US official worried about Tsai: report

‘BLINDSIDED’::The DPP said that the comments by an anonymous US official quoted by the ‘Financial Times’ amounted to US interference in the presidential election

By William Lowther  /  Staff Reporter in Washington

Sat, Sep 17, 2011 - Page 1

US supporters of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) are accusing US President Barack Obama’s administration of interfering with the Taiwanese elections.

This follows a report in the Financial Times that the US administration believes that a Tsai victory in January could raise tensions with China.

According to the British newspaper, a “senior US official” told it that after meeting with the DPP presidential candidate in Washington on Wednesday that “she left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.”

The report came as a shock not only to Tsai and those traveling with her on a nine-day tour of the US, but also to analysts who have been following the trip closely.

Up until the Financial Times publication on Thursday morning, US government officials speaking in private had given the impression that the trip was going well and that they were pleased with what they had heard from Tsai.

“We have been totally blindsided,” one DPP supporter said.

There were immediate suspicions that the source of the story was an official with the White House-based National Security Council and not the US Department of State.

Among other closed-door -meetings on Wednesday, Tsai saw US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides and US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

She left Washington on Thursday for Boston.

DPP officials “lodged concerns” with the US Department of State that by talking with the Financial Times in such a negative way about Tsai, the Obama administration was undercutting her and interfering in the Taiwanese election.

Asked directly at the department press briefing on Thursday afternoon if comments made by a US official had strayed into the area of interfering in the Taiwanese elections, spokesman Mark Toner read from what was clearly a prepared response.

“I can assure you that we strongly support Taiwan’s democracy and the will of the Taiwanese people to choose their leaders in the upcoming election,” he said. “Our only interest is in free, fair and open presidential elections — we don’t take sides.”

However, there was no denial that the anti-Tsai remarks had been made and within the US-Taiwanese community there was speculation that the interview given to the Financial Times was part of a deliberate move to support President President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

The Financial Times described the remarks as “surprisingly blunt.”

“During her visit to Washington, Ms Tsai appears to have failed to convince the administration that she would keep the improved relationship with China on track,” it said. “The US official said while she understood the need ‘to avoid gratuitous provocations’ of China, it was ‘far from clear that she and her advisers fully appreciate the depth of [Chinese] mistrust of her motives and DPP aspirations.’”

DPP aides who attended meetings with US officials in Washington said this ran directly counter to the reactions of US officials during and immediately after the meetings.

Referring to the comments printed by the Financial Times, Tsai’s international spokesperson, Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), said: “Such anonymous statements could be easily misread and manipulated in a way that would be considered an interference in Taiwan’s election.”

“They subvert every assurance we were given over the past few days that the United States government would remain ‘neutral’ regarding Taiwan’s election,” she said.

In a second story, published later on its Web site, the Financial Times said that Taiwan’s elections had always “had their fair share of drama.”

“In a very unusual move that underscores the stakes, the Obama administration has intervened in the campaign,” the paper said.

The administration had done so, the Financial Times said, when the senior official talked with the newspaper and expressed doubts about Tsai’s willingness and ability to continue the stability in cross-strait relations.

“Washington, which acts as a guarantor of Taiwan’s de facto independence with a legally binding pledge to help the island defend itself, has intervened in elections before, when DPP candidates campaigned on independence--related issues,” the newspaper said. “However, it has rarely commented on individual candidates.”

In private conversations, US academics and even some members of Congress expressed “amazement” at the “brazenness” of the administration’s attack on Tsai. Some felt that it reflected pressure from China to keep Ma in power.

Daniel Blumenthal, a resident fellow and China expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said: “The Obama administration does no favors to either the KMT or DPP by being solicitous of China’s view of the Taiwan elections.

“It is a breach of diplomatic practice and is revealing about what our Taiwan policy is: not to offend China,” he said. “That policy has not served Taiwan or the United States over the last few years, nor will it in the future. Our policy should be to stay out of Taiwan’s democratic elections and have a Taiwan policy that is not based on a Chinese veto.”

“I believe Dr Tsai’s trip has gone well,” US-Taiwan Business Council president Rupert -Hammond-Chambers said. “She has had an opportunity to frame policies her administration would pursue should she be elected next January. They appear reasonable and well thought-out.”

“The Financial Times story is cause for significant concern. The Obama administration should remain neutral in the Taiwan elections,” he said.

Earlier this month, former American Institute in Taiwan director Douglas Paal said in an article published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he is vice president for studies, that the Chinese had privately expressed hope for intervention by the Obama administration to “tilt the political playing field in favor of the Ma Ying-jeou government and against Tsai’s DPP.”

“Once again, the tide has turned and Beijing is looking to Washington for help to manage what it ordinarily insists are its internal affairs with Taiwan,” Paal said in the article.

This would seem to be exactly what has happened, but Paal does not seem to think so.

“I would not accept the term election ‘interference,’” he told the Taipei Times.

“Dr Tsai came to the US presumably, among other things, to demonstrate that she can work with Washington and to advance her campaign for the presidency. She brought the issue to Washington, not vice versa,” he said. “The Obama administration, as everyone before it, expressed no preference for the outcome of the election, believing this would be wrong in principle and perhaps counterproductive in practice. She was received correctly and with dignity.”

“Nonetheless, the US has strategic interests, which with regard to Taiwan include continuing peaceful relations across the Strait so as not to divert the US and China from areas of cooperation important to both, such as in managing regional hotspots, the global financial and economic situation, and non-proliferation,” Paal said.

“Dr Tsai’s ambiguous approach to finely worded issues in the cross-strait relationship left American officials with doubts about her preparedness to preserve the peaceful development of cross-strait relations. If she chooses to address and adjust these policies more specifically and constructively, perhaps she can dispel the American doubts well before the election and the matter will become moot,” he said.

A congressional source who independently asked the US State Department for comment was told: “The ‘official’ mentioned in the article is totally unknown to us and certainly does not speak for the Obama administration. The administration does not take sides in Taiwan’s [or any country’s] election. It’s up to the people of Taiwan to choose their own leaders in an election. Our interest is in a free, fair and open presidential election, not in supporting or criticizing any presidential candidate. Administration officials met this week with DPP candidate Tsai in Washington and had substantive discussions, but we do not comment on the content of those meetings.”