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.
Even though Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Yang (楊進添), who traveled with Ma during the visit, knew that it was not a breakthrough, he still praised it as being the result of Ma’s “flexible diplomacy.” Please! After four years of this “flexible diplomacy,” Ma has only managed to gain a bit of formal encouragement in the form of a refueling stopover, which he had to be secretive about and make diversions before doing.
Prior to Ma’s “flexible diplomacy,” Taiwanese presidents traveled to Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, the US, Libya, and entered Italy to visit the Vatican. Judging from a purely diplomatic perspective, which are the greater achievements? It feels as if the Ma administration is actually taking several steps backward.
Late at night on April 8, Ma said in a post on his Facebook page that the Mumbai stopover was based on mutual trust, carried out in a low-key manner with absolutely no surprises, and that the whole process was smooth and free of any interference. If Ma lives in his own fantasy world, his staff have a duty to wake him up: given the status of the stopover, the president should not continue to dwell on the issue, it’s certainly not something that can be used for propaganda purposes.
A president represents his country on overseas visits. At Mumbai airport, he was met only by local protocol officers and security guards. If, after having humiliated himself like this, after abasing himself, he goes on to emphasize the point that China did not exert any pressure, he will only be further denigrating the country and himself.
Efforts by Ma to focus on constitutionally required issues such as the strengthening of national defense and expansion of Taiwan’s diplomacy should be supported. Over the past four years, these two areas have been weakened to the point that they threaten the country’s foundations, and urgently need strengthening. In doing so, however, Ma must not ignore past experience, nor can he continue to act like an “intern” who lacks understanding of the future. If a president in his second term continues to play childish games, he will bring shame and humiliation on the country.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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