Because of Taiwan’s complex international status and the growing aggressiveness of its neighbor across the Strait, Taiwanese diplomats live in constant, crippling fear of losing diplomatic allies and are perhaps among the most overworked, overstressed and underappreciated groups of foreign relations officials in the world.
However, of all the challenges they have to deal with on a daily basis, the most challenging is likely this dilemma: to lie, or not to lie.
Since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in May 2016, the nation has lost five diplomatic allies to Beijing: Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso and El Salvador. Two of the desertions happened less than a month apart.
This loss of allies has not really come as a surprise. Rather, it has been anticipated since Tsai’s inauguration, given China’s longtime dismay at the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) pro-independence leanings. The only thing the public is not sure about is exactly how many diplomatic allies Taiwan will lose during the DPP administration.
Most members of the public are perfectly aware that Beijing’s poaching of the nation’s diplomatic allies is merely a matter of revenge and browbeating tactics, and that it does not necessarily reflect the competence of the nation’s diplomats.
Maybe our diplomats fail to see this, or perhaps they simply believe that their job is to fight until the end. Either way, whenever they are confronted with rumors of unstable relations between Taiwan and a certain ally, their instinct is to recite a standard script, reassuring the public that the ties are stable and that there is nothing to worry about.
Such assurances might have worked in the beginning, but after several diplomatic allies with which the government vowed it had stable ties ended up switching sides to China, people realized that they were nothing but empty words.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ explanations for recent losses of allies, some of the countries’ leaders kept their decision to break ties to an extremely small circle of trusted aides, with most of their government — even their ambassadors to Taiwan at the time — being kept in the dark.
However, in most cases, the ministry acknowledged that several months before relations ended, it picked up warning signs that were worrying enough that it sent high-ranking officials to try to salvage ties.
That means that when ministry officials told the public that ties were stable, they were perfectly aware that they were not. The question is: Why did they lie?
Some diplomats have said that telling the public that relations were shaky before a switch reeked of incompetence, opening the ministry to criticism of admitting defeat before fighting the battle.
That might make sense on the surface, but diplomats’ most important assets should be their credibility and ability to make accurate judgements. Routinely hiding the truth from the public risks projecting the image that they lack both. In the long run, it could undermine public trust in the foreign ministry as a whole.
While it is true that diplomacy is delicate work that requires confidentiality and a high level of discretion, perhaps a better approach would be to seek a balance between telling the entire truth and blatantly lying.
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