Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Fulbright Workshop – Global Engagement: International Affairs: notes

The beautiful Zhongshan Hall in Taipei, our venue
I had the honor on Tuesday to be part of a panel, alongside profs Alexander Huang of Tamkang University and Lin Cheng-yi of Academia Sinica, on Taiwan’s international affairs at the Fulbright Taiwan Research Workshop

Taiwan under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has launched efforts to improve relations with China. Those efforts have paid dividends in economics, trade, and cultural exchanges, but areas of concern remain. After all, absence of war does not mean absence of conflict. The following are issues of concern:
  • Growing military threat from China, whose Second Artillery Corps has increased the number of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles it targets at Taiwan even as relations improved, plus ongoing modernization of all services;
  • Taiwan’s continued isolation from the international community, and participation contingent on Beijing’s “approval”;
  • Trends favoring “status quo” and Taiwanese identification, which could lead to China running out of patience and deciding to use force; 
  • Uncertain outcome to the 2016 presidential election in Taiwan; 
  • Question marks remain over Chinese Communist Party Secretary-General and incoming President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) ability to retain control over more extreme elements within the People’s Liberation Army. 
The U.S. “re-balancing,” or “pivot” to Asia amid growing regional apprehensions vis-a-vis China’s assertiveness, can create a greater role for Taiwan as a security partner:
  • Continued U.S.-Taiwan military exchanges (arms sales as a measure of bilateral ties and continuation of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979);
  • Despite recent op-eds in U.S. media, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will “abandon” Taiwan;
  • The launch in early February of the Raytheon Corp-built long-range early-warning radar (EWR) at Leshan in Hsinchu County plugs Taiwan into the emerging security architecture in the Asia-Pacific. The EWR also creates opportunities for cooperation on non-military matters, such as the tracking of debris in space;
  • Signs of growing willingness within the region to cooperate with Taiwan on security, even if this has to be carried out in an unofficial guise;
  • Signs of governments losing patience with China and diminishing returns on Beijing’s threats of “nefarious consequences”;
  • While the rest of the world does not wake up in the middle of the night worrying about Taiwan’s fate, the island-nation of 23 million people remains a key player in the global supply chain, one of the 20 largest economies in the world, and a liberal democracy with a value system similar to that in the West. 
Despite its need to create more international space for itself, Taiwan continues to have a poor public relations strategy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and other agencies seem incapable of fully explaining their policy on the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands, Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative, or of countering claims that Taiwan and China might cooperate against Japan in the East China Sea. Taiwan is too inwards looking and does not pay enough attention to international perspectives and foreign media, which compounds its isolation (true for both the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Democratic Progressive Party as well). As one foreign diplomat based in Taiwan told me recently, ask six MOFA officials for comment and you’re bound to get eight answers. I would add: Ask six Ministry of National Defense (MND) officials for comment, and you’re lucky if you get two answers. MND’s difficulty in explaining its efforts to Taiwanese and to the international community fuels speculation that it is obsolete and unwilling (or unable) to fight.

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