More and more, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) is behaving as if Taiwan were under the administrative control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Two recent instances suffice to highlight the matter — one involving a soon-to-be-implemented policy allowing individual Chinese to travel to Taiwan and the other concerning reports that the Taiwanese navy would send vessels to patrol waters surrounding contested islands in the South China Sea.
In both cases, comments by TAO officials purposefully gave the impression that real decision--making powers existed not in Taipei, but rather in Beijing. Whether those comments were propaganda efforts or stemmed from a firm, if confabulatory belief that this is the case is not as important as the fact that the government in Taipei failed to counter the claims with the decisiveness that the situation called for.
The first incident occurred on June 12 during a Straits Forum in Xiamen, Fujian Province, when TAO Director Wang Yi (王毅) made what critics have portrayed as a unilateral announcement regarding the day on which the free independent travelers (FIT) program for Chinese would be implemented by Taiwan. According to opposition legislators, the legal and executive processes for the FIT program had yet to be completed at the time of Wang’s announcement and the Straits Exchange Foundation and its counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, had yet to ratify it.
In other words, an executive decision concerning Taiwan had been announced by a Chinese agency before Taiwan’s legislative and executive branches had completed the necessary process.
The second, more recent instance occurred on June 15 when TAO spokesman Yang Yi (楊毅) was asked in Beijing to comment on reports that Taiwan could dispatch navy vessels to conduct patrols near contested islets in the South China Sea, just as tensions between China and Vietnam and the Philippines were reaching a boiling point.
People from both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Yang was reported by Xinhua news agency as saying, have a shared responsibility to safeguard sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters.
Given that, as Yang claimed, “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their surrounding waters,” the shared responsibility to safeguard the area implies that Taiwan and China are one and the same. Furthermore, as Beijing has made it repeatedly clear that the relationship between itself and Taipei is not one of equals, Yang’s comments can be understood as affirming that Taiwan was dispatching vessels to enforce Chinese, rather than Taiwanese, claims over the islets and their surrounding waters.
Missing from Yang’s comments, as we all know, was the recognition that Taiwan intended to patrol the area to reaffirm claims of sovereignty by the Republic of China (ROC) — and not the PRC — something the government in Taipei should have made clear after Yang’s remarks made the rounds in the Chinese media. The fact that it did not simply added to the confusion that risks not only infecting passive onlookers, but, more importantly, the men and women in Taiwan’s armed services who carry out the orders of their political masters.
The distinctions between the ROC and the PRC have devolved to such a confusing state that if the fragile situation in the South China Sea ever were to slide into armed conflict, we would be hard pressed to predict how Taiwan’s navy would react, or which side it would ally itself with.
Would it remain neutral, side with China against Vietnam or with Hanoi in opposing Beijing?
Only then would we know for sure whether Taiwan has retained its freedom of action, or lost it to Beijing.
Such extremes or war should not be necessary to clear the matter. That they might is symptomatic of the failure of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration to take a firm stand over the boundaries of administrative decision-making and to prevent, at every instance, attempts by Beijing to encroach upon those.
It would be a simple matter for the Presidential Office to belie Wang and Yang’s comments and to put the risible TAO in its place. That it does not invites speculation that real decision-making powers regarding how Taiwan administers itself lie not in Taipei, where the power they wield is granted them by the Taiwanese polity, but rather in Beijing, whose officials are in no way accountable to the Taiwanese public.
Whosoever occupies the Presidential Office should make it clear that Taipei and only Taipei has the right to make policy decisions on behalf of Taiwanese and to claim ownership of those decisions.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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