As if Taiwan’s status and official designation were not confusing enough for those who are not familiar with its precarious situation, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) foreign policy in recent months has seen so many twists and turns as to stun even the most seasoned of policy wonks.
The root of the confusion is not, as some of his detractors would have it, that Ma is bending to Beijing’s will, but rather that he wants it all.
He wants to improve relations with China, the US, Japan and the rest of the international community, but at the same time his administration feels it must rock the boat to ensure that Taiwan is not ignored while elephants clash, and must prepare for a rainy day should the current detente in the Taiwan Strait shift in a different direction.
As a result, while Ma has proposed the widely hailed East China Sea peace initiative, Taipei has also engaged in brinkmanship of a kind never seen before, sending militaristic signals and appealing to nationalistic sentiment, while relying on the Coast Guard Administration to flex some muscles at sea over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) dispute.
Even though most people in the know agree that the front-page-earning water cannon battles between Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard vessels are for the most part orchestrated, this is nevertheless not the type of behavior usually associated with peaceful Taiwan, especially at a time when it is endeavoring to relaunch long-stalled talks on fisheries with Japan.
Ma’s efforts to improve relations with Beijing have also created the impression in some minds that Taiwan is cooperating with China, which also claims the islets, in pressuring Japan; an illusion that no amount of negation by Taipei has managed to fully dispel.
Critics argue that as part of a grand bargain to further appease China, Ma is seeking to weaken the armed forces, for which there seems to be ample evidence. Live-fire drills have become less frequent under his watch, while his administration has been wishy-washy on efforts to procure new F-16s. Its efforts to create an all-volunteer military also seem half-hearted and threaten to undermine morale. Rumors abound that intelligence agencies are pulling out of espionage in China and that in the not-so-distant-future Taiwan and China might sign a peace accord.
However, while there might be an element of truth to the above, the military has mass-produced Hsiung Feng IIE land-attack cruise missiles, is equipping its navy vessels with HF-3 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, is seeking to extend the range of the latter and has embarked on a program to develop the Yunfeng (“Cloud Peak”), a 1,200km surface-to-surface missile capable of reaching central China, with plans to begin production as early as next year.
Ironically, while the development of offensive weapons could serve to undermine the oft-heard argument that Ma is “soft” on national defense, it also risks causing friction with Taiwan’s principal ally, the US, which has long opposed the development of missiles whose range or warhead yield go beyond those stipulated by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Yet, when Defense News asked whether the Yunfeng program, which is a “1,000 percent violation” of MTCR, risked causing difficulties with Washington, a source in the government replied: “I don’t care what the [expletive] Americans think.”
Only an administration that wants it all could contend straight-faced that relations between Taiwan, China, Japan and the US are the best they have been in decades. Although international relations are not exactly zero-sum, countries cannot have it all, especially at a time when the divide between China and the US seems to be widening, forcing countries in the region to take sides.
Taiwan cannot have it all and the Ma administration had better improve its messaging soon, or the delicate balancing act, too rife with contradictions to be sustainable in the long run, will come crashing down.