The diplomatic games they play

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Sat, May 28, 2011 - Page 8

Several Taiwan watchers reacted in anger earlier this month when the Presidential Office said it would turn to the European Parliament for help over the “Taiwan, Province of China” name controversy at the WHO. Why, several asked, would President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration not turn to its oldest ally, the US, for help on the matter and seek succor instead from the Europeans, whose assistance could be expected to bring but the most marginal of results?

It would be easy to assume that Ma’s decision was in fact based on the expectation that the EU would do nothing that risked causing anger in Beijing. By so doing, Ma, who is seeking re-election in January, would meet expectations at home that he do something to redress the slight, while ensuring that the outcome wouldn’t undermine relations with Beijing, which remains the core of his current and future policy.

While there may be some validity to this contention, the context in which the controversy emerged provides alternative explanations. Ma very likely wanted to seek assistance from the US on the matter, but may have been dissuaded by Washington, or US officials in Taiwan, from doing so. The reason is simple: Just as the crisis risked boiling over, General Chen Bingde (陳炳德), chief of general staff for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was arriving in Washington on a groundbreaking visit to mend military-to-military ties amid fears of China’s “rise.” The last thing Washington wanted at this sensitive juncture was for a name flap at the WHO to interfere with what the Pentagon and other US agencies saw as a very important visit. Given China’s propensity to call off meetings in retaliation for support of any kind for Taiwan, we can assume that any intervention on Washington’s part at the WHO could have derailed the whole visit, which was months in the making and necessitated well-calibrated preparations.

Rather than always assume the worst from the Ma administration, we should pay more attention to the environment in which it operates and the immense challenges it faces in terms of its relationship with the US. History is replete with precedents in which larger political imperatives prevented governments from adopting what otherwise looked like what should have been “rational” and “logical” policies. Britain’s and India’s official silence when the PLA invaded Tibet in the early 1950s is such an example, with both governments forced to take the crisis in Korea, among others, into consideration.

Which brings us to another issue over which the Ma administration has faced heavy criticism: arms sales.

Over the past three years or so, Ma has made several headline-grabbing calls on Washington to release the 66 F-16C/D aircraft requested by Taiwan — so often, in fact, that a number of analysts (this author included) have come to regard the whole exercise as nothing more than cynical signaling for domestic consumption.

As it turns out, however, incompetence, rather than lack of will, appears to have been the main cause for the lack of results.

Information obtained by this author reveals it is unlikely the Ma administration was being disingenuous in its calls for the F-16C/Ds and diesel-electric submarines. Reliable sources say there is every reason to believe that Taipei genuinely wants them and understand clearly the downside should it not secure the commitment from Washington. In fact, in all meetings at the senior level with Taiwanese officials attended by sources consulted for this article, the officials were “singing from the same song sheet.”

That said, the problems in Washington are manifest. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) as a lobbying body is reportedly in near disarray, with good officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but no strategy. On arms sales particularly, TECRO officials have not been identifying the right decision making nodes — US Senate and House committees addressing armed services and foreign affairs are at the top of the list — in the system and working them with the right message.

Incompetence notwithstanding, there reportedly are signs of progress. Taiwan is said to have put together three-man teams composed of foreign ministry and Ministry of National Defense officials working together on arms sales and are predominantly used to brief staff on Capitol Hill on specific needs — such as F-16C/Ds — as well as long-term trends.

Lack of progress on the fighter aircraft and submarines is not necessarily the result of cynical politics. Rather, it is more likely a mixture of bureaucratic incompetence on both sides and very difficult US-Taiwan-China circumstances in Washington that have been heading in this direction since 2006. It could be said that by not rattling the cage of the Taiwan Strait, Ma has been a model leader for US President Barack Obama’s administration, and yet Washington has not reciprocated with moves that could be helpful to his re-election campaign.

The reason? It’s all about the context.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.