Australia has welcomed President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) diplomatic initiative to avoid competing with China for allies, openly lauding for the first time Ma’s attempts to end so-called “checkbook diplomacy” in the South Pacific.
“We are very encouraged by statements by Taiwan officials, including the president, that Taiwan intends to provide aid that is transparent and accountable and has humanitarian and practical focus,” Alice Cawte, representative of the Australian Commerce and Industry Office (ACIO) in Taiwan, said during an interview.
A senior career officer with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and assistant secretary at the department’s East Asia branch from 2005 until earlier this year, Cawte is familiar with the situation in the Taiwan Strait.
Cawte has also served in Beijing and studied Chinese in Taiwan.
“It will benefit the region as a whole because without the previous tug-of-war for recognition in the Pacific ... [Taiwan] will be able to focus more on government systems that support good governance in the region and are transparent and accountable,” Cawte said.
Since assuming the presidency on May 20, Ma has followed a modus vivendi, or “flexible” diplomatic strategy, which attempts to set aside Taipei’s differences with Beijing to find a mutually beneficial equilibrium on the diplomatic front.
He is also seeking a “diplomatic truce” to end a longstanding tug-of-war with China in which both countries try to lure each other’s allies to switch diplomatic allegiance by offering large sums of foreign aid.
In a visit to Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund on Sept. 18, Ma affirmed that the government’s approach to foreign aid is strictly based on three key principles: the purpose must be legitimate, the process must be legal and the assistance must be effective and efficient.
Being the biggest benefactor of countries in the South Pacific, Australia has significant influence in the area. It has long criticized Taiwan and China for conducting “checkbook diplomacy” in the South Pacific region, saying that such a hostile competition for influence fuels corruption and political divisions.
In a report to the legislature on Sept. 25, Foreign Minister Francisco Ou (歐鴻鍊) said that for the modus vivendi strategy, Australia and New Zealand had expressed their intention to work with Taiwan on foreign aid programs in the South Pacific region.
Cawte said, however, that there were no specific projects on which the two countries are working together, adding that Australia was committed to consulting with Taiwan and sharing its experiences.
“We are very happy to share these experiences with donors who share our values of providing dual assistance that leads to good governance and long-term sustainable development,” she said.
“We certainly can consult with Taiwan to ensure that we both understand what we are intended to achieve and through consultation to ensure that we are both doing the best we can for the foreign assistance in the region,” Cawte said.
Cawte said that the signs were encouraging regarding relations between Canberra and Taipei, as they each had new leaders come into office last December and May respectively.
She agreed that bilateral ties seemed to have entered a new stage as the battle between Taiwan and China for diplomatic recognition seemed to be abating.
“I think relations are very good and they are evolving,” Cawte said. “We are tracking well and we are very optimistic and positive about the future.”
She said that Australia was also “encouraged” by the Ma administration’s efforts to improve relations between Taiwan and China.
“We believe this will improve regional security and regional stability,” she said.
Speaking about Taiwan’s international space, Cawte said Australia’s position is very clear, and that is to support Taiwan’s participation in regional and international organizations where that participation and consensus is possible.
“We certainly understand Taiwan’s desire to participate in international organizations and believe Taiwan has much to contribute,” Cawte said.
She said that while the precise formulation for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO had yet to be determined, “Taiwan should play the key role in determining the consensus.”
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