The expediency with which the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration announced it was lifting a partial ban on US beef imports — and the predictable response this engendered from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — raises questions about the government’s intent that go well beyond food safety issues. National Security Council Secretary-General Su Chi’s (蘇起) admission that “poor communication” marred the announcement is insufficient to dispel doubts that the move by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-led executive branch was a strategy to further undermine the DPP’s already strained relations with the US.
We must remember that a major aspect of Ma’s platform during his election campaign last year was his vow to “repair” relations between Taipei and Washington, which many KMT members — including Su — said had been “damaged” by eight years of DPP administration under president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
Part of that logic, which often ignores the fact that many of the so-called irritants caused by the DPP administration were the result of the KMT’s antics in the legislature, dovetails with the well-cultivated image of the KMT as “rational” and less likely to turn to populist devices such as the DPP-led anti-US beef demonstrations over the weekend.
While the protests were not solely the affair of the DPP, they have nevertheless become associated with the party, mostly as a result of DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and former presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), among others, leading them and making speeches.
The KMT’s calculations were perfect, as it knew fully well that the DPP could not pass an opportunity to turn an otherwise apolitical issue into a political one. Even if, this time around, the DPP did put food safety first in organizing the protests, its long tradition of thinking solely about the next elections is such that doubts can linger about its honesty on the matter.
The Executive Yuan has now yielded to the pressure and claims that it will recommend additional screening measures that, in theory, will make it more difficult for US beef to enter the Taiwanese market. However, despite this about-face, it will be able to turn to Washington and claim that it had no choice in the matter and that the DPP is to blame for the “unfortunate” turn of events. By dint of repetition over the years, former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director Steven Young clearly highlighted that US beef has political undertones and is an important issue in Washington. In fact, it may serve as a yardstick by which to gauge the quality of relations between the US and Taiwan.
Back in the US, among beef-producing states and lobby organizations that have pressured AIT directors into insisting that the ban be lifted — and where understanding of domestic politics in Taiwan is limited — the main culprit for the reversal will, expectedly, be the DPP. As a result, the opposition’s image could be further tarnished, serving as proof that the DPP is, as the KMT has claimed, against trade and always a thorn in Washington’s side.
If Washington politicizes the matter and couples US beef with other issues such as arms sales, it would be easy for the KMT to blame the negative consequences on the DPP, which could have a significant impact on the opposition’s ability to regain seats in the legislature or the presidency in 2012. With this gambit, the KMT probably rightly assessed that the domestic political cost of failing to properly communicate its intention to lift the ban on US beef would be marginal, at least when contrasted with the long-term damage that could be caused to the DPP for spearheading the anti-US beef demonstrations. Even if the KMT had no such calculation, the DPP’s long history of organizing mass rallies for political gain could come back to haunt it.