During separate press conferences with local and foreign media today, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) announced that Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrew Hsia (夏立言) — who came under fire over a leaked memo by the ministry ordering offices abroad to refuse aid in the wake of Typhoon Morakot — had tendered his resignation. That Ma would make this information public implies that Hsia’s resignation has, for all intents and purposes, been accepted.
While the fact that heads are starting to roll following the central government’s amateurish handling of the emergency is a welcome development, it is also evident that Hsia is being made a scapegoat. Admittedly, Minister of Foreign Affairs Francisco Ou (歐鴻鍊) was not in the country when the decision to refuse aid was made, but it is hard to believe that he would not have been contacted, or that he did not provide guidance on the matter. Furthermore, Ou was not on leave, but on a diplomatic mission that sources claim included Jordan and the Czech Republic. In other words, Ou was still active and should have been kept in the decision-making chain. As such, Ou should also be reprimanded for his ministry’s misguided — and likely deadly — policy.
A well-placed source, however, informed me that the memo dictating the refusal of aid came from above Hsia (who probably did not have the authority to make such a decision), and probably even higher than Ou, which means that it was either the National Security Council or the Executive Yuan. Why they would have ordered this remains a mystery and points to the external political considerations I discussed in previous articles.
The senior public officials who are behind this decision, therefore, are likely to remain unaccountable, while Hsia, who either was in over his head or was ordered around, is being served as a sacrificial lamb to an angered Taiwanese public. Whether this first political victim will be sufficient to appease Taiwanese remains to be seen.
Another possible reason for the decision to delay the approval of foreign aid, as a source indicates, is that the top leadership did not know what kind of material assistance was required and therefore did not want countries to start sending planeloads of unnecessary material. What allegedly followed was an internal screw-up and departure from the internal chain of approval for the memo, which may have bypassed both a section director-general for review of the draft, and Hsia altogether. If this is true, then Hsia is being forced to resign for something he did not do.
Regarding the possibility of external political reasons as to why the top leadership (EY, NSC, Premier, etc) would have instructed MOFA to inform its missions abroad to say no to offers of assistance, I do not think that Beijing would have ordered Taipei to reject foreign aid, and this is something I have been arguing since the beginning. After all, Beijing does not stand to gain anything by Ma facing criticism or his administration being undermined by the situation. In fact, what China needs is a strong, popular Ma who can forge ahead with his cross-strait policies and thereby bring Taiwan closer to unification.
What remains possible, however, is that on the Taiwan side, policy-makers decided to wait for a green light from Beijing for fear of “angering” it by opening its doors to foreign aid, especially from the US and Japan. In other words, misperceptions by Taipei of the importance Beijing paid to the symbolism of foreign assistance in Taiwan, rather than Chinese interference in the process, could help explain the decision at the top to delay aid approval and instruct MOFA to adopt that policy.
Hsia is the first fall guy, over a development that in the end was far less consequential than the more pressing question of why it took so long for the military to deploy in the south to launch rescue operations. Ma can claim all he wants that heavy rain over three days prevented the deployment of helicopters, but the fact remains that rain or no rain, there should have been boots on the ground—and there weren’t. Whose head will roll for that one?