President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has cited the rising number of countries granting visa-waiver privileges to Taiwan as proof of the effectiveness of his “flexible diplomacy.” However, he might be fooling the public by doing so.
Visa-free agreements are not indicative of a macro view of international relations. Such agreements are signed based on pragmatic concerns at the micro level of international relations and includes considerations such as the behavior of citizens, how often they overstay their visas, work illegally, commit crimes or gather intelligence information.
No country should see a visa exemption as a significant diplomatic victory because it is unrelated to sovereignty, national dignity or diplomatic relations.
For example, Hong Kong enjoys visa-exempt status in more countries than Taiwan, but that cannot be seen as a symbol of its sovereignty and independence, nor would China see such treatment as an attack on its sovereignty over Hong Kong by the international community.
As for China, it is undoubtedly an independent and sovereign country, but less than 20 countries grant it visa-exempt status. In terms of bilateral diplomatic relations, the US may have attempted to curry favor with China after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but before 2007, it rejected almost a quarter of all Chinese visa applications and there was no talk of visa-exempt status for China.
As a result of serious problems with illegal immigration, the US is cautious about granting visa-waiver status. It has granted visa exemption to only 36 countries, most of them in western Europe. The US Department of State started an evaluation for visa-waiver privileges for both Taiwan and South Korea in 2005, making it clear that it is not a result of Ma’s flexible diplomacy.
A key benchmark for the US evaluation is a visa refusal rate of less than 3 percent. According to US statistics, the refusal rate for Taiwan and South Korea in 2006 was 3.1 and 3.6 percent respectively. In 2008, the figure for Taiwan rose to 5.9 percent, while that for South Korea rose to 3.8 percent. While the figure for Taiwan then fell to 4.4 percent in 2009, South Korea was granted visa exemption to the US in late 2008.
If the government insists on claiming visa-waiver status as a political achievement, shouldn’t it also say whether its accession to power in 2008 destroyed the prospects for achieving visa-exempt entry to the US?
Of course, the visa refusal rate is not the only hurdle — there is the modernization of the passport system, reliable customs, as well as smuggling and crime prevention. To meet these criteria, the government and the public must work together. However, one thing is certain: US visa exemption is unrelated to cross-strait relations, national dignity, sovereignty and other major issues. The US state department is not even responsible for the evaluation, which is conducted by the US Department of Homeland Security.
Let’s look at it from another perspective. If cross-strait relations deteriorated, would China be able to block Taiwan from obtaining visa-exempt entry to the US?
Take the EU, for example, which is even more pro-Chinese.
The document that officially launched the Schengen visa-waiver program for Taiwan in January implies no consideration of the cross-strait relationship and it explicitly uses terms disliked by China, such as “passports issued by Taiwan” and “citizens of Taiwan.”