Fri, Feb 15, 2019 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Symbolic, but pragmatic diplomacy

Unlike its usual prompt response to US officials’ and congressional members’ show of support for Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration has reacted with restraint and discretion to calls by a group of US Republican senators for Tsai to visit Washington and address the US Congress.

Such a step would no doubt be a high point in Taiwan-US relations since the two nations severed diplomatic ties in 1979. The question is, would it be worth the backlash that it would certainly engender from China?

When the idea of inviting Tsai to address the US Congress was first proposed early last month by Joseph Bosco, former China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, in an opinion piece published in the The Hill, former American Institute in Taiwan director William Stanton — who has been a firm Taiwan supporter — was quick to question the benefits of such a move.

“If we are going to provoke China, it should be [for something] of lasting importance to Taiwan. I think that is the view of many people,” Stanton said.

He also urged Tsai to carefully weigh the pros and cons of such a visit.

Stanton made a good point. While such a visit would send a strong signal to the world that Taiwan and the US are closer than ever, the benefits would mostly be symbolic.

By contrast, it makes more sense to risk upsetting Beijing over the signing of a free-trade agreement between Taipei and Washington — an idea that has been thrown around a lot since late last year, including by Stanton at a forum in Taipei in December — as the economic benefits Taiwan could gain from the deal would most likely outweigh the potential retaliation from an angry China.

However, it does not mean that moves that are mostly symbolic are not worthwhile and should be avoided altogether. The majority of supportive measures taken by US officials and congressional members since 1979 are largely symbolic and have yet to translate into actual progress in bilateral relations.

For example, expectations were high when the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages mutual visits by high-level Taiwanese and US officials, was signed into law in March last year, but they faded quickly after the public realized that the act is more recommendatory rather than mandatory, and that the US officials who visited Taiwan since then are similar in ranking to those who visited before the act’s enactment.

Although the lack of actual progress over the years has upset many who are hoping that closer Taiwan-US ties could help elevate Taiwan’s international status, it is risky to let emotions take over in the current political climate.

Sometimes symbolic moves are all that can be done and while they do not always translate into actual change, they nonetheless indicate a strong bilateral willingness to improve ties.

As Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of North American Affairs Director-General Vincent Yao (姚金祥) said at a news conference on Tuesday, while it is his ultimate goal to see high-level US and Taiwanese officials visit each other freely and without restrictions, it is unlikely at the moment and that is why he has to deal with the issue with pragmatism.

Improving ties takes time and patience, especially for an unrecognized country that is up against a giant, unpredictable neighbor.

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