President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is scheduled to visit Central America later this month, but his trip to the same region earlier in the month received a mixed response.
While Ma took a cultural performance group on the last trip, he intends to take business leaders with him this time around. Last time also marked the first time Ma brought his wife, Chow Mei-ching (周美青), on an overseas trip since he took office in May last year.
Ma lauded the results of his journey to Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador as “better than expected.”
His critics, however, have been less impressed.
Former Government Information Office minister Shieh Jhy-wey (謝志偉) irked many when he described Chow’s performance with a musical band during the trip as a “monkey show.”
Shieh later said he could apologize for not flattering Chow enough, but his comment was an “appropriate description” of Ma’s trip.
Institute for National Development executive director Leou Chia-feng (柳嘉峰) said the media paid too much attention to Chow and ignored whether the trip had produced any concrete results.
Leou said Ma met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in El Salvador, but it was a brief exchange and Washington remained reluctant to sell Taiwan F16C/D fighter jets.
Ma’s short encounter with Clinton was not a diplomatic breakthrough as some media organizations portrayed, Leou said. During former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) eight years in office, Leou said the former president met former US secretary of state Colin Powell while in Panama to attend the country’s centenary celebrations in 2003.
Chen also exchanged greetings with then-US first lady Laura Bush at an inauguration ceremony for Costa Rican President Oscar Arias in San Jose in May 2006, Leou said.
Commenting on Ma’s announcement that he would no longer engage in “checkbook diplomacy” during his trip, Leou said Ma might be well-intentioned, but he was curious to know whether there were any under-the-table deals.
Some commentators have criticized Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who twice postponed a meeting with Ma in El Salvador. Leou said while punctuality might not be a virtue in Nicaragua, the matter was more complicated than that. Ortega, who was close to Chen, might have done it for his old friend or maybe it was just a scheme to secure more aid as speculated, he said.
Ma later canceled the meeting with Ortega, raising concerns over bilateral ties.
Regarding Ma’s proposal of a “diplomatic truce” with Beijing, Leou said he personally was not against any policy conducive to the national interest. However, it remained to be seen whether the policy would help cement ties with diplomatic allies and motivate them to speak in favor of Taiwan in the international arena.
Chao Yung-mao (趙永茂), a political science professor at National Taiwan University, said that he saw no diplomatic breakthroughs as a result of Ma’s trip.
He was worried instead that Ma’s foreign policy would compel diplomatic allies to look more practically at their relationship w ith Beijing.
Chao said China has made aggressive efforts to push its diplomatic agenda on the cultural front in that region.
“Yes, Ma did bring a percussion troupe on the trip, but it looked more like a performance group entertaining good friends,” Chao said.
“I am more curious to know what his overall strategy is and how he plans to connect our businesses with their counterparts in Central America,” he said. “He needs to carefully examine his soft foreign policy or he will find himself losing ground to Beijing.”
Chao encouraged Ma to adopt the same approach as the Dalai Lama, who used Tibet’s advantages to peacefully promote his political agenda.
“Ma does not need to provoke Beijing, but he does not need to be so low-key and weak-kneed either,” he said. “He would receive much more respect if he dared to speak up for Taiwan at an appropriate time. He would also raise the country’s international profile and secure more support from the international community.”
Liou To-hai (劉德海), a political professor at National Chengchi University, however, gave high marks to Ma’s last overseas trip. Nevertheless, he expressed concern over Ma’s proposed “diplomatic truce” with Beijing.
“It’s worth a try, but the problem is that we must depend on Beijing’s goodwill,” he said. “If China is bent on luring our diplomatic allies, there is nothing we can do about it and it poses a big risk.”
Beijing, however, has restrained itself so far because it realizes that it is to its disadvantage to give the Ma administration a hard time, because no matter who wins the next election, Liou said, no future leader will be as willing as Ma to improve relations with Beijing.
“It is obvious Beijing’s concessions to Taiwan are aimed at countering Washington’s domination in the region,” he said. “Taipei and Beijing might maintain improved relations for a while, but we also know that we don’t have any other alternative but to continue engaging Beijing.”
Liou said he agreed that the administration should focus on sustaining the country’s economic survival.
To boost international competitiveness, Liou said the government should team up with businesspeople to create the optimum environment for them.
He was not against signing free trade agreements with the country’s diplomatic allies in Central America, but such economic pacts seemed to have more political value than economic, he said.
Nor was he opposed to encouraging businesses to invest there if it conformed to their interests and that of the country, he said, but he did not think it was worth exchanging this for political recognition.
“Both the KMT and former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) governments attached too much importance to political recognition,” he said. “Sometimes we are threatened or blackmailed, but we take it because diplomatic relationships are what we are after and that is the price we have to pay.”
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