Thursday, May 11, 2006

U.S. Snubs Taiwan's Chen, Looks Ahead to Successor

New America Media, Commentary, George Koo, Posted: May 11, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: Washington’s refusal to allow Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian a layover in the United States last week speaks to Chen’s waning power in global politics, writes NAM contributor George Koo, an international business consultant who has met Chen and rival Ma Ying-jeou over the years.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian failed at his usual "transit diplomacy" when the United States refused to let him step on American soil during his trip to Latin America last week.

Chen’s failure to match the recent high-profile U.S. visits by China’s President Hu Jintao and political rival and Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou clearly indicates that Chen has fallen out of the White House’s favor.

Only 26 countries still maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, including Paraguay and Costa Rica, which Chen visited on his trip. In the past, Washington had given Chen permission for such stopovers, thus allowing him to give speeches, meet local Chinese Americans and even confer with politicians and government officials -- all despite vigorous objections from Beijing. China considers Taiwan a part of China and not an independent state.

Not this time. The administration would only allow Chen to land in Anchorage for a two-hour refueling and would not even let him de-plane and stretch his legs. Chen is said to have demanded the right to stop in New York. Washington said no.

An indignant Chen took off from Taipei and while airborne told the pilot to head west via the Middle East and Europe, bypassing North America altogether. The originally 12-hour flight to Paraguay ended up taking three times as long.
A flurry of reactions followed. Washington couldn’t understand what the tantrum was all about. Chen lashed out, blaming China’s President Hu for undermining his trip. Critics in Taiwan thought Chen overplayed his hand and brought the indignities on himself.

In his six years in office, critics say Chen has done nothing to help Taiwan’s economy but made only policy maneuvers that would help him stay in power. Most of those maneuvers cater to his supporters who favor independence and antagonize Beijing.

Publicly, Chen seemed oblivious to his own complicity in his comeuppance. For months, he had acted as the irritant between U.S.-China bilateral relations. Every time Washington asked Chen to show restraint and not annoy Beijing, he had done just the opposite.

Most recently, after promising not to do so, he attempted to dissolve the inactive, but politically symbolic National Reunification Council in Taiwan, which was created to study reunification possibilities between China and Taiwan. This did not please Beijing and Washington. Only after receiving a message in the sternest terms from President George W. Bush did Chen back down. Shunting Chen to Anchorage was payback from an exasperated Bush administration to an unreliable ally. Chen’s influence in Washington has vanished as quickly as his own popularity at home, which has sunk to below 20 percent.

In starkest terms, Washington is telling Chen that he figures little in the U.S. relationship with Taiwan. Beijing has ceased to pay attention to Chen but is actively wooing his opposition such as Ma and Lien Chan, the former head of the opposition Nationalist party who unsuccessfully ran against Chen. Washington is following the same script.

About a month ago, Ma visited the United States for 10 days, covering New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- every city that would have been on top of Chen’s wish list. Ma enjoyed high-level access to senior officials of the administration including a three-hour conversation with Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.

Ma is also chairman of the Nationalist, or Kuomintang party. He is Chen’s rival and likely successor. Ma’s unusually warm treatment in the United States should warn Chen that Washington is saying it would rather do business with Ma.

By raising not a murmur of objection to Ma’s extensive U.S. trip, Beijing is tacitly saying they too would rather deal with the rational Ma, rather than the erratic Chen.

Ma and Lien both favor rapprochement with Beijing. They recognize that both Taiwan and China have more to gain in cooperation than confrontation. Beijing has, in turn, reciprocated by welcoming Lien to China twice in one year and by buying more agriculture products from Taiwan farmers, thus eroding Chen’s support base.

Rather than allow Chen to dictate the tone of the bilateral relationship, the United States and China clearly understand that they have far more important common issues to resolve. Non-nuclear proliferation, especially with regard to Iran and North Korea, energy, environment, anti-terrorism, open trade, are among the common issues that weigh far more in the minds of the principals than the agitations of a frustrated sideshow.

To add to Chen’s consternation, California Senator Dianne Feinstein recently declared that nothing in the Taiwan Relations Act obliges the United States to go to war over Taiwan.

It seems that Chen, in his remaining two years of as a lame duck, will be increasingly irrelevant, his influence in Washington marginalized. Both Washington and Beijing will be patiently waiting to see who will bring Taiwan to the table when Chen steps down.