Archive for January 23rd, 2011

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Taiwan’s Negotiating Position: a Hyper-Inflated Debate

There seems to be a contrast between international, and Taiwanese coverage on Hu Jintao‘s state visit to America last week. German papers point out that there aren’t great changes in US-Chinese relations perceivable yet (neither for the better, nor for the worse), and that Barack Obama hadn’t forgotten the “humiliations” he suffered at the Copenhagen climate summit, or on his China visit (both events of late in 2009).  Even the National Examiner, “the inside source for everything local”, and a platform which frequently highlights Taiwan’s unresolved international status – the island being by no means an essential “part of China” -, acknowledges that Taiwan enjoys considerable Congressional support, even if the Obama administration sent “mixed signals” to Beijing about Taiwan.

Some Taiwanese media, however, cite concerns that there may be too much convergence between Washington’s and Beijing’s positions, when it comes to Taiwan’s status.

Raymond Burghardt, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT, Washington’s unofficial embassy in Taipei), was scheduled to arrive in Taiwan for a four-day visit in Taiwan during which he would meet with president Ma Ying-jeou. Taiwan’s foreign ministry reportedly said that Burghardt is there to brief Taiwan officials on the latest developments regarding Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States. Burghardt is now the AIT’s chairman, but not the actual de-facto ambassador. That would be the AIT’s director, William A. Stanton.

It has been argued that the US-China joint statement of November 17, 2009, which stated that the two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in US-China relations, marked a setback for Taiwan. This is probably true, although Washington’s definition of what core interests are may differ from Beijing’s definition any time. And the only difference between the 2009 joint statement, and previous administrations’ positions seems to have been that

The United States welcomes the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait and looks forward to efforts by both sides to increase dialogues and interactions in economic, political, and other fields, and develop more positive and stable cross-Strait relations.

The last paragraph, David Huang Wei-feng (黃偉峰), formerly a member of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) with the Chen Shui-bian government, argues, marks a violation of the US Six Assurances (六項保證) made by then US president Ronald Reagan in 1982, which said that the U.S. would not play a mediation role between Taiwan and China. That is how Focus Taiwan renders his views. The Liberty Times quotes him as saying that the wording – the United States encourages all forms of cross-strait dialog*) (美國鼓勵兩岸各種形式的對話), and that it supports ECFA -, could become an issue in Taiwan’s internal elections and policies (這種說法容易轉化為內部選舉政治的操作).

Some punditry is in order. That the DPP dislikes explicit American statements that support the KMT’s, rather than the DPP’s China policies, is also understandable, especially given the risks for Taiwan that agreements and involvement with China may carry.

But Reagan’s Six Assurances mirrored America’s stake in Taiwan’s de-facto independence. What Huang’s criticism of the joint statement amounts to is a demand that America must put Taiwan first in every way. Not only it’s freedom, but the sanctity of its internal affairs, too. That reminds me of a  behavior more frequently seen on the other site of the Taiwan Strait.

Above all, such remarks only highlight the fact that Taiwan wouldn’t be able to defend itself against a Chinese attack, or even against non-military pressure from Beijing. In that light, of course, it will still help if the Obama administration brings itself to sell Taiwan the weapons it asks for. Military  modernization can bolster Taiwan’s negotiation position vis-a-vis China to quite an extent – and this should happen, the sooner, the better.

But even if some nervousness is understandable, Taiwanese hypersensitivities are not helpful. Taiwan’s de-facto independence depends on America’s preparedness – and ability – to defend Taiwan, if need be. And sometimes, solutions can be cheaper than the sales of military imperial regalia as constantly discussed – fighter planes, submarines, etc.. Laser weapons, for example, can’t stop Chinese invaders, but they can help to defend Taiwan against the approximately 1,100 Chinese missiles targeting the island. And laser developments come at comparatively low costs.

Chen Shui-bian, Laura Bush in Costa Rica

There's a hand, my trusty friend.

I believe that the big debate about Taiwan’s negotiating position depending on arms supplies is hyper-inflated. It matters, yes. But compared to the actual balance of power between America and China, it’s a rather small issue.

As much as Taiwan’s dignity counts (most people who belong to a country probably feel that such matters count), it isn’t only the Ma administration which sometimes puts issues of prestige on the backburner in its interaction with the outside world. Those who criticize Ma for matters of protocol or national dignity should remember how previous president Chen Shui-bian accosted, umm, greeted Laura Bush in Costa Rica, in 2006. That was kind of “high-profile”, but it was low.

Sometimes it’s almost easy to understand why Washington is quite happy with the incumbent Taiwanese president. One would wish for a higher Taiwanese international profile now – but a low profile is still better than an ugly one.

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Note

*) exact wording:
Both sides underscored the importance of the Taiwan issue in U.S. – China relations. The Chinese side emphasized that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and expressed the hope that the U.S. side will honor its relevant commitments and appreciate and support the Chinese side’s position on this issue. The U.S. side stated that the United States follows its one China policy and abides by the principles of the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués. The United States applauded the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and welcomed the new lines of communications developing between them. The United States supports the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait and looks forward to efforts by both sides to increase dialogues and interactions in economic, political, and other fields, and to develop more positive and stable cross-Strait relations.

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Related
Ma Ying-jeou – he said WHAT, May 3, 2010

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