The announcement on Monday that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had tapped former representative to the US Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) to reopen and head the party’s office in Washington is an important development for the future of Taiwan’s relations with its principal ally.
Although, as some critics have already pointed out, it is unusual for the opposition party of a democratic ally to have an office in the US capital, Taiwan’s idiosyncratic — and at times precarious — position makes this essential. The disparity in power and resources between the DPP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) alone is such that any counterweight to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) must be physically present in Washington to be heard.
Since the DPP closed its Washington office in 2000 when it entered the Presidential Office, the party has relied on a one-man liaison office to negotiate the vagaries of the always complex relationship between Taiwan, the US and China. That man, Mike Fonte, has done a wonderful job and earned the respect of many officials, but the immensity of the task, along with Taiwan’s uncertain future as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) accelerates the pace of cross-strait exchanges, requires more resources.
No sooner had the appointment been announced than observers began arguing that Wu should be permanently based in Washington, rather than regularly shuttle between Taipei and Washington as originally planned. While a case can be made for the need for a permanent presence, there are also important benefits to having Wu commute between the two capitals. Most importantly, his comings and goings will ensure that his views, and presumably those of his underlings, will not ossify, as often occurs when officials operate for too long away from home. There is no better way to ensure that the DPP envoy’s views remain relevant and current than to have him take stock of the situation in both cities. This will be taxing, but Taiwanese — and ultimately the US government itself — will be better served for it.
Wu will face many challenges. Chief among them will be finding ways to provide a version of Taiwan that differs from that given by TECRO officials and that on occasion will be inconvenient to the US, which is keen on seeing the continuation of the current stability in the Taiwan Strait. There will be times when Wu will find it difficult to gain access to certain circles in Washington and it is not impossible that on some occasions TECRO will use its influence to make his life more difficult. Wu will need to summon all his political savvy and connections to gain the ear of people of influence in Washington.
Given the very China-centric mood that prevails at TECRO today, one can only hope that US officials, academics and journalists will give Wu the opportunity to present a version of Taiwan that differs from the conventional story provided by Ma’s envoys. There undoubtedly are good, hard working people at TECRO, but under the current regime they are often forced to toe the line and give their US counterparts a false image of Taiwan.
At the other end of the spectrum, it will be Wu’s responsibility to ensure that the information he gives US officials about Taiwan is based on reality and acceptable to a superpower for who Taiwan is but a small problem in a constellation of challenging imperatives. Wu must present a sensible alternative to TECRO that avoids the rhetorical excesses that at times have undermined the DPP’s credibility in Washington’s eyes.
All these are formidable challenges. However, it is hard to imagine a man better placed to meet them.