Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) during an interview last month with the US’ National Public Radio said that “Taiwan is not pursuing formal diplomatic ties with the US for now, but there is ‘a lot’ of room to further strengthen relations.”
One would expect that for the foreign minister of Taiwan, which has long been “diplomatically isolated,” the opportunity to end the nightmare of constantly losing diplomatic allies would be very welcome. Surprisingly, instead of seeking allies, Wu rejected diplomatic ties. One cannot help but wonder what secrets lie behind this approach.
US President Donald Trump is undeniably the US president who has been most friendly to and supportive of Taiwan in the past half-century. Not only did he receive a congratulatory telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) after winning the 2016 election, many Taiwan-friendly bills have been passed during his presidency.
In addition, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach visited Taipei in the past few months. If Taiwan-US relations can use this situation to further the establishment of diplomatic ties, it would be a dream come true.
This is why Wu’s statements that Taiwan is not pursuing formal diplomatic ties with the US and that he hopes to strengthen economic, trade, political and security relations with the US are so puzzling.
Is he afraid of being rejected by the US, and therefore took a step back? Has he received information indicating the impossibility of establishing diplomatic ties and he wants to avoid the humiliation of rejection? Is he afraid that establishing diplomatic ties would offend China and he does not seek to establish diplomatic ties to avoid Beijing’s anger?
Does Taiwan need China’s consent before establishing diplomatic ties with the US? Is he trying to avoid adding to the turbulence in relations between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to avoid Taiwan being branded a troublemaker? Or is it something else?
Taiwan has in the past few years been going through an emotional roller-coaster as it has established and severed diplomatic ties with a series of largely nameless countries without much substantial political significance.
For the 23.5 million Taiwanese, cutting ties with those countries hardly makes any difference — even if ties were eventually re-established, people would hardly feel any benefit from them.
However, it would be important beyond imagination if Taiwan were to establish diplomatic relations with the US, the leader of the democratic world, as that would encourage many countries to follow the Washington’s lead. That would be a great diplomatic victory for Taiwan.
Establishing diplomatic relations does not mean having to choose sides. There are many countries that have diplomatic ties with the democratic US and communist China. Even neutral countries, such as Switzerland and Sweden, do not merely strengthen their economic, trade, political and security relations through pursuing diplomatic ties.
By drawing this line in the sand and eliminating the possibility, Wu has poured a bucket of cold water on the Taiwanese, closing the door on the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US.
Even if it is impossible for Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations, it should not be explicitly said.
Wu could have been more neutral in his statement, for example by saying that Taiwan is willing and looking forward to establishing diplomatic relations with all countries that value freedom, democracy and human rights, including, of course, its neighbor China, which claims to love those values.
If put this way, it would have been difficult for big countries, such as the US and China, to oppose pursuing diplomatic ties with Taiwan if they want to keep the appearance of valuing freedom, democracy and human rights.
Chang Kuo-tsai is a retired associate professor at National Hsinchu University of Education.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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