During separate press conferences with local and foreign media on Tuesday, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) announced that Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrew Hsia (夏立言) — who came under fire over a leaked memo ordering overseas missions to decline offers of aid in the wake of Typhoon Morakot — had tendered his resignation.
That Ma would make this information public implies that Hsia’s resignation has, for all intents and purposes, been accepted.
Heads are starting to roll following the government’s amateurish handling of the emergency, and this is a welcome development, but it is also evident that Hsia is a scapegoat. Admittedly, Minister of Foreign Affairs Francisco Ou (歐鴻鍊) was not in the country when the decision to refuse aid was made, but it is hard to believe that he was not aware of the matter.
Furthermore, Ou was on a diplomatic mission that sources claim included Jordan and the Czech Republic. In other words, he should have been in the decision-making chain — and should be reprimanded for his ministry’s inappropriate policy and the likely deadly consequences.
A well-placed source claims that the aid memo came from above Hsia (who would not have had the authority to decide on the matter) and probably even higher than Ou, which means that it was either the National Security Council, the premier or the president who was responsible. Why they would have ordered this remains a mystery.
The top officials who were behind this decision, therefore, are likely to remain unaccountable, while Hsia is being sacrificed to an angry Taiwanese public.
One possible reason for the decision to delay the approval of foreign aid, another source said, was that the top leadership did not know what kind of material assistance was required and therefore did not want other governments to start sending planeloads of unnecessary material. What allegedly followed was an internal screw-up and a departure from the internal chain of approval for the memo, which may have bypassed both a section director-general for review of the draft and Hsia altogether. If this is true, then Hsia is being forced out for something he did not do.
It is unlikely that Beijing would have ordered Taipei to reject foreign aid, or to have threatened retaliation if it did. After all, Beijing does not stand to gain anything by Ma coming under criticism or his administration being undermined. What China needs is a strong, popular Ma who can forge ahead with his cross-strait policies and bring Taiwan closer to unification.
It is possible, however, that Taiwan’s policymakers decided to wait for a green light from Beijing for fear of “angering” it by opening the doors to foreign aid, especially from the US and Japan, whose presence on Taiwanese soil has sensitive implications. In other words, a misreading by Taipei of the importance that Beijing attaches to the symbolism of foreign help in Taiwan, rather than actual Chinese interference, could help explain the decision to reject or delay approval of aid.
Hsia is the first fall guy for a development that, in the end, was far less consequential than the more pressing question of why it took so long for the military to deploy in the south to launch rescue operations. Ma can claim all he wants that heavy rain over three days prevented the deployment of helicopters, but the fact remains: Rain or no rain, there should have been boots on the ground — and there weren’t.
Whose head will roll for that one?
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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