Friday, February 24, 2006

National Unification Council Elimination: Much Doo-doo about Nothing

The Taipei Times reports:

As more details emerge on the secret trip last week of two high-level Bush administration officials to convince President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to abandon his plan to scrap the National Unification Council, the US State Department for the first time came close to acknowledging that the trips took place.

The acknowledgment, by department spokesman Adam Ereli in response to questioning by reporters at his regular press briefing, appears to mirror the importance the administration has placed on Chen's plans, the tense state of US-Taiwan relations and how Chen's plans might impact on the planned summit visit to Washington of Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), expected on April 19 and April 20.

The US reaction has long passed the stage of "overreaction" and it seems now that decisionmakers in Washington have completely lost their sense of perspective:

Pressed by reporters, Ereli said, "Well, there are two meetings that are being discussed. One is between [a US National Security Council] official and officials in Taiwan. I'd leave it to the [US National Security Council] to talk about that. As far as this other meeting goes, I don't know. I hadn't heard about it. I can't confirm it because I don't have the facts."

As tentative as that statement was, it was the first time that the department has even conceded the existence of secret US official trips to Taiwan, which in the past have taken place at times of particular strain in US-Taiwan relations.

Meanwhile, the Washington-based Nelson Report said on Tuesday that the Wilder-Hart visits were aimed to head off an expected Feb. 28 announcement eliminating the unification council and "other, even more risky moves" by Chen.

Let's assume that on February 28 President Chen of Taiwan announces that the National Unification Council is abolished. What real difference does that make in the state of affairs? Not a thing. Council or no council, China isn't going to start bombing Taiwan, and the US isn't going to get dragged into another war. China will restrict its actions to the usual bloodcurdling threats.

But, the meaninglessness of the NUC cuts both ways. Chen probably shouldn't press the NUC issue, not because it means anything, but because his US allies believe this completely meaningless issue is important. Since they have begun behaving like small children, it is time to placate them. Chen is not in a position, especially with the arms purchase still dangling in the wind, to tell the US to take a long walk on a short pier. It is time instead to draw back, to rebuild trust, to keep Washington happy and play his assigned role.

An additional problem here is the Nelson Report. It seems that whoever is writing the Nelson Report is sensationalizing Chen's behavior -- take that "further risky moves" as a pro-Blue comment, although the writer may simply be playing up what in reality is not a very serious situation. He does, after all, have to sell reports.

This comment by the Nelson Report still amazes me:

Nelson, citing top administration officials, said that such sympathy could help sway Washington's attitudes on cross-strait issues "in the event that President Chen can convincingly reassure the US on his longer-term intentions ... an opportunity which was offered [by Wilder and Hart] last week, apparently to no avail."

Has Washington stopped listening to its Taiwan experts? Did Shelly Rigger and Bob Sutter and Murray Rubenstein and Thomas Gold and a hundred others take a vow of silence? Why does Washington need Taiwan officialdom to explain what anyone who lives here knows, and what all the papers and many bloggers have reported -- that Chen is responding to domestic concerns? They need to fly two guys to Taipei to find this out? Wouldn't it be cheaper just to read David at jujuflop?

Meanwhile the Taipei Times also ran an interview with a series of warnings from the US, delivered through the mouth of Michael Green, a US NSC official:

Green: I do not think abolishing the unification guidelines will cause a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and it may technically be a grey area with respect to the "five noes." However, I think [it would] erode the trust that was built up between Washington and Taipei since December 2003, and so the symbolic effect will end up damaging Taiwan's strategic position. Even if the abolition of the guidelines violates only the "spirit" of the "five noes," is it worth it?

If Washington gets annoyed again, what signals will Taiwan's Central American allies begin picking up from the State Department the next time they are lobbied by Beijing to switch relations? What signals will Beijing pick up in terms of Washington's determination to press [China] to engage in direct dialogue with the government on Taiwan? What signals will the European Union pick up with respect to the arms embargo issue? What will happen to the pro-Taiwan groups in Japan that think peace in the Taiwan Strait should remain a core strategic interest for the US-Japan alliance? How will it affect the balance of thinking in the US Congress? It just isn't worth it to Taiwan to mess with anything related to the "five noes."

Those are pretty blunt warnings, and they should signal Chen to back down on this one. Since the NUC is purely symbolic, he can let this one go. He needs the US present a lot more than he needs the NUC gone, and obviously Washington, for whatever reasons, believes that some huge fundamental change that amounts to a fundamental violation of trust is in the works. Since it does, and since the US cannot now back down, that pretty much dictates what Chen's move is: Towel. Throw. In.

The interview continues:

TT: Is there a growing gap between Taiwan and the US on Taiwan and US regional interests?

Green: I know that President [George W.] Bush places great emphasis on freedom and democracy and that is why he spotlighted Taiwan's democracy in his November 2005 Kyoto speech. The demonstrated success of Taiwan's democracy is very important to the United States at a time when the future of Asia is uncertain.

On the whole, the region is moving towards greater freedom, but if China is able to de-legitimize Japanese democracy using the history issue, and de-legitimize Taiwan's democracy using the "sovereignty" issue, then the US will have a much weaker hand in demanding that China itself be a stakeholder that adheres to international norms in Asia.

It's easy to see why I couldn't pass my foreign service orals, since there is no way on God's green Earth that I could ever have straightfacedly uttered a sentence as totally fatuous as "I know that President [George W.] Bush places great emphasis on freedom and democracy." The reason the US hand is weak morally and militarily is a simple four-letter word: I-R-A-Q. Green's position is basically that Taiwan should shut up:

Ultimately, Taiwan's own identity and security rest largely on its democratic principles, but those get ignored by the international community when Taipei bangs loudly on the drum of traditional sovereignty issues. Taiwan's identity depends on the international community valuing Taiwan -- and the international community does that based on Taiwan's model as a democracy, not based on the name or the flag or other trappings of sovereignty that put at risk everyone's interest in stability across the Taiwan Straits.

Of course, the problem is that Green's position is contradictory: Taiwan cannot be a democracy without sovereignty -- otherwise it is no more a democracy than the people in Shanghai who vote on what color the city buses should be. Green then goes on to strive to appear evenhanded even while delivering another warning:

I worry that too much of the US-Taiwan dialogue has been with people in Washington who care only about stabilizing relations with Beijing and do not understand the importance of Taiwan -- or people who care only about supporting Taiwan against Beijing at any cost. We need a more balanced dialogue that looks at how to preserve and strengthen Taiwan's strategic position based on a realistic assessment of the tools in Taiwan's kit, including defensive capabilities, international image and Taiwan's values.

Note that the last sentence contains yet another warning on buying the arms from Washington. The full extent of Blue success in paralyzing Taiwan's government should be clear: the Blues have been successful in disrupting relations with Washington, and any move in the foreign policy area that Chen makes to offset the Blue success will further enflame relations with the US. Green leaves with a signal that the real problem is that Chen is upsetting the smooth progress of US-China relations:

Green: President Bush has urged the Chinese to negotiate with the duly elected government on Taiwan as well as the current dialogue with the pan-blue [camp]. Beijing has to take that seriously. That message from the US will be complicated by the current proposals to abolish the unification guidelines or take other steps that touch on the "five noes." This issue needs to be cleared up before [Chinese] President Hu [Jintao 胡錦濤] comes to Washington in April.

We need Beijing to see solidarity between Taipei and Washington.

The US is heading for war with Iran and needs China to get with the program. The real fire that Chen is playing with is not that China will attack; it is that the US might well write Taiwan off if it interferes in Beijing-Washington relations enough to derail any agreement over the upcoming strikes on Iran. That is the reason the US wants Chen to shut up about the NUC, so that Taiwan is not an issue in the April summit. As Green says:

TT: What do you think Washington should ask of Hu?

Green: Frankly, the administration will not want Taiwan to be the major topic on the agenda

Listen closely A-bian: it is time to consume a healthy serving of corvus and then shut up.

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