With the reins of the government on the verge of being transferred, a diplomatic scandal has broken out over the disappearance of US$30 million purportedly pocketed by two brokers who had been expected to help forge diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Papua New Guinea in 2006. Last month the government filed lawsuits against the duo in Singapore in an attempt to retrieve the money.
This revelation was another embarrassment for the outgoing Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration and has angered and saddened the public. Instead of using diplomatic personnel in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government depended on “amateur diplomats” outside the ministry to engage in secret diplomacy. Similar operations may have succeeded before, with Vice Premier Chiou I-jen (邱義仁) citing a similar case during the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime, adding that in another case diplomatic relations were broken off just three days after being established.
The Papua New Guinean government has proven time and again that it is insincere and wavering, establishing and severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan several times. To gain some international space, the Taiwanese government had little choice but to agree to such requests. But with the money designated as “foreign aid” to Papua New Guinea allegedly embezzled by the intermediaries, the government finally had to initiate legal proceedings overseas to retrieve the money, turning it into an international incident. Diplomacy is a tough task for weaker countries, but Taiwan must do what it can. This scandal highlights the problems.
Chiou and Minister of Foreign Affairs James Huang (黃志芳) have said they would assume responsibility for the debacle, but with less than 20 days before the government steps down, a resignation to take political responsibility isn’t very meaningful. Chiou and Huang may be very intelligent people, but their deception has resulted in heavy losses for the state and they will end their service with their reputation in tatters. They will be heavily criticized, which may be a heavier punishment than simply resigning. They also face malfeasance lawsuits, which will leave a black stain on their careers regardless of whether they are found guilty.
While condemning the pair for their inappropriate behavior, one must not lose sight of the reason behind Taiwan’s difficult diplomatic situation: the continuous attempts by Beijing to squeeze Taiwan’s diplomatic space. Most countries are intimidated by China’s growing military and economic might, and China is working hard to win over the few that still dare recognize Taiwan. This forces Taiwan to use technical and economic aid or other ways to maintain or win new allies, while China continues to create problems for Taiwan in the few international organizations where the nation is accepted, such as the WTO and APEC.
The scandal may yet put a damper on the latest bout of “China fever” and force pro-China KMT members to wake up to the fact that a change in government does not mean that Beijing will ease up on its suppression of Taiwan or allow Taiwan to expand its international space. Those who continue to harbor this fantasy should brace themselves for China’s answer when it deals with Taiwan’s application to join the World Health Assembly on the same day as Ma’s inauguration on May 20.