Representative to the US King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) reportedly said in an interview with Agence France-Presse last week that Taiwan would like to maintain “strategic ambiguity” in dealing with Beijing and Washington (“Washington envoy interview stresses ‘strategic ambiguity,’” Feb. 5, page 3).
King’s claim has raised discussion about Taipei’s strategy, with some arguing that as Taiwan is not an international power like the US, it may not have such an option.
The strategy makes sense on the surface, since one may see nothing wrong with maintaining positive relationships with China, Japan and the US at the same time, and some say this is imperative for a small nation such as Taiwan.
However, it also reflected one of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) biggest weaknesses — that he always tries to please everyone and often avoids “choosing sides,” and when he does, he tends to make questionable decisions.
In 1992, when Taiwan was embroiled in discussions over the electoral format of the presidential election, Ma supported indirect elections rather than direct elections, which, ironically, were what led to him becoming the head of state 16 years later.
Since Ma first took office in 2008, most of his major policies, domestic or foreign, have raised similar doubts.
While Ma pledged to be a president for all, his tax and labor policies have tended to favor employers over employees, and his pension reform plan seems to favor public sector workers, disappointing private sector workers.
Ma also pledged to seek closer relations with China (which he did), as well as to maintain collaborative relationships with two of Taiwan’s most important allies, Japan and the US, although he seems to be doing the opposite. Both nations have raised concerns about Taiwan’s stance on the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) dispute and have found it difficult to accept Ma’s reassurances of non-cooperation with Beijing on the issue.
At the same time that Ma was struggling with decisionmaking and choosing sides, so were Taiwanese. Asked about their opinions on almost any given topic, a large number of Taiwanese are likely to answer with: “I could not care less about politics and I’m either pro-green or pro-blue…”
Let us make it clear that politicians and national leaders should avoid making decisions based purely on populism, which appears to be a stigmatized political term, but neither should all policies please just one side and sacrifice the other.
However, when it comes to the struggle between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, as well as that between democracy and authoritarianism, decisions should not be too hard to make.
As much as it may be a trendy term, and easily rolls off a diplomat’s tongue, the foreign policy phrase “strategic ambiguity” is too ambiguous for Taiwan, which has been overly ambiguous on too many issues, such as the Constitution, tax structure, engagement with China and human rights.
People and countries cannot move forward or thrive based on ambiguity and an avoidance of decisionmaking; they have to act on what they believe in and what their values are.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality,” former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu said.
Tutu’s quotation rings true for Ma and the people of Taiwan. How history will view Ma and Taiwanese will be determined by every decision they make and whose side they are on at specific moments. There should be no ambiguity in that.