Monday, May 31, 2010

How long will the Strategic Triangle remain strategic? - Part I

Stanford University recently held a symposium to discuss the future of the strategic triangle between the U.S., China and Taiwan. The symposium was led and chaired by Larry Diamond, Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

The invited participants consisted of Americans who at one time or another had been in government service and held senior positions directly engaged in the bilateral relations with Taiwan but have now joined the academic ranks. A typical but by no means the only one would be Richard Bush who was the de facto ambassador to Taiwan at the time Chen Shuibian came to power.

Participants from Taiwan had mirror image backgrounds, i.e., having served in the Taiwan government and now in the academia, including Dr. Su Chi who just stepped down as Ma Yingjeou’s senior advisor on national security. Remarkably and without exception all the speakers from Taiwan received their advanced degrees in the United States.

No one came from mainland China to present possible PRC perspectives on the three bilateral relations of the triangle, although there were academicians, originally from the mainland now working in America, who spoke at the symposium.

In general the American presenters tended to focus on how Taiwan had been the tail that wagged the U.S. China bilateral relations, sometimes to the endless exasperation of the White House that had many more pressing global issues to deal with. However they seemed ready to forgive and dismiss past actions because Taiwan’s actions were that of a democracy and not some unilateral actions of petty dictators.

As a reflection of their former diplomatic and official positions, their comments on the roles of the then presidents of Taiwan, Lee Tenghui and Chen Shuibian, were politely muted and simply called them “unique” personalities and hoped that Taiwan will not see the likes of any more like them.

No one was tactless enough to point out that Lee’s peculiar behavior could be explained by his innate bias in favor of his Japanese roots and upbringing. Iwasato Masao, Lee’s name at birth, did not particularly want Taiwan to become independent so much as using that as an interim step to becoming part of Japan’s colony again. As he came to the end of his term of office, he adroitly engineered a split of the ruling KMT party that enabled Chen leader of the ostensibly opposition party to back into the presidency with less than 40% of the votes cast.

Chen, of course, kept everyone guessing as to his true colors during his first term of office when he declared “three no and one don’t have”—one of the no’s being no declaration of independence. It was during his second term that his pro independence stance became public knowledge and not incidentally his rampant corruption also became common knowledge.

The speakers from Taiwan were not as ready to declare Taiwan’s experiment with democracy an unqualified success but quite modestly claimed that theirs is an immature democracy going through some growing pains. However, even they did not mention one of the on-going developments that baffle any observers of Taiwan politics, namely the machinations of Chen in trying to get out of jail.

Having already been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on the first series of charges, he has continued to demand to be released on bail so that he can defend himself against a second series of charges. Presumably, a third series of charges would be his get out of jail card if he were to be convicted on the current charges. This could be endless depending only on his skill in gaming Taiwan’s legal system.

After months of wrangling, his family has returned one million dollars of the twenty one ill-gotten millions stashed away in Switzerland into a pre-agreed designated government account. His son has hinted that at least 70% more of the accumulated payola would be forthcoming as soon as Chen is released from jail.

Needless to say, resorting to this kind of negotiations between a convicted felon and the government via the public media would be unheard of in any matured democracy.

Unlike the American contingent, the participants from Taiwan weren’t all political scientists but included an economist and a sociologist. The economist pointed out that from 1952 to 1987, Taiwan enjoyed the kind of economic boom that the mainland has seen in the last thirty years, namely annual average economic growth of 8.9%.

Under the KMT administration from 1993 to 1999, Taiwan continued to grow at the rate of 5.9% per annum and was the second best among the 8 major Asian economies. From 2001 to 2007 under Chen and his DPP party Taiwan’s economic growth rate fell to 4.2% per annum and came in last among the 8 Asian economies.

The legacy of Chen’s dismal performance on the economic front along with his blatantly corrupt practices has led to a disenchanted populace that greatly distrusts the government. According to recent polls taken in Taiwan by the economist, after two years under Ma Yingjeou, the people of Taiwan have more confidence in the KMT than DPP in being able to get along with Beijing. By better than 3 to 2, people of Taiwan believed KMT can better protect Taiwan’s interest with Beijing than can the DPP.

The sociologist from Taiwan then reported that integration between Taiwan and the mainland has proceeded to a degree far more extensively than has been generally understood. In the mid 1980’s the “unplanned” migration of Taiwanese businesses to the mainland may have been economically driven, but because of their socio-cultural affinity with the mainland, they have thrived. There are now more than one million Taiwanese business people in just the greater Shanghai area.

Another sign of integration not widely reported, he said, Taiwanese fishing boats off the Somalia coast have been routinely asking the PLA navy for escort service.

The second day of the symposium was to deal with the future of Taiwan and the dynamics of the triangle. Since I had to miss the second day, I felt unburdened by what was said to make my own observations in Part II of this blog.

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