Taiwan’s Weak Diplomatic Hand

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On June 12, a 53-year-old man in a dark suit shook US President George Bush’s hand on a lawn outside the US Congress in Washington. “I am the ambassador of Taiwan, Joseph Wu,” he said. “It is good to see you here among us,” the president replied.

This simple exchange, at a ceremony to dedicate the Victims of Communism Memorial, a favored project of right-wing American politicians longing for the simpler days of the Cold War, made headlines in Taiwan because it was a rare occasion for its chief representative in Washington to speak to the president.

The memorial, which offers a tour of traditional American fears of communism, also contains a copy of the Goddess of Democracy statues that students in Beijing erected in Tiananmen Square in May 1989. Bush called the statue “the lamp of liberty” in his speech.

But the days when Taiwan was a bulwark against the menace of communism are long past and it looks as though the occasions when Taipei’s man will get a handshake will be even rarer in the future. Taiwan’s shrinking diplomatic space got a little more snug on June 7 when Costa Rica announced that it was breaking relations with Taiwan after 63 years, leaving it with just 24 diplomatic allies. Panama and Nicaragua may well follow suit soon. Money has a lot to do with it. The dramatic surge in Beijing’s foreign exchange reserves has given it the financial clout to outbid Taipei. Countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have increasingly cut off even their informal ties to Taiwan. The level of aid and loans is a major criterion for choosing which China to recognize.

It is a far cry from the golden days at 3225 Woodley Road, the address of Twin Oaks, the 26-room mansion set on 18 acres of land that is considered the largest privately owned estate in Washington DC. Built in 1888, it was long rented by the Republic of China as its embassy, starting in 1937 and Taiwan eventually purchased it for $450,000. It remains in Taiwanese hands today.

Nine Taiwanese ambassadors have lived at Twin Oaks, entertaining a succession of US secretaries of state and other powerful figures, including President Gerald R. Ford. The house stands today as a remembrance of the time when Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her husband represented China in the popular imagination of many Americans as she helped build one of the most powerful foreign government lobbies in Washington.

Apart from the inevitable rise of Beijing’s power and influence, Taiwan’s lobbying power in Washington has been furthered weakened since President Chen Shui-bian took office in 2000. Chen inherited representatives in Washington who owed their political allegiance to the rival Kuomintang and Chen didn’t trust them. Wu, appointed in April, is the first representative to belong to Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

While Twin Oaks used to be the sole voice for Taiwan in the corridors of power, now both the Kuomintang and the DPP have offices in Washington, along with a flock of pro-independence groups and some arguing for better Taiwan-China ties.

“A major factor affecting U.S.-Taiwan relations is the dissipation of the once powerful ‘Taiwan lobby’ which is a pale shadow of its former self,” said a U.S. Congressional report at the end of April. “Ironically, the fragmentation of the Taiwan lobby can be traced to the development of full democracy and political pluralism in Taiwan, which began the erosion of the organized Kuomintang ‘machine,’” it said.

The United States remains the most important guarantor of Taiwan’s security, making Wu’s post the most crucial in his country’s foreign service. For him, the main task is to try to ensure that fear of US intervention prevents Beijing from attacking Taiwan.

Washington’s position is that it opposes such an attack as it does Taiwanese independence but as American engagement with China deepens, the balance of interest is rapidly swinging away from Taipei and toward Beijing.

“When there is a war between Taiwan and China, there will be probably be another world war,” Wu said in an earlier interview when he was a senior academic in Taipei. “The United States is probably not going to sit idly by, and Japan and other countries might have to react because the Taiwan Strait happens to be a very important sea link and communication channel, which cannot afford to be shut down.”

That Taiwan is a free and democratic country is Wu’s strongest card in Washington, while China is a one-party dictatorship. But he must conduct his lobbying outside government offices and, if possible, away from the prying eyes of Beijing’s embassy, which is sensitive to any perceived break of protocol.

With a similar mission, former President Lee Teng-hui was able to adopt a higher profile at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on June 6, the first former foreign head of state to visit the controversial shrine. It honors 2.5 million war dead, including 14 Class A World War Two war criminals. Lee insisted that the visit was simply to honor his elder brother, who died serving in the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Philippines, one of 28,000 Taiwanese remembered there. Lee himself trained as an army officer but did not serve at the front.

But the symbolism was not lost on anyone and he received a rapturous reception at speeches during his 11-day visit, which he delivered in flawless Japanese. His audience is the powerful right wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party which is strongly pro-Taiwan and against Beijing.

Lee’s biggest supporter is Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara who attended Chen Shui-bian’s inauguration in May 2000 and said: “One China, one Taiwan would do. If Jiang Zemin starts war to merge with Taiwan, he would be Chinese Hitler.” One of Japan’s most popular politicians, Ishihara was re-elected as governor of Tokyo in April 2007.

If Lee drove past the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, he would see one of the biggest diplomatic mistakes of the Republic of China. In 1972, its diplomats warned President Chiang Kai-shek that Tokyo was about to recognize Beijing and advised him to sell the elegant Japanese building in a chic area that was their embassy.

Chiang refused to believe it – and Tokyo gave Beijing the site and the building, which it demolished and replaced with an inelegant high-rise.

In December 1978, the diplomats in Washington didn’t make the same mistake. On December 22, 10 days before the US recognized Beijing, the Republic of China sold Twin Oaks to a private group, the Friends of Free China Association because of fears that Beijing might acquire the property. Four years later, Taipei bought it back – and Wu lives there in grand style, even if there are no secretaries of state to enjoy it with him.