No one, not even president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), could have been surprised last week when American Institute in Taiwan Director Stephen Young informed him that Washington had turned down his application to visit the US before his inauguration next Tuesday.
Despite the upbeat sound bites issued by Washington following Ma’s victory and its ostensible desire for better and closer relations between Taipei and Beijing, last week’s rejection was a sign of the shape of things to come.
Closer cross-strait relations or not, the US State Department and the White House are not about to change their longstanding policy of barring high-ranking Taiwanese government officials from visiting the US, which during President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) eight-year tenure served as a stark, if not humiliating, reminder of the reality of great power politics.
Another aspect of Washington’s approach to Taiwan that is unlikely to change is the desire to sell it weapons.
To wit, news that a Ma visit to the US was “not necessary” had barely registered when Young announced that the US remained committed to helping Taiwan modernize its military. To be fair, though, one thing did change this time around: It seemed that encouraging Taiwan to import US beef was now a top-line policy, as Young mentioned it in the same breath as the F-16s.
What this meant was that Washington could continue to yield to Beijing’s pressure and humiliate its ally, but please, please, buy our weapons and our beef. We’re your friend, as long as you remain a market for our goods.
This position is the result of different branches of government vying for different outcomes, and Young’s speech was the channel through which these contradictory discourses were voiced. While the White House and the State Department seek to mollify Beijing through engagement and the avoidance of sensitive issues such as Taiwan, others — such as the Pentagon — continue to seek to provide Taiwan with appropriate armaments, which is sure to anger Beijing.
Sadly, while it isn’t Washington’s intention to humiliate the Taiwanese leadership or its people, the consequence of such public announcements is that other countries and international organizations will have no compunction in treating Taiwanese as second-rate global citizens.
In other words, Beijing’s pressure on other countries isn’t the only factor in how the international community has continued to snub Taiwan’s efforts to be recognized as an equal.
Young’s diplomatic slap in the face will have repercussions on how the WHO, to use one example, will deal with Taipei’s application for membership or observer status later this month; or sports organizations, to use another, will continue to bar Taiwanese athletes from participating as Taiwanese or unfurling the national flag when they win a medal.
After all, if the world’s only superpower and an ally of Taiwan can publicly treat it primarily as a market for its products, why should lesser partners care about it?