When truce may lead to dignity

By Liu Shih-chung 劉世忠  / 

Fri, May 20, 2011 - Page 8

The revelation of a secret memo circulated by the WHO to its members to designate Taiwan as a “province of China” has sparked a political fire in Taiwanese politics as the next presidential election campaign heats up. For Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration, it was a slap in the face to its advocacy of a “cross-strait diplomatic truce” and its “flexible diplomacy” approach to broadening Taiwan’s international participation. It forced Ma, who has rarely criticized China since taking office in 2008 and is now facing tremendous re-election pressure, to point his finger at Beijing and protest the latter’s strategy to sabotage Taiwan’s participation in the annual World Health Assembly (WHA).

Facing the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) demands for a boycott of the upcoming WHA meeting, Ma has directed Taiwan’s representative to the WHA, Minister of Health Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達), to attend the meeting and submit a protest letter to the WHA. Beijing shifted responsibility to the WHA and denied it had anything to do with the secret memo.

The DPP, on the other hand, has been taking advantage of the Ma government’s flip-flops in reacting to the WHA memo by highlighting the issue of national dignity to gain political points. While the DPP headquarters and legislative caucus fired up their attacks against the Ma government, the party’s chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) called for a bipartisan consensus on the issue.

The question underlying the WHA memo controversy is whether improving cross-strait relations can actually bring about a diplomatic truce between Taipei and Beijing, as Ma has repeatedly claimed since his inauguration three years ago, or would just increase China’s leverage over Taiwan’s passive diplomatic practices.

Ma has put cross-strait policy above foreign policy. Everything on the diplomatic front should be reconsidered when it comes to cross-strait relations. Since Ma keeps gloating over his diplomatic achievements by underscoring the “zero loss of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies” as well as Taiwan’s invitation to the WHA meeting for three years running, the domestic and international audience seems to believe that his administration has found a breakthrough for Taiwan’s limited international space. In addition, Ma also renounced the tactic of “checkbook diplomacy” to compete with Beijing for diplomatic allies.

The fact is that Taiwan’s status in the WHA has been downgraded by China’s “diplomatic legal warfare” and the Taiwanese government’s transparent diplomatic financial aid to its allies revealed the Ma administration’s “diplomatic shock.” These developments have invalidated Ma’s superficial diplomatic achievements. Despite Beijing’s continued efforts to box Taiwan into its “one China” framework in the WHA, the Ma government, for the purpose of consolidating its remaining 23 allies, has repeated the same “checkbook diplomacy” that its predecessor used.

WikiLeaks recently revealed that in a cable to Washington last year, the US embassy in Panama characterized the Taiwanese government’s contribution of US$47 million to Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli in exchange for the latter’s continuation of diplomatic relations with Taipei as “checkbook diplomacy.” During his trip to Paraguay in August 2008, Ma reportedly promised Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo US$71 million in financial aid to keep the latter from embracing China.

Those revelations, if true, show that Ma’s promises of “no checkbook diplomacy” and “Taiwan’s fair participation in the WHA” are nothing but lies. He has further eroded Taiwan’s sovereignty and fallen into Beijing’s legal trap in the WHA. Elements contributing to the myth of China allowing Taiwan international space lie in the lack of internal coordination among different agencies in China.

It might also be Beijing’s intention to use a “good-cop-bad-cop” strategy to manipulate the Ma administration. The WHA is a clear illustration of such political calculations.

The DPP, though upholding the slogan of “safeguarding Taiwan’s dignity,” needs to provide effective solutions to tackle the challenge should it return to power. Simply criticizing the Ma government for “selling out Taiwan’s sovereignty” is not constructive. What is worse is that it would deepen Beijing’s mistrust and misperceptions of the DPP.

Tsai will have to address the following questions during her campaign: How would a new DPP government deal with a potential resurgence of diplomatic warfare? What is the bottom line on the number of allies” that a DPP government would accept? How would it rejuvenate bureaucratic morale and discipline after the KMT government’s passive and defensive diplomatic goals? How would it transform Taiwan’s foreign policy? And most importantly, how would it strike a balance between meaningful participation in international organizations and safeguarding Taiwan’s national dignity?

Liu Shih-chung is a senior research fellow of the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.