serious fallout from Taiwan President Chen's New Years speech has now hit...President Bush has been briefed on Chen's remarks Sunday that he was "considering" abolishing the National Unification Council, that it was time to press for Taiwan, under that name, to be admitted to the United Nations, and that he might also seek to amend the Constitution prior to the 2008 presidential election (on Taiwan, as in the US).
Chen had previously promised not to call for ANY of these things, since, the US had assumed, Chen had "learned his lesson" from 2003. That's when similar remarks threatened US-China relations at a time when the White House was, as it still is, defining most foreign policy through the prism of how it affects cooperation in the war on terrorism, and specifically with China, resolving the nuclear crisis with North Korea.
So when you add in the absolutely central role China, with Russia, is now playing in keeping Iran from escalating to a possible military crisis in the Middle East, and you can see why there is absolutely no inclination by Bush or the National Security Council to sympathize with Chen's personal political issues.
Currently, it is clearly the US view that all three of Chen's Sunday remarks, while conditional, would constitute a unilateral change in the status quo which keeps the often tense peace between China and Taiwan, and thus adds an unacceptable risk to US-China cooperation on "larger issues". While it can be argued that Chen was basically indulging in very domestic Taiwan-focused politicking, the Administration is not buying that, although they have asked for clarification, sources indicate.
For all of these reasons, then, President Bush is said to be "personally furious", along the lines of "he did it AGAIN, after what happened last time?"
"The last time", Bush ended up feeling he had no choice but to write a stern personal letter to Chen reminding him of the facts of life...a humiliating move which was followed up by Taiwan's worst nightmare...Bush stood next to then-Premier of China Wen, and repeated his opposition to Taiwan independence, and any unilateral threats to the status quo.
Now Taiwan faces a repeat of this, up to and including the threat of Bush standing next to President Hu Jin-tao, when he arrives in April, and making similar remarks.
Observers report Taiwanese diplomats today seeking guidance from both the NSC and State on what will calm the waters, but it does not sound like the US side is making things easy for them. In addition to demanding a background explanation for the domestic political context, the US wants to hear Chen himself repeat his promises NOT to do the things he discussed Sunday.
In the often arcane catechism of Cross Strait "dialogue", Chen will be expected to repeat "The Four Noes"...specific things he and Taiwan will not do.
While Chen, by now, can see the gravity of this situation, concerned observers worry that his basic focus on legacy, and holding off the KMT in the 2008 elections, makes it by no means predictable that he can bring himself to "satisfy" the US (and Chinese?) demands this time.
It is easy to see why ESWN picked up this report, as it is highly slanted against Chen Shui-bian -- democracy and independence are not "Chen's personal political issues" but of vital interest to the whole nation. Worse than that, though, is it shows clearly how (1) US officialdom is clueless about Taiwan and (2) how our wars in the Middle East, just as so many of us prophesied, are having a negative impact on Taiwan's ability to garner US support. The report says that
Chen had previously promised not to call for ANY of these things, since, the US had assumed, Chen had "learned his lesson" from 2003.
Actually, that was 2004, not 2003. The BBC describes the process of constitutional reform, (Chen's remarks from March 2004) and also notes that
Szu-yin Ho from the National Chengchi University agrees: "The Chinese worries are unnecessary.
"The high bar will keep any independence proposal at bay, thus reducing the likelihood of war."
David at jujuflop also describes this:
The Legislature (the ‘parliament’ of Taiwan) has been reformed and reduced in size. This will take effect after the next Legislative elections (in just under 3 years). Hopefully, this will mean more legislation and less fist-fights from 2008 on. The National Assembly has been consigned to the dustbin of history. While it may have been an important body for governing China, it has never been anything other than an undemocratic joke on Taiwan. It’s passing will not be mourned. Taiwan now has a rational process for future changes to the constitution. However, it is worth noting that the new rules probably make it harder to pass constitutional reform in Taiwan than anywhere else in the world.
The US has clearly massively overreacted. Why did the US overreact? Because apparently there is no one in Washington who has a clue about Taiwan. Read what the report says:
In addition to demanding a background explanation for the domestic political context, the US wants to hear Chen himself repeat his promises NOT to do the things he discussed Sunday.Hello? "Demanding a background explanation for the domestic political context?" Do you mean to tell me that US officials are unaware of what is going on here? Chen is merely speaking for domestic political consumption, discussing strategies for realizing democracy in Taiwan that the democracy supporters have been pushing since the late 1970s. Moreover, Chen has never stopped calling for constitutional reform, and further, proposals and action on such reform has continued non-stop since his second term began in 2004. Lee Teng-hui discussed constitutional reform in October of 2004 in a conference with US scholars and experts. The President's office launched a constitutional reform blog in 2005. A country-wide educational project on constitutional reform was mooted last year. As Chen noted in a speech last October, constitutional reform has been ongoing for the last 14 years, most recently with the abolition of the national assembly in 2005.
I don't expect our President, who combines the intellectual abilities of three-day-old oatmeal with the ethical acuity of a banana republic dictator, to know much about our situation here, but I do believe that someone in the State Department should know more about Taiwan than what orders the US has most recently handed down for Chen to obey. If US officials are not aware of the fact that constitutional reform is an ongoing project in Taiwan, if they are not aware that Chen Shui-bian is the head of a party devoted to independence and democracy in Taiwan, if they are not aware that calls for constitutional reform and abolishing the NUC are part of package of moves that Chen uses to rally his troops, then they should immediately tender their resignations and be replaced by people who actually know something about the situation here. I can name a baker's dozen local bloggers and local newspaper reporters who knew apparently know more about local politics and the domestic background than any expert in the US government.(ADDED: Ok, so I was pissed and wanted to abuse someone)
The truly staggering level of US ham-handedness on display here can be apprehended if the reader recalls that in the 2000 election, the US was pro-Soong, and anti-Chen. In the next election, of 2008, the US is likely to be anti-DPP and pro-Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT. If the US wants to reduce local sympathy for Chen and the positions he espouses, painting him as "Chen the Beleaguered" is exactly the wrong way to go about it. Observers of The Beautiful Island often miss that while Taiwan is always happy to give China the digiticus impudicus, it is also delighted to give the US the one-finger salute from time to time, as the 2000 election results show.
This is a sad moment for both countries. And it is sadder still to watch the island's enemies step in to widen the breach.
UPDATE: The Taipei Times reports that the Chen Administration claims that there is no problem with the US.
The president yesterday appeared in the square before the Presidential Office to open a cultural exhibition and present red envelopes to performers. However, he refused to answer the media's questions on the state of the nation's relationship with the US.
Later, Mark Chen dismissed a report in the Chinese-language China Times that cited the Nelson Report, a private Washington-based newsletter dealing with Asia, as saying that US President George W. Bush was furious at Chen Shui-bian's proposals and that the government had not been told of any discontent on the part of the US.
"If the discontent does exist, Taiwan will nevertheless continue to communicate with the US," Mark Chen told reporters.
He added that the president would make a public statement on the matter if necessary.
"Taiwan and the US have different stances and interests. Taiwan, of course, has its own thinking. We've taken advantage of all possible channels to communicate with [Washington] to avoid misunderstandings," he said.(emphasis mine)
And of course:
Minister of Foreign Affairs James Huang (黃志芳) yesterday also rebutted the China Times report.
"We don't think the Nelson Report quotes reliable sources and do not believe that President Bush was angry," he said.
"It might not be easy for some American decision-makers to fully understand the president's Lunar New Year proposals because of their lack of deep understanding of Taiwan's society and because the cross-strait relationship changes rapidly," he said.
Huang said that formal diplomatic channels are being used to exchange opinions, and that his contact with AIT officials on two occasions in the past days was based on honesty and reason.
"We don't think bilateral relations have reached a crisis," he said.
Huang's remarks basically concede the essence of the Nelson Report's claims: that "some American decision makers" do not fully understand what is going on -- Somebody Didn't Understand What Chen Was Saying.
UPDATE: David at jujuflop has me convinced that Chen is more to blame than the US; see his comments below. On the other hand, the extent of the US eff-up may also be judged from Bradsher's comments in the original NYT article:
Other political experts in Taipei said that President Chen's latest move was not a gambit to move Taiwan toward greater independence but an attempt to outflank hard-line independence advocates within his own party.
So the US may actually have encouraged hardline independence advocates by shutting down moderates. Another brilliant move. I hope the US does its homework behind the scenes next time it wants to sputter indignantly at Chen.
UPDATE: Korea Herald has an article on the topic from a few days ago.
In an additional sting to Washington's rebuke, Ereli said that Taiwan's participation in the UN would be a unilateral change in the status quo and that Washington could not support it.
His comment startled China watchers in the United States.
Prof Wang said: "To my knowledge, this is the first time that a US official has clearly defined Taiwan's effort to join the UN as a 'unilateral change of the status quo'. Ereli's remark is very significant."
Taiwan was forced out of the WHO in 1972, a year after it lost its UN seat to China.
UPDATE: David at jujuflop thumped me over the head (see comments), so I have to ask: WTF was Chen doing making that speech without running it by the US first?
LINKS: Don't miss discussions by Jason at Wandering to Tamshui, David at jujuflop and my man Maddog at Indiac. Jason explains the President's legal defense:
The pro-Beijing pan-blue alliance is already attacking Chen for going back on his "5 Noes" (四不一沒有) promise from his 2000 inaugural speech, in which he pledged not to abolish the NUC during his tenure. Not so, says the Presidential Office, which points out that as an unregulated organization within the Presidential Office, the NUC would therefore be subject to abolition under a decision by the pan-blue controlled legislature to further undercut the Presidential Office by getting rid of the organizations not directly regulated by the legislature. Since its future is already in doubt, says the Presidential Office, the abolishment of the council (which is still only being considered, mind you) would therefore not be contrary to the "5 Noes".
I have to admit that I saw this as a storm in a teacup, at first. It has become very interesting for what it says about US-Taiwan relations -- nothing at all good. Indiac makes a very solid point about Chen's 4 No's/1 Without (5 No's):
Therefore, as long as the CCP regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office, I will not declare independence, I will not change the national title, I will not push forth the inclusion of the so-called "state-to-state" description in the Constitution, and I will not promote a referendum to change the status quo in regards to the question of independence or unification. Furthermore, the abolition of the National Reunification Council or the National Reunification Guidelines will not be an issue.
Chen is not backtracking on a promise here, since his original declaration had clear conditions that China has failed to comply with.
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