The “senior official” in Washington who tried to undermine Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) presidential campaign last week was almost certainly from the White House and not the US Department of State, analysts in the US say.
The official called the Financial Times to claim that Tsai had left US President Barack Obama’s administration with “distinct concerns” about her ability to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait.
The resulting story has been seen as particularly damaging to Tsai and a clear attempt to influence Taiwan’s Jan. 14 presidential election in favor of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
It is not considered to be coincidental that China strongly favors the pro-Beijing policies of Ma over Tsai’s more independence-minded views.
During a three-day visit to Washington, Tsai met with both State Department and US National Security Council (NSC) officials.
Some analysts now believe the unsolicited call to the newspaper, aimed at crippling Tsai’s campaign, may have been unprecedented as a calculated and virtually open political attack.
The newspaper described the caller, who was well known to reporters, as a “senior administration official.” The official’s message was clear: The Obama administration did not trust Tsai to keep the peace and it would be better to re-elect Ma.
Tsai’s aides and entourage were shocked because there had been no trace of such sentiments in their meetings.
At the State Department, she had met with US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell and their response to her views and policies had appeared to be positive, Tsai’s aides said.
US Senator James Inhofe, the Republican who is co-chair of the US Senate Taiwan Caucus, immediately asked the State Department for an explanation.
“The ‘official’ mentioned in this [Financial Times] article is totally unknown to us and certainly does not speak for the Obama administration,” the State Department replied.
To reinforce this position, Campbell has since told other political figures on Capitol Hill that the State Department was not involved and that the views expressed to the Financial Times did not reflect State Department thinking.
This leaves the NSC, where Tsai met NSC Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel and China Director Evan Medeiros.
Washington experts who specialize in China are now speculating that Russel and Medeiros reported their own views on Tsai — those contained in the Financial Times article — to a more senior White House figure close to the Oval Office. And this figure, identity unknown, either authorized someone within the council to call the Financial Times or authorized another White House senior official or made the call himself.
Whichever, the call was made without the knowledge and without the support of the State Department.
According to one diplomatic source, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has since been briefed on the situation and was “not pleased” at what had happened.
Behind all of this lies a long-running disagreement — some insiders call it a feud — between the State Department and the NSC.
Chris Nelson, a well-regarded Asia analyst, has written in his privately distributed Nelson Report newsletter that there is a “highly personal, often bitter animosity between senior White House officials and senior Asia players at State.”
He now wonders if that animosity will have a “deleterious effect” on foreign policy formulation because the senior administration official’s decision to call the Financial Times has raised the dispute to a new level.
Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, has written that Tsai has “assiduously sought to project reasonableness and responsibility.”
“The White House comments [in the story] reflect an all-too-well-trained instinct for carrying China’s water on cross-Straits issues. It is the PRC [People’s Republic of China] that is dictating the terms of the ‘stability’ the US is concerned with maintaining. It is the PRC that declares any deviation from the trend in the direction of unification ‘destabilizing’ and threatens to resort to force to preclude any movement counter to this trend — as it alone perceives it,” he wrote.
“And judging by the White House response to its encounter with Tsai this [last] week, the PRC’s perception is the only one it cares about,” Lohman wrote.
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