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Thursday, Aug. 29, 2002

Taiwan ditching 'nice guy' diplomacy


Taiwanese Vice President Annette Lu was greeted triumphantly upon her return to Taiwan, but her trip to Indonesia yielded mixed results at best. Taiwan may well have raised expectations in Indonesia that it may not be able to fulfill. Moreover, China will now put renewed pressure on Southeast Asian countries not to allow any visits by top Taiwan leaders.

No doubt Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, left to their own devices, would be happy to roll out the red carpet for Lu and for Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, especially since Chen is urging the Taiwan business community to "go south" and invest in Southeast Asia rather than in China.

The Philippines has disclosed that Beijing had tipped it off about a possible attempt by Chen to enter the country. Manila has said it will not admit him in any capacity. "Whether he's coming in as a private citizen, official or as chairman of a political party, no way," said Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Lauro Baja. He disclosed that Lu, while stranded in Bali, had applied for permission to land in the Philippines but was told that her plane would not be cleared to land.

The chairman of China's National People's Congress, Li Peng, is scheduled to visit Southeast Asia next month. No doubt, he will impress upon his hosts the importance of not having any official contact with senior Taiwan officials.

Nonetheless, Taiwan will make renewed efforts to end the isolation that China seeks to impose upon it. Despite the indignities initially suffered by Lu, her Indonesia trip is being hailed as a breakthrough. She herself called it a victory in a "battle without gunfire."

Indications are that senior Taiwan officials are adopting a new, more aggressive strategy to improve relations with the rest of the world. While in Taiwan's eyes the most important countries are the United States and Japan, the countries of Southeast Asia are also very high on its priority list.

Two days after Lu's return, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Katharine Chang declared that Taiwan's representative offices in Southeast Asia had been ordered "to attempt to enhance exchanges with these countries." She added, "We hope that bilateral visits of political figures, both in terms of frequency and level of representation, will grow over time."

Chen is apparently so dissatisfied with the performance of the Foreign Ministry that he has put responsibility for foreign affairs into the hands of the National Security Council, which is headed by Secretary General Chiou I-jen, who masterminded the Democratic Progressive Party's street-fighting strategy when it was in the opposition.

Even before the recent defection by Nauru, Chiou and Chen Shih-meng, secretary general of the Presidential Office, were talking about the need to revitalize diplomatic efforts. Chiou, in a closed-door talk at the Foreign Ministry July 18, is reported to have called for putting more resources into "offensive" strategies.

"Personally, I relatively favor an offensive foreign policy," he was quoted by the Taipei Times as saying. "This doesn't mean that we should quarrel or fight with others. If Taiwan sticks to a defensive strategy when dealing with other states, it would be a very hard job."

An example of such an aggressive strategy could well be the means used by Lu to procure meetings with several Indonesian officials in Jakarta. Her ability to meet Indonesian officials was a reflection of Taiwan's economic clout.

Taiwan imposed an embargo on the importation of Indonesian workers Aug. 1. The vice president was apparently able to parlay Indonesia's desire to continue to send workers to Taiwan into a meeting with the country's labor ministry. Moreover, Lu dangled before Indonesian officials Taiwan's interest in buying liquefied natural gas, a deal that could be worth more than $10 billion over a 10-year period. This was particularly effective, coming as it did right after Beijing had disappointed Jakarta by deciding to import natural gas from Australia rather than Indonesia.

Indonesia, which initially barred Lu from entering Jakarta, apparently had asked Taiwan to understand its position, since it was under severe Chinese pressure. Taiwan reportedly refused to be "understanding," and was adamant that its vice president be accorded due diplomatic niceties.

It is likely that, as Taiwan implements its "offensive" foreign policy, such tactics will increasingly be used. Taiwan will no longer be Mr. Nice Guy. The question is whether Taipei or Beijing packs a greater wallop.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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