EDITORIAL: Ma’s delusions of ‘soft power’

Tue, Dec 21, 2010 - Page 8

After years of assailing our ears with notions of “win-win” situations President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has now latched onto a new term that, unfortunately for us, he now seems intent on milking dry: “soft power.”

No sooner had US political scientist Joseph Nye, the person who coined the overused and oft misused term, left after a quick visit earlier this month than Ma was borrowing it to describe his policies over the past two-and-a-half years. All of a sudden, Ma’s body of work appeared to blossom into a monument to so-called soft power, which, if we looked closely enough, was a euphemism for everything the administration of his predecessor, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), supposedly was not.

It was soft power, Ma claimed, that recently led the EU and Canadian governments to grant Republic of China (ROC) passport holders visa-waiver treatment. Never mind that governments decide whether to grant exemptions on the basis of such practical considerations as the security of travel documents. In this case, those requirements included the introduction of biometric passports in 2008 — first issued after Ma came into office, granted, but the result of policies implemented under the Chen administration.

In other words, visa exemptions were granted because manifold requirements were met, not because of soft power a la Ma. In the case of the EU, this happened because last month visa waiver rights to enter Taiwan were granted to Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania, the only Schengen countries whose citizens still had to apply for visas to visit.

Beyond the inherent dishonesty, such plagiarism constitutes a cynical (and in this case, self-serving, since Ma couldn’t help but highlight the contrasts between his administration and Chen’s) misrepresentation of cause and effect in international relations. Ma’s message stems from the invidious perception that the Democratic Progressive Party under Chen was a “troublemaker.” Conversely, Ma’s administration has harnessed soft power, he tells us, and consequently good things are coming the country’s way.

However, by seeking to join the UN and other organizations, and implementing measures that would make ROC passports more palatable to other countries, didn’t Chen’s administration also rely on soft power? That visa exemptions didn’t occur under its watch has far more to do with the long and convoluted processes involved rather than Chen being a “troublemaker” and Ma a “peacemaker.”

Ultimately, Taiwanese can now enjoy preferential treatment when traveling abroad because of their long tradition of soft power as respectful, law--abiding, wealthy travelers, which has nothing to do with the kind of soft power Ma has attempted to arrogate to himself and his administration. Why Taiwanese can now travel to Canada and EU nations (and 53 other countries) without a visa is because Taiwanese pose a far lower security risk (in terms of espionage, disease, smuggling and so on) than, say, Chinese or North Koreans. Ma did not invent this reputation and it can be credited to one source and one source alone — the people of Taiwan.

Ma was lucky; after years of hard work by a constellation of agencies, the conditions are now ripe for such developments. To claim that this is happening because of his government’s two-and-a-half years of soft power is dishonest and risks creating expectations that Ma’s administration simply will not be able to deliver on. After all, if all it took to obtain favors from other countries was soft power, nothing could prevent Taiwan from joining UN agencies, or getting the international space that it deserves.