Several Taiwan watchers reacted in anger earlier this month when the Presidential Office said it would turn to the European Parliament for help over the “Taiwan, Province of China” name controversy at the WHO. Why, several asked, would President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration not turn to its oldest ally, the US, for help on the matter and seek succor instead from the Europeans, whose assistance could be expected to bring but the most marginal of results?
It would be easy to assume that Ma’s decision was in fact based on the expectation that the EU would do nothing that risked causing anger in Beijing. By so doing, Ma, who is seeking re-election in January, would meet expectations at home that he do something to redress the slight, while ensuring that the outcome wouldn’t undermine relations with Beijing, which remains the core of his current and future policy.
While there may be some validity to this contention, the context in which the controversy emerged provides alternative explanations. Ma very likely wanted to seek assistance from the US on the matter, but may have been dissuaded by Washington, or US officials in Taiwan, from doing so. The reason is simple: Just as the crisis risked boiling over, General Chen Bingde (陳炳德), chief of general staff for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was arriving in Washington on a groundbreaking visit to mend military-to-military ties amid fears of China’s “rise.” The last thing Washington wanted at this sensitive juncture was for a name flap at the WHO to interfere with what the Pentagon and other US agencies saw as a very important visit. Given China’s propensity to call off meetings in retaliation for support of any kind for Taiwan, we can assume that any intervention on Washington’s part at the WHO could have derailed the whole visit, which was months in the making and necessitated well-calibrated preparations.
Rather than always assume the worst from the Ma administration, we should pay more attention to the environment in which it operates and the immense challenges it faces in terms of its relationship with the US. History is replete with precedents in which larger political imperatives prevented governments from adopting what otherwise looked like what should have been “rational” and “logical” policies. Britain’s and India’s official silence when the PLA invaded Tibet in the early 1950s is such an example, with both governments forced to take the crisis in Korea, among others, into consideration.
Which brings us to another issue over which the Ma administration has faced heavy criticism: arms sales.
Over the past three years or so, Ma has made several headline-grabbing calls on Washington to release the 66 F-16C/D aircraft requested by Taiwan — so often, in fact, that a number of analysts (this author included) have come to regard the whole exercise as nothing more than cynical signaling for domestic consumption.
As it turns out, however, incompetence, rather than lack of will, appears to have been the main cause for the lack of results.
Information obtained by this author reveals it is unlikely the Ma administration was being disingenuous in its calls for the F-16C/Ds and diesel-electric submarines. Reliable sources say there is every reason to believe that Taipei genuinely wants them and understand clearly the downside should it not secure the commitment from Washington. In fact, in all meetings at the senior level with Taiwanese officials attended by sources consulted for this article, the officials were “singing from the same song sheet.”
That said, the problems in Washington are manifest. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) as a lobbying body is reportedly in near disarray, with good officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but no strategy. On arms sales particularly, TECRO officials have not been identifying the right decision making nodes — US Senate and House committees addressing armed services and foreign affairs are at the top of the list — in the system and working them with the right message.
Incompetence notwithstanding, there reportedly are signs of progress. Taiwan is said to have put together three-man teams composed of foreign ministry and Ministry of National Defense officials working together on arms sales and are predominantly used to brief staff on Capitol Hill on specific needs — such as F-16C/Ds — as well as long-term trends.
Lack of progress on the fighter aircraft and submarines is not necessarily the result of cynical politics. Rather, it is more likely a mixture of bureaucratic incompetence on both sides and very difficult US-Taiwan-China circumstances in Washington that have been heading in this direction since 2006. It could be said that by not rattling the cage of the Taiwan Strait, Ma has been a model leader for US President Barack Obama’s administration, and yet Washington has not reciprocated with moves that could be helpful to his re-election campaign.
The reason? It’s all about the context.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
The US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for this year certainly cannot be faulted for having a narrow focus or Pollyanna perspective. From a rising China, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to climate change, future pandemics and the growing reach of international organized crime, US intelligence analysis is as comprehensive as it is worrying. Inaugurated two decades ago as a gesture of transparency and to inform the public and the US Congress, the annual threat assessment offers the intelligence agencies’ top-line conclusions about the country’s leading national-security threats — although always in ways that do not compromise “sources and methods.”
Let’s begin with the bottom line. The sad truth of the matter is that Beijing has trampled on its solemn pledge to grant Hong Kong a great deal of autonomy for at least fifty years. In so doing, the PRC ignored a promise Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) made to both Great Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the wider world back in the early 1980s. This was at a time when Beijing, under Deng and his successors, appeared to be seeking an equitable accommodation with the West. I remain puzzled by China’s recent policy shift. Was it because Hong Kong was perceived
The recent removal of items related to Japanese Shinto culture from the Taoyuan Martyrs’ Shrine and Cultural Park has caused an uproar. The complex was built as a Shinto shrine by the Japanese during the colonial period, but was transformed into a martyrs’ shrine commemorating veterans of the Chinese Civil War after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Figurines of the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu Okami were allowed into the shrine for a cultural event last year, attracting throngs of visitors to see the Shinto decorations and practices. However, some people accused the Taoyuan City Government of
The “US skeptic” and “Lai skeptic” arguments are gaining traction in Taiwanese political discourse, and might become a major campaign issue in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. The former says that the US cannot be trusted to defend Taiwan should China launch an invasion, while the latter says that Washington does not have the faith in Vice President William Lai (賴清德) — a self-described “pragmatic independence worker” who is seeking the top job — that it has in President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). There is precedent for concern after the way US President Joe Biden handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and