Thursday, September 13, 2007

Latest Nelson Report on Taiwan

Chris Nelson's Washington insider report on Taiwan contains a section from a speech by a State Department official that gives a good idea of how State sees itself and the whole UN referendum issue. Nelson himself, prefacing the speech, writes:

The Bush Administration has consistently, in private and in public, warned Taiwanese leaders not to do this IN THIS WAY, and to stop threatening, or doing any other thing which, in the US view, might force a de-stabilizing reaction from China.

DAS/China Tom Christensen's very interesting speech to the US-Taiwan Business Council today, in Annapolis.

Here's a key section:

[CHRISTIANSEN] "I would like to face head-on the accusation that the U.S. position on the referendum constitutes interference in Taiwan's democracy. On behalf of the U.S. Government, I reject this accusation categorically. Given the decades of America?s commitment to Taiwan?s security and support for its democratization, the idea just does not stand up to scrutiny. The reality is that democracies can and do disagree over policies. It happens all the time around the world. Moreover, friends have an obligation to warn friends who are moving in an unwise direction. The U.S. obligation is even stronger, given our interest in Taiwan's security. After all, it is not just Taiwan's peace and stability that Taipei's actions may threaten.

The United States has neither the power nor the right to tell the Taiwan people what they can and cannot do. As friends, however, we feel it is our obligation to warn that the content of this particular referendum is ill-conceived and potentially quite harmful. Bad public policy initiatives are made no better for being wrapped in the flag of "democracy." Fortunately, if the referendum goes forward unchanged, we anticipate that Taiwan's perceptive, intelligent citizens will see through the rhetoric and make a sound judgment that the referendum does not serve their interests because it will be fundamentally harmful to Taiwan's external relations.

Beyond the obvious threat to stability in the Taiwan Strait, the United States also opposes the proposed referendum because it will do the exact opposite of what it promises: it will limit, not expand, Taiwan's international space. Arguments to the contrary sound heroic, but they stand in opposition to the evidence all around us. I can say this to you with real experience, because it is the State Department that takes the lead in the U.S. Government in trying to help preserve and expand the Taiwan people's international space. The frustrating truth is that needlessly provocative actions by Taipei strengthen Beijing's hand in limiting Taiwan's space and scare away potential friends who might help Taiwan.

This is again an area where we have to acknowledge a tough truth. Whether we like it or not, most countries in the world accept Beijing's characterization of Taiwan, and, when energized, the PRC can call in overwhelming support to marginalize Taipei. The Taiwan people are, of course, long accustomed to PRC pressure, and we are certainly not telling them not to resist these efforts; our own position is far from passive. That said, Taipei needs to push back intelligently and in a sophisticated manner that plays to its strengths. Frontal assaults on Beijing's sensitivities are bound to fail and, at the end of the day, leave Taipei further behind. The referendum on applying to the UN under the name Taiwan is just such a frontal assault with no hope of changing Taiwan's actual status on the international stage while increasing cross-Strait tensions and alienating potential supporters of Taiwan's increased international space.

I would like to emphasize that we do not like having to express publicly our disagreement with the Chen Administration on this or any other policy. Taiwan is a longstanding U.S. friend, and we do not like there to be gaps between us on important issues. I can assure you that we would not have done so had we not exhausted every private opportunity through consistent, unmistakable, and authoritative messages over an extended period of time. The problem here is not misunderstanding or lack of communications: it is that we believe this initiative is not good for Taiwan or us and that we have found ourselves with no alternative but to express our views directly to the Taiwan people.

It's easy to see that State doesn't get it either. Taiwan's perceptive citizens aren't going to choose against either referendum, because they overwhelmingly favor UN entry under some name. Additionally, by coming out in public and attacking Taiwan -- and worse, by not attacking China -- the State Dept. is achieving the exact opposite of its stated goals. Taiwanese voters were happy to give the US the middle finger in 2000 and 2004, and they will be happy to do that again.

What this speech does show is that:

(1) State and Taipei are in the midst of a terrible communications breakdown. This is only partly Taipei's fault, since State has routinely strangled high-level visits between Taiwan and the US. If State really wants to communicate with Taipei, as a government spokesman noted this morning in the Taipei Times, it needs to get more of its high-level people out here.

(2) State has adopted Beijing's view of Taiwan's actions as "destabilizing" and "provocative." Apparently the only actor with full agency in this whole thing is Taipei; China and the US are just helpless prisoners of their own knee-jerk responses. Let's say it again: for Beijing "being provoked" is a policy choice. State hasn't grasped that yet. This lack of understanding at State is a serious issue, since any pro-Taiwan action by Taiwan's leaders "provokes" Beijing. Similarly, the State Department thinks that "provocative" actions undermine Taiwan's international space. Since any action taken to expand its international space "provokes" Beijing....well, we don't even need to finish that sentence....

(3) State discounts any actions by China to alter the Status Quo. China's military build-up, its drive to scrub Taiwan from any international organizations, its suppression of Taiwan's international space, its cooperation with the KMT and its allies -- none of these counts in DC as a violation of the Status Quo. State repeatedly claims that Chen "promised" not to change the name of the island -- without recognizing that Chen's promises were contingent on good behavior by China. State simply does not accept Chen's view as a valid view.

State's own skewed view of itself mirrors Taipei's own skewed view of itself; no wonder the two sides can't communicate. It is interesting that State sees itself as the department "that takes the lead in the U.S. Government in trying to help preserve and expand the Taiwan people's international space" since so many outside the State Department have the exact opposite perception.

What exactly is State's goal here? ... They being totally reactive and without any fixed goal ... They want China to attack Taiwan. They are laying the groundwork by defining the referendum as a Status Quo violation but remaining silent on the military buildup. They want this because (a) they want a war with China to beat down China before it becomes too powerful or because they want to divert attention from the collapsing US economy and the total failure in Iraq (b) because they have no plans to fight and want China to swallow Taiwan, thus permanently removing a major headache ... they are attacking the referendum because they are clueless about local politics and think they are helping the KMT .... they are attacking the referendum because they are savvy about local politics and secretly want to help the DPP ... and so on ....

And people wonder why expats drink so much.........

UPDATE: Major news orgs are reporting that the Pentagon wants to sell Taipei $2.2 billion worth of weapons. Meanwhile State complains Taipei won't listen. Actions speak louder: if State hacks on Taiwan, but the US proposes selling it more weapons, what message is Taipei getting?

UPDATE II: Feiren pointed out that Christensen is among the analysts who think that the reason the DPP suffered in the legislative elections in '04 is because of US pressure. I doubt any Taiwanese outside of the Taipei-based chattering classes even knew what the US position was. The real reason the DPP didn't do as well as it thought it would is because it over-nominated candidates based on rosy election predictions, and thus ended up splitting votes amongst its own people, rather than concentrating them in victory (Taiwan's old electoral system is too complex to explain here). The US had very little to do with it, and Christensen's claims are rebutted in an analysis by US scholars a couple of days after the election.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"They want this because (a) they want a war with China...(b) because they have no plans to fight and want China to swallow Taiwan"

Or perhaps (c), American foreign policy has always focused on destabilization to better maintain its own interests. A fractious Far East would certainly suit American interests (ex. sell more weapons to its "friends").