In any country, when the head of state travels abroad, it is a display of that country’s sovereignty and a consolidation of its foreign relations, whether it’s a full state visit, an official visit or a work visit. The citizens of developed countries take a positive view of such events. Since Taiwan finds itself in a difficult diplomatic situation, international visits by our head of state have taken on a particular significance following democratization, but after the first democratic transition of power in 2000, even overseas visits by the head of state — which should be a show of domestic unity — have been sacrificed in the struggle for power.
Former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) overseas visits were called “lost diplomacy” and “guerrilla diplomacy” by the then-opposition, and now the current opposition disparagingly calls President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) ongoing overseas visit a “chicken-rib visit” (雞肋出訪), a Chinese term used for something of little value or interest. This saga of never-ending reprisals must end.
During the rule of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), the head of state never traveled abroad for various reasons. Whether the Republic of China (ROC) was or was not a member of the UN, the two Chiangs placed it under a strange “house arrest.” Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was the first Taiwanese president to visit another country, and during his 12-year presidency he visited more non-diplomatic allies than any other president.
During Chen’s time in power, the opposition mocked him, but even if the criticism wasn’t completely groundless, the fact is that he visited almost all of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies both in Africa and South America. He also tried hard, and sometimes managed, to visit non-diplomatic allies, and not only to stop over for refueling. Ma, on the other hand, finally managed his first African visit at the tail end of his first term in office. Although he visited only diplomatic allies, that is his duty as head of state, so we must not deny the merit of his effort.
Regarding Ma’s current African visit, the government of a modern democracy should be professional both in terms of its statements and actions if it wants to gain the respect of the public. If the government continues to brag and sustain obscurantist policies, the knowledge explosion that has occurred in Taiwan means that a good thing could well turn into a bad thing. If a government is criticized for behaving this way, they are asking for it, and have no one but themselves to blame.
For example, when Ma’s plane made a low-profile, two-hour stopover in Mumbai to refuel, anyone with some understanding of Taiwan’s diplomatic history knew that it was no breakthrough. He did not meet any high level officials, he did not enter India to engage in meaningful activities, and neither the Presidential Office nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the stopover in advance. In fact, they had said refueling would take place in Dubai. This deception shows that Ma was not in control of the situation. This state of affairs remains unchanged, even though the government behaves as if it were China’s subordinate.
Although the public is well aware of this situation, some government mouthpieces treated the stopover as a great achievement, lavishing it with exaggerated praise. Even state-owned media chimed in. One can only wonder if foreigners reading such reports will think Taiwan is hiding its inferiority complex behind a mask of arrogance.