Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: MOFA's denials invite contempt

On Sept. 24 the Australian newspaper ran an interview with Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) director-general of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Gary Lin (林松煥) in which Lin criticized the Australian government over its China policy. What really caused a stir was the story headline: "Taiwan calls us moral cowards."

In the interview the phrase "moral cowards" was in fact never used, although there was a single reference to a "lack of moral courage." This was part of a trenchant criticism by Lin of Australia's policy toward China, which he compared to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Nazi Germany. Incidences of such appeasement include criticizing Taiwan over establishing diplomatic relations with Kiribati last year, and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's remarks in China that despite Australia's long alliance with the US, whose every war since 1945 it has voluntarily joined, it would not necessarily take the US side in an altercation over Taiwan. The paper said Lin criticized Australia's "one-sided" support of China and that such support could "hasten a war or even make a war possible."

All this seems very much to the point, so it is extremely disappointing that no sooner had the Australian hit the newsstands than MOFA was busy denying the story. Lin said that he had never used the word "coward" which appeared in the headline, and that he was unhappy about the reference to "cowardice" in the text.

The Australian reporter Catherine Armitage found herself a victim of an old and whiskery ploy used by Taiwan's politicians: say something provocative to the foreign press -- for obvious reasons only print media can be used this way -- and then deny it, assuming that nobody will believe the denial. Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), for example, was a serial abuser of the press in this way.

Since MOFA has what in criminal courts is known as a "previous" on this, we contacted Armitage for her side of the story. Armitage was adamant that Lin had used the phrase "lack of moral courage" at least twice during the interview, but the full quote using the phrase had been cut out by copy editors in the final version.

So who do we believe? The answer has to be Armitage, absolutely. Which raises an interesting problem. Here is Lin criticizing Australia for a lack of moral courage when MOFA seems to be quite spectacularly morally timid itself. The pot calling the kettle black, indeed. And what kind of effect on the Australians does MOFA think this might have?

It might be true that Taiwanese criticism might have little impact on Australian policy. Nevertheless, if that policy, by appeasing China, may one day lead to China plunging the region into war because it thinks it can get away with it, for Australia to try to dodge the issue, for it to brown-nose to China as it does, is stupid and dangerous. In such a situation, Taiwan, as a friendly peace-loving nation, is perfectly within its rights to censure Australia's appeasement policy. To say that Australia exhibits a "lack of moral courage" is in fact the mildest of the criticisms that could be made.

The problems is that it is only "made" if MOFA sticks to its guns. Instead MOFA tried, in its remarks on Armitage's story, to imply that these comments by Lin had been made up by the reporter as embroidery. But in undermining the reporter's story MOFA also destroyed any salutary effect its criticism might have had on the Australians, while also making Taiwan look weak -- making Taiwan look, in fact, so contemptible that this might reinforce Australia's decision to side with China, foolish though that might eventually turn out to be. MOFA managed, through lacking the courage of its convictions, to turn perfectly valid criticism, with which many Australians in fact agree, into an own goal. The ineptitude astonishes.

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