My friend Robert Maguire of The Only Redhead in Taiwan talks to a fellow member of the press at the Brookings/Epoch conference, Dec 3, 2008. While many observers believe that Robert is a liberal because he (1) works in the media; (2) drinks latte, and (3) has a wife whose name consists of the same syllable, repeated -- that is not true. His political beliefs are thoroughly redhead.
Apologies for the lack of blogging. Spent the last couple of days running around Taipei in meetings, and looking for teahouses that offer beer and free wireless. After a number of misadventures in Starbucks, I've decided that venti is Italian for rip-off.
I spent Wednesday attending the Conference organized by the Epoch Foundation and Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies (CNAPS) at the Far Eastern Hotel in Taipei entitled, "Cross-Strait Political and Economic Relations and the Next American Administration." The opening speaker was Strobe Talbott, head of Brookings, followed by Richard Bush, the longtime US government Taiwan specialist who will no doubt oversee Taiwan policy for the Obama Administration, as Talbott more or less said in his opening talk. Hence my attendance was driven by the desire to get an idea of what can be expected from the Obama Administration, whose advent is dreaded by many in Asia. Many Brookings scholars are moving into the Obama Administration's foreign policy apparatus.
The first panel, Richard Bush in center, with microphone, Frank Ching on the far right, Eric Shih on the far left. The first panel on Asia and Cross Strait Relations was wonderful: the American Bush; Michael Schiffer, who was Sen. Feinstein's foreign policy guy -- Sen. Feinstein whose husband has invested millions in China; a Korean and Japanese scholar; Frank Ching, whose anti-Taiwan views are clear in his writing, and Eric Shih, who was the Washington Bureau chief for TVBS and was a scholar in Beijing before becoming senior producer and anchor at the pro-KMT China Times. There's something very typical about a panel on cross-strait relations in Taiwan that is thick with institutionally pro-China types but contains no one who can speak credibly for Taiwan or its independence and democracy side.
I'm not going to summarize the talks because everyone has heard them already in one form or another. The general idea was that the Obama Administration is going to be much less belligerent, more multilateral, more interested in consensus solutions to global problems. At the same time, each of the speakers assured the audience that there would no change in Asia policy, because US interests, like death and taxes, are eternal. But I would like to hit on a few points.
First, virtually all the speakers mentioned the idea that Beijing must give Taiwan more international space, as did Vice President Vincent Siew in his lunchtime speech. It is clear that the foreign establishments of several nations are going to be judging China on whether it reciprocates President Ma Ying-jeou's "opening." Eric Shih, currently a China Times anchor and producer who has studied in Beijing (and refers to the pro-Taiwan side as "separatists"), said that his Beijing contacts had told him that observer status at the WHA is a "foregone conclusion." Woohoo! We can observe an assembly! Maybe we can do it by teleconference, and save a few bucks. As a US businessman sitting nearby observed, Taiwanese are a practical people and would not be very happy with such a tiny bone. No doubt foreign observers will break out in spasms of joy and praise the statesmanship of the great Chinese when that occurs.
Vice President Siew, who spoke over lunch. Fortunately they served coffee.
First, the P-s: peace, prosperity, process, pragmatism. The first two are mere cant, invoked like Tu Di Gong at any international meeting, but the last were keywords that threaded their way through the day's conversations. The Taipei Times chose to focus on Richard Bush's warning on sovereignty, and of course, mention Richard Bush's condemnation of the DPP's "beliefs" that the Chinese were a threat, while giving credence to China's "beliefs" that Taiwan democracy is a threat (it is; to Chinese colonialism and imperialism). Bush generally followed the Establishment line in the US that the Ma Administration's "peace" moves are good things welcome in Washington. But I do not think Bush's warning to Ma was the really important thing, newsworthy as it might be. For word-watchers out there, Bush always used the term unification, never the pro-Beijing reunification. Kudos to him.
Two p-s stood out in Bush's presentation, process and pragmatism. Bush (along with others) called for Taiwan and China to enter the process of building trust and links, although no one mentioned what the outcome of the process will be. If only Taiwan enters this process, everything will be okay: prosperity will boom, peace will reign on earth, and Bambi's father will rise from the dead (no doubt crying Braaaiiinnnssss! Braiinnnssss!). The constant invocations from the speakers to just get into the process and all will be well reminded me forcibly of expert recommendations to deregulate the US financial sector because then everyone would get rich. All speakers did stress the slowness of the expected change.
The emphasis on process resulted, inevitably, in questions from the audience asking what the outcomes would be, or what the benefits of continuing the process might be. Bush dodged these and refused to specify what outcome would be desired or likely. The process was put forth as the goal, suggesting that (1) the Establishment wants to deliver Taiwan to China with a big bow-tie on it since we all know where the KMT is heading; (2) the Establishment thinks that the Taiwan-China diplomatic process is going to be like the Middle East peace process: interminable, and providing plenty of employment for diplomats, hence outcomes are irrelevant; (3) the Establishment thinks the US has little power to influence outcomes; or (4) the Establishment knows that as long as they emphasize process and appear to do China's bidding, China will be happy, while the independence movement in Taiwan will never permit the actual annexation of Taiwan to China. Hence, stalemate, no real loss. The reader may choose; I cannot.
Taking a break.
The other p, pragmatism, is positively frightening. Increasingly it is used as a code word in opposition to ideology, positing a value-free politics that resembles another p-word, practical. Bush used it several times, as did others. Pragmatic used to mean the adoption of realistic means to reach the goals dictated by one's values, but now means "let's make money!" as if moneymaking had no political ideology -- and as if the ideological struggles in Taiwan were not, at bottom, also struggles for control of resources. It also provides a very broad hint that the Obama Administration's foreign policy in Asia is going to follow Clinton's and that of all previous presidents: muted, formulaic support for democratic values, especially when it comes to China. Jim Mann is right.
Many people, including many in the DPP, have expressed fear at the likely negative impact of Obama's China policy on Taiwan. I have to say that I saw nothing to reassure me on that score. Whatever the actual reasons for the Establishment's position, the emphasis on a process that can only result in Taiwan's annexation to China in some form, legitimated by an emphasis on a pragmatism that for practical purposes is ostensibly value-free, cannot be good for Taiwan. Another bit of interesting fall-out is the "ratchet effect" on the status quo -- as the process becomes the status quo, by default, moves away from it and in defense of Taiwan's sovereignty and democracy will be termed status quo violations, while moves toward China, though violations of any rational definition of the status quo, will be applauded.
I hope that the incoming Administration will adopt, as its basic position, the same position publicly espoused by President Ma on several occasions: that the future of Taiwan must be decided with the consent of all its 23 million people, and beyond that, by a referendum of all the people. This would cost the US nothing (constitutional change in Taiwan requires a public referendum anyway) but would publicly reaffirm the US commitment to the island and to its democracy.
As for the q-s, well, they consisted of questions. For some reason audience members cannot ask a question of less than 30 minutes in length -- a couple of Taiwanese questioners gave what appeared to be inaugural addresses as questions -- speakers twice asked the audience to keep the questions pithy, but would probably have had better luck asking the pope to become atheist. I did not get a chance to ask my questions about defense (1) is the "porcupine" strategy going to be officially promoted by the US under Obama for Taiwan? (2) will we see an upgrade in mil-mil relations and (3) where are my F-16s?! Actually, I've already heard that the Obama Administration is going to follow the Bush Administration's lead and not sell Taiwan F-16s. It's pragmatic, I suppose....
UPDATE: J Michael Cole's Discussion of the Conference the following day is here.