The US beef debacle has opened yet another door for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in its claim that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration is incapable of good governance.
Following its poor handling of the devastation brought by Typhoon Morakot in August and safety concerns surrounding the swine flu vaccination program, the Cabinet’s decision to partially lift a longstanding ban on US beef imports — followed by its about-face amid growing opposition to the deal, which had been negotiated away from the public eye — has handed the DPP a political gift on a gold platter.
The inept handling of the beef issue has led many to question whether Ma has surrounded himself with officials who are either incapable of providing good advice on political matters, or who knew the unilateral decision would cause a fracas, but chose to proceed nonetheless. The first explanation points to ghastly incompetence in the Cabinet, while the latter hints at efforts by more conservative elements both within the administration and outside it — but still within the pan-blue camp — to throw a wrench in US-Taiwan relations and thereby consolidate Taiwan’s drift into the Chinese sphere of influence.
In either scenario, one government official stands out as the source of the political faux pas: National Security Council Secretary-General Su Chi (蘇起).
Asked for comment, Bruce Jacobs, professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University in Australia, said: “Su is not very bright, [but] he is extraordinarily opportunistic. I wouldn’t look for too much rationality in [his handling of the beef issue], just incompetence.”
“He was hoping to solve the [US] arms issue and to get the Americans on side. In doing this [however], he ignored the earlier agreements in the Taiwan government regarding beef,” Jacobs said. “I talked to several senior Cabinet people just after Su completed his ‘negotiations’ and they were all quite visibly confused.”
A source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Taipei Times that many officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “hate” Su and would like to see him out, adding that he has no clue about how to conduct foreign policy.
Ministry officials, the source said, were also angered by Su bypassing top Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and legislative officials throughout the process.
From the very beginning, Su, who fits more naturally in the conservative, or “old guard” of the KMT, was instrumental in the decision to lift the ban and, as the top official on strategic matters, should have warned Ma that the approach could backfire and end up harming relations with Washington.
If Su were to stand down over the controversy, such a development would be a major success for the DPP, principally because Su is situated in the deep-blue camp alongside, among others, the likes of former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜), both of whom showed their colors during the visit to Taichung last month of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林).
All three, in fact, have made visits to Beijing in recent years and enjoy good relations with the Chinese Communist Party. The trio also ostensibly side with Beijing in the perception that Ma is proceeding too cautiously on cross-strait “reconciliation.”
As an elected official, Ma must take into account his ability to get re-elected in 2012, which compels him to take a somewhat cautious, middle-of-the-road approach to relations with Beijing. Anything more extreme, such as the hastier process favored by Lien, would render Ma unelectable.
There is no doubt, however, that Su, who does not appear to have aspirations for high office, represents a more conservative pressure on Ma through his channeling of deep-blue voices, which could force the president to act less cautiously than he should. The fact that Ma and Su have known each other for a long time — they attended the same high school and came through the China Youth Corps together — also implies that Su wields considerable influence on the president.
Criticizing the Ma administration on Wednesday, DPP spokeswoman Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) said that Ma, Su and Department of Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang (楊志良) should step down to shoulder responsibility for the beef controversy.
Rather than aim at several targets at once, however, the DPP would be more likely to score a hit if it focused on one individual.
Given the signs that Yaung, as well as the Department of Health, were kept in the dark on the US beef policy shift, the DPP would waste energy trying to unseat him. The logical candidate to take the fall, then, is Su, whose council bypassed the Department of Health altogether.
Whether Ma yields or not, however, will depend on his assessment of Su’s utility in an administration that is already rife with disloyalty, said June Teufel Dreyer, professor at the University of Miami’s department of political science.
“Su is widely unpopular, but [he is] someone who has been loyal to Ma for a long time. From Ma’s point of view, he has a lot of old-line KMT types around him who aren’t very loyal,” Dreyer said.
“So as Ma weighs whether he’d be better off jettisoning the unpopular Su or keeping him, what do we imagine he is thinking?” she asked.
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