Some great news came Taiwan’s way on Thursday when the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) announced that Taiwan had been put on the candidate list for the US’ visa-waiver program, taking the nation another step closer to sealing the coveted agreement.
However welcome the news may have been, the timing could hardly have been worse, coming as it did a mere three weeks before the closely fought presidential election. Washington’s decision to make the announcement when it did can be explained in two ways: either is it naive and unaware of the political uses that could be made of the news or, despite its professions to the contrary, it is taking sides in Taiwan’s elections. Either way, this does not reflect too well on Washington’s ability to remain neutral in the electoral affairs of a democratic ally.
Reporters had hardly made their way back from the AIT when Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tung Kuo-yu (董國猷) was heard hailing the announcement as reflecting Washington’s high degree of confidence in President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). For his part, KMT Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) compared the nomination to a “cardiac stimulant” that gave Ma an advantage over Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in the election.
What was left unmentioned was the fact that it was the DPP that got the ball rolling on the visa-waiver program, with former envoy to the US Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) and his staff at Taiwan’s representative office in Washington doing the groundwork in 2007. A few more years were required before Taiwan could meet all the requirements for the nomination and admittedly some of the necessary adjustments were made under the Ma administration. However, in the end, the nomination is as much a victory for the DPP as it is for the KMT — in fact, it represents a victory for all Taiwanese.
However, by failing to take the necessary precautions against the inevitable politicization of the announcement, Washington has played into the KMT’s hands, or possibly cooperated with it.
In its press conference on Thursday, the AIT said an agreement on tightening immigration controls against felons and terrorists was the final step before the US could put Taiwan on the list. That agreement, we were told, had been signed the previous day.
Maybe the timing is just a coincidence — and coincidences do happen — but it is very convenient for the KMT that all this happened when it did. The US government could have waited until after the Jan. 14 election to make the announcement, a postponement that in no way would have hurt the KMT or helped the DPP.
One really wonders why, within 24 hours of Taipei signing the document on terrorists and felons, the AIT would rush into making the announcement on the visa-waiver program, especially as Taiwan’s adhesion to the program remains contingent on months of careful evaluation by the US Department of Homeland Security. There simply was no justification for making the announcement at such a highly charged juncture in the presidential election.
Despite the nomination being the result of hard work by both the DPP and KMT administrations, the timing of the announcement now allows the Ma camp to silence some of its detractors, who had accused it of failing to secure anything of substance from the US over the past three-and-a-half years, despite relations between the two allies allegedly being their “closest” in years.