The government is billing President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) visit to Africa and the stopover he made in Mumbai, India, as the consequence of its much touted “flexible diplomacy.” The stopover was the first time a president of the Republic of China (ROC) stepped foot on Indian territory, and it owes much to the hard work and achievements of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center in India. The problem is that the event was spoiled by the way the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidential Office chose to handle it.
Diplomats and foreign affairs officials enjoy a certain amount of leeway in terms of the accuracy of information they give on certain occasions, allowing them to provide misinformation if it is believed to be in the national interest. However, there are limits to how this privilege is applied, and discretion is advised. Both the ministry and the Presidential Office need to be aware that providing misinformation, while forgivable, comes at the risk of damaging the government’s credibility, and must be avoided where possible.
The information given during the press conference in which the “goodwill” trip was announced was that Ma’s plane would make a stop in Dubai to refuel. The press was not informed of the change of plans until the plane was in the air. It brings to mind the farcical confusion surrounding former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) trip in 2006 when he, indignant at having been refused permission to make a stopover in Hawaii, instructed the plane to head west without any clear destination, eventually making transit stops in Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam en route to Paraguay and Costa Rica.
Conscious of the possibility of unwelcome comparisons, the Presidential Office was at pains to say that plans for the Mumbai stopover were actually made two weeks prior, and kept quiet both to avoid any interference from China and out of respect to the Indian authorities. This was only a short two-hour refueling stop and Ma and his entourage were looked after by local-level protocol officers — there were no meetings with government officials or public events. Of course, the government is not obliged to reveal every last detail, but neither was there any need to damage the government’s credibility by providing misinformation to the press and public.
It did so out of fear of intervention by Beijing. Ever since Ma took office in 2008 and his government began promoting its policy of a “diplomatic truce,” China has continued to pressure Taiwan in its international activities. In every corner, you find China squeezing Taiwan’s options.
The so-called diplomatic truce between China and Taiwan, as well as the truce over affairs concerning overseas nationals, that Ma introduced in an effort to ease relations between the two countries has been rather one-sided. China has demonstrated on many occasions that it does not see the need to observe the terms of the truce itself. Beijing has been rather unresponsive to Ma’s requests for a bit of slack in foreign relations.
The Ma administration’s strategy has been to give cross-strait relations precedence over relations with any other country. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has been making generous concessions to Taiwan, playing the role of “good cop” to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ “bad cop.” The latter has been giving Taiwan a hard time on the international stage.