous nellies or diplomats?

It's hard to know whether to commend or scold the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Every time it has a good idea, it seems to backtrack from the proposal as fast as it can.

First we had the excellent suggestion that the word Taiwan be added to ROC passports so that the rest of the world could figure out where these documents came from, or perhaps more importantly, to make it plain that they didn't come from the PRC. Then we saw lots of backpedalling, which ended up with passport covers being amended to read "Issued in Taiwan" -- as opposed perhaps to those issued in Honk Kong -- hence remaining just as confusing as ever. So the opportunity for a nice clear statement of national identity was botched.

This week has seen a close re-run of the passport fiasco in the question of whether to rename Taiwan's representative offices abroad. First we hear that there is an intention to rename those offices in countries with which Taiwan does not have diplomatic relations, which are known by a variety of names, some of which give no indication whatsoever of their connection to Taiwan. Then we are told that, while the ministry has done a survey in which the majority of the respondents supported the idea of a name change, nevertheless it has been trying to distance itself further and further from the idea with each day that passes.

Part of the reason is China's bluster about "incremental independence." Of course China will not be happy with anything that suggests Taiwan is not under its boot heel. That is no reason why Taiwan should alter its intentions. Taiwan's "Finlandization" has gone too far as it is.

Another reason is that, while this might be an excellent idea, it might seem like bad timing in the wake of US President George W. Bush's request in China last week that neither side does anything provocative. We hope that the US president would consider Taiwan's using its own name not provocative at all but simply a basic right that it should be able to exercise without raising a din of rattling sabers from its neighbor.

But we wonder if there is anything suspicious about this bad timing. We are not rejecting the "cock up" interpretation of public affairs -- who could, after watching this government for two years? -- but there is a more conspiratorial possibility.

MOFA is well-known as a bastion of reunificationist conservatism; it is the worst of all government departments in this respect. During Lee Teng-hui's (李登輝) presidency the determination of the ministry to thwart Lee's foreign policy initiatives -- which many in MOFA saw as promoting Taiwan independence -- was so great that to get any initiative off the ground Lee had to not only bypass the ministry but actively keep his plans secret from it.

Some readers might remember the mid-1990s when Taiwan had two ministers of foreign affairs, Fredrick Chien (錢復), who had the formal title, and Liu Tai-ying (劉泰英), who actually did the job. In those days MOFA staffers would regularly leak information to the United Daily News about Lee's attempts to expand Taiwan's international space, knowing thereby they could prompt China into applying pressure to the foreign country concerned to cancel its plans.

Did something of the kind happen this week? Were the renaming plans deliberately leaked to the pro-China media knowing that in the immediate aftermath of Bush's statement they would be considered provocative and so the policy could be derailed? People want to know -- can MOFA be trusted?

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