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.
Another possible outcome, this one perhaps desired by more pro-China KMT members, is the alienation of the US and the continuation of rapprochement with Beijing. Under such a strategy, the political cost domestically and electoral considerations have far less weight than widening the wedge between the US and Taiwan and, conversely, facilitating the drift toward China’s sphere of influence. If Washington were to overreact to a reversal by punishing Taiwan in other fields (arms sales, support for membership in international organizations and so on), the next logical step would be for Taiwan to turn to its newfound ally. Should this come to pass, the KMT could argue that it was abandoned by Washington, blame the DPP for the breakup, while achieving the objectives of pro-unification elements within the party.
If indeed it was a trap, it was a well-lain one. By failing to create a buffer between itself and the anti-US beef demonstrations and by playing its usual political games, the DPP fell into it and made it easier for the KMT to portray it as a troublemaker. In such a scenario, diplomacy would be urgently needed on the DPP’s part to mitigate any damage that its association with the protests may have caused to its image in Washington.
The trap also carries a second one — one that the US must avoid falling into. To avert a political disaster, Washington must decouple the beef issue from politics and treat it solely as an economic one. Should it fail to do so by politicizing the controversy and using it as justification for punishment, Washington could inadvertently realize the objective of some conservative KMT members whose ultimate objective is to undermine the US presence in the region and accelerate rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing.
It’s only beef, but by making it a political matter, both Washington and the DPP share the blame for turning it into a potential tie-breaker.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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