Monday, February 06, 2006

More Reporting on US Overreaction to Chen's Speech

I blogged on this yesterday (US-Taiwan Relations Take Dip), and here today The Agonist (tip to ESWN) has excerpts from an article from the Nelson report on the US reaction to Chen Shui-bian's speech. (UPDATE: Some very good comments from David at jujuflop at the bottom, don't miss'em.)

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.


    STOP_George said...


    I don't think there is an ounce of hatred left in my heart for what the Bush regime has done to your country and to the world.

    David said...

    My sympathies are actually with the US government on this one. The issue is not what Chen's been saying, it's the total lack of communication with the US government about it beforehand.

    Given that the administration hasn't changed in the US or Taiwan in the last 5+ years, it's criminal that they have failed to build up one iota of mutual understanding or a way of working together, and I think the majority (but not all) of the blame lies with Taiwan. I thought one of Chen's biggest failures in his first 4 years was his management of US relations - I was under the impression that things were improving, but apparently not.

    On the NUC guidelines: I do wonder why he originally promised not to abolish them - wouldn't the "4 noes" have been enough (without the one without, so to speak)?

    In retrospect, I'm wondering whether he was thinking about changing the NUC guidelines during his 2004 inauguration speech - if i get myself organised after new year, I might expand on that ...

    STOP_George said...


    How the hell can you "communicate" with a psychopathic murdering regime?

    In case you didn't notice in the last 5 years:

    They. don't. listen. to. reason.

    David said...

    Err ... stop_george: you communicate with a "psychopathic murdering regime" (we're talking about the US here right?) much the same way as any other. You could just drop 'em an email:

    Dear George, next week I'll give a speech mentioning the possibility of disbanding the out-of-date NUC Guidelines. This will have no practical effect on cross-strait relations, so please ignore the kneejerk howling from across the strait. If you have any questions, please give me a call. Happy new year and all that,
    Prez. Chen

    It's not that difficult. Then when the US is asked for an opinion, instead of them saying "It's a bit of a shock to us, too" they say "We were informed beforehand, and while we have reservations about it, CSB has assured us that our opinions will be taken into consideration before any concrete steps are taken"

    Jeez. My 2 year old son could handle international relations better than this lot.

    STOP_George said...


    You really believe that this was a shock to the U.S.?

    You forgot that truth has been "collateral damage" since November 2000.

    Michael Turton said...


    You are probably right in saying that Taiwan should have communicated with the US on the particulars of the speech. Former AIT Nat Bellocchi has been saying for years that US-Taiwan communications need to be improved.

    But at the same time, the US reaction is entirely out of control. There is nothing new in Chen's speech (abolishing the NUC means essentially eliminating a US$35 budget item) and nothing that Taiwan has not been doing continuously for the last 5+ years. Where was the US the last two years since they last told Chen to shut up? What did they think Chen was going to talk about? To modify what you said, they also could have responded -- "Although we were not informed beforehand, and although we have reservations about it, CSB has assured us many times that our opinions will be taken into consideration before any concrete steps are taken."

    The US position is absurd -- for much greater steps were taken by the KMT in modifying the Constitution and in changing relations with China -- but the US reaction was never so out of proportion. I feel like if I shift my couch to the other side of the room here, Ereli is going to make a speech saying the US is concerned that I've altered the cross-strait balance......

    All the same, I agree that Chen needs to inform the US so that they don't squawk like this the next time he chooses to publicly discuss policies he has been openly and publicly pursuing for the last five years. If the US is so completely in the dark about the last five years, Taiwan needs to get on the ball and inform them.

    I personally would be glad to host any US officials who want to make a visit.


    David said...

    Michael, I've got no argument that the US position (if the Nelson Report is accurate) is absurd. A report which says that CSB has promised NOT to change the constitution is just daft (and of course the UN name question comes up *every* year).

    I think our only difference is where to place the onus for the crap communication. In general, the onus has to be on Taiwan (after all which country needs the other country more?).

    In this particular case, your being a bit disingeneous saying there's nothing new in Chen's speech - without any warning the US hears "Chen is talking about breaking his 4 Noes/1 Without promise". Without any clarification or warning from Taiwan, I think the US is allowed to go a bit apeshit ...

    In your update, the MOFA said "It might not be easy for some American decision-makers to fully understand the president's Lunar New Year proposals". That, to me, is just not acceptable - the job of the MOFA is to make sure the US does understand. If they don't, then it's Taiwan that loses, not the US.

    Anonymous said...

    I think its a mistake to assume that State doesn't have people analysing Taiwan domestic politics to the nth degree and passing their reports up the line. Its not a close knowledge of Taiwan thats lacking in US officialdom - it would lkely be more of a case of Bush only really focussing on Taiwan when it becomes a problem (and the US has enough foreign policy problems right? Its a full plate.) I dont see a straight line between understandng Taiwan and then, necessarily, coming out with 'Taiwan-friendly' foreign policy as there must be a whole bunch of other issues to weigh up.

    Michael Turton said...

    Huoguo, of course State knows what's going on. I was just being abusive. Clearly, there is someone at the top who is not paying attention to what he is being fed. The US is really way overreacting...without the US overreaction, there isn't any issue.

    without any warning the US hears "Chen is talking about breaking his 4 Noes/1 Without promise".

    Yeah, I guess you are right. The 4th No is the not changing the National Unification Council or its guidelines...even though the council doesn't really function anymore.

    OK let's agree that Chen needs to run it past the US gov't before he makes any announcements on cross-strait policy.

    I think part of the problem is that at heart, the US still thinks Chen is some kind of madman who at any moment might trigger a war on the Taiwan strait, instead of a pragmatic center-right nationalist who wants to keep his island out of Chinese clutches and his party in power. That is the real basis for the overreaction here.


    Michael Turton said...

    David, the 4 No's do not include the NUC. That is the FIFTH No from Chen's original 2000 inauguration speech. The 5 No's are:

    1. not declare Taiwanese independence
    2. not call a referendum on changing the status quo in regard to Taiwan's independence
    3. not write the two-state theory or the concept of "state-to-state" relations between the island and the mainland into the Constitution
    4. not seek change to Taiwan's "national title" official name, flag, or territory.
    5. not to abolish the National Unification Council and its charter, the Guidelines for National Unification, which paints a vague timetable for the eventual integration of Taiwan and China under a democratic system

    The Four No's are:

    Four Nos': Taiwan would not declare independence, change the ``national title,'' enlist the concept of ``state-to-state'' relations between the island and the mainland in its ``constitution,'' nor promote any referendum to change the status quo in regards to independence

    from here

    Shit, the US doesn't even know which set of No's are being that that changes anything. Chen should have run this one past the US first. And the US should have asked for clarification before the State department spoke on the topic.


    Michael Turton said...

    I dont see a straight line between understandng Taiwan and then, necessarily, coming out with 'Taiwan-friendly' foreign policy as there must be a whole bunch of other issues to weigh up.

    I didn't mean to imply that there was a straight line. Everyone in this affray seems to have spoken too soon.


    Michael Turton said...

    Now I see what happened. Chen was accused of violating his Four No's pledge, which he didn't; which is why I said he didn't. He violated the pledge he made five years ago.

    And he should have run it past the US. And the US should not have reacted so.

    What a mess!

    David said...

    Michael - the promises CSB made in his 2000 inauguration are usually called "4 Noes, 1 without" (the not abolishing the NUC or NUC guidelines being the '1 without') - it seems they also get called the '5 noes'.

    Whatever you call it, a superficial look at his speech implies he's thinking of breaking his 2000 promises. Personally, I suspect he won't and have my suspicions as to what he's planning ...

    I agree part of the problem is that the US government think Chen's a loony - but again, why is that still the case 5 years after Chen should have started communication with the Bush adminsitration?

    Michael Turton said...

    Hi David! You're ABSOLUTELY right. A contact inside the foreign ministry here in Taiwan just phoned me last night outraged at the idiocy displayed by Chen's not giving the US OR his own embassy a heads up on that one.

    Hey, when you are right, you're right.

    Spent a couple of hours hiking today and reflected on the Nelson report. There's something screwy about that report, so I'm trying to get hold of a copy.


    David said...

    The MOFA didn't know before? Doh! Incidentally, I've posted my idle speculation as to what CSB's up to on my site - although if I'm guessing right there's even less justification for Chen to not warn people beforehand ...

    I'd be interested in seeing that report too - it's supposed to be a reliable insiders view of Washington, and if so there's a scary level of misunderstanding there!

    Michael Turton said...

    I've just linked to your post above. I think I'll do a postmortem post on this tomorrow, when I have more time to think on it.

    Will you be at the blogger meetup on Saturday in TPI?