Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) over the weekend said the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was “extending” domestic politics abroad by sending a delegation headed by King Pu-tsung (金溥聰), executive director of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) re-election campaign, to the US just days ahead of her long-planned trip.
While Tsai’s assessment of King’s visit was likely right on target, it nevertheless came across as somewhat childish. Yes, as the party in power, the KMT could send delegations to the US any time of the year, and yes, the timing of King’s visit is conspicuous. That being said, there is no rule that says the KMT cannot send a delegation abroad whenever DPP officials embark on a foreign trip.
Both Tsai and King, certainly not by coincidence, are scheduled to give speeches at Harvard University on Thursday. Rather than engage in recriminations and conspiracy theories, the DPP presidential candidate should instead use King’s presence to contrast her policies with those of Ma.
Her main task while in the US should not be to disparage the KMT for trying to “undermine” her visit — rhetoric that is certain to have little appeal with Taiwanese-Americans and potential supporters in academia — but rather to prove to an audience that may be a little skeptical that a new DPP administration would be one that Washington could work with.
There is no doubt that Tsai’s party has an image handicap overseas, mostly the result of the previous DPP administration’s less-than-stellar track record and, even more importantly, a sustained propaganda campaign in the media — both in Taiwan and abroad — that tends to favor the KMT.
Tsai now has a golden opportunity to allay fears that an “irrational” DPP would spark armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait and show the world that under her guidance, the party would not only avoid past mistakes, but is in fact better equipped to protect the rights and interests of Taiwanese.
Of course, such convincing is easier said than done, and Tsai will need to summon all her oratorical skills to present a platform that consists of more than sloganeering. There is a desire among many US officials and academics to work with Tsai for the benefit of a free Taiwan, but that will is oftentimes constrained by the great uncertainty surrounding her policies.
Defense — a key aspect of the US-Taiwan relationship — is an area where Tsai’s camp has yet to provide clear and reassuring leadership. Here is a chance for her, while in the US, to show that she would be a strong commander-in-chief where her predecessor, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), was perceived as weak by the armed forces, and suffered as a result.
Tsai should use this opportunity to demonstrate that her party has a “Plan B” for Oct. 2, the day after US President Barack Obama’s administration announces its final decision on the proposed F-16 sale to Taiwan. While the Ma administration, the KMT and the Ministry of National Defense have all failed to come up with alternatives should the F-16C/D sale be denied — a likely scenario — Tsai should be heading to the US with a list of alternatives and prescriptions.
Whether she has those remains to be seen, but one thing is sure: Engaging in mudslinging with King on US soil, and thereby extending domestic politics abroad, will not win her points — not at home and certainly not in the US.