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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Knowledge be good་

It doesn't need to be said that these days one can't get far in this world without a college education, and the higher the level, the better. What does need to be said, though, is that having academic qualifications doesn't automatically mean you know what you are talking about. Take Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, please...I mean, for example. According to his bio, he has a B.A. in international relations from Syracuse, an M.B.A. from Pepperdine and an M.S. in strategic studies from the Defense Intelligence College. You would assume, therefore, that this is a man who knows what he's talking about when it comes to the political and diplomatic scenes in East Asia. Reading his opinion piece "DPP scoring political points at Taiwan's expense" in today's Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ, however, one is left wondering how such a highly-educated person can be so far off the mark when it comes to what should be a simple analysis on Taiwanese affairs (UCLA Professor Tom Pate is another case in point). PhD candidate Michael Turton puts his high degree of academic experience to good use in taking apart Cossa's column on his excellent blog The View from Taiwan (see "Our Predictable Establishment Commentators: Cossa in SCMP"). I'm merely going to add my two cents' worth below.

"What's going on in Taiwan? A year ago, there were serious concerns about the viability of Taiwan democracy. The Nationalist Party (KMT) 中國國民黨 had achieved an overwhelming majority with a sweeping victory in Legislative Yuan 立法院 elections and had regained the presidency as a result of a landslide victory by its chosen candidate, former T'aipei 台北 Mayor Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九. Many expressed concern that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 民主進步黨, embarrassed by corruption scandals and branded as inefficient and incapable of governing, would fade into the background, with the KMT running roughshod over the political process, implementing its policies at will."

Isn't that what has actually been happening since May of last year?

"What a difference a year makes! Today, the DPP is resurgent and seems to have the Ma administration and KMT on the ropes. It may not have been very good at running the country, but it has proven itself to be a formidable force when it comes to its more traditional opposition role. One is tempted to tip one's hat to the DPP, except for one slight matter: its success is increasingly coming at the expense of Taiwan's economic recovery and potentially at a risk to its security as well."

First of all, taking into the account the fact that I actually live here and follow the news on a daily basis, I have to disagree with Cossa's statements about the "resurgence" and "formidableness" of the DPP. The party struggles to make itself heard in the media, and has yet to formulate clear policies on how it would govern the country were it to retake the presidency in 2012 (an unlikely occurrence, in any event), other than to oppose the KMT's efforts to bring Taiwan further into China's orbit. What is disturbing, however, is Cossa's assertion that the DPP, by acting as an opposition party in a democracy should, is somehow going to bring disaster down upon this island both economically and militarily.

"Take its latest political maneuver, for example. In the wake of Typhoon Morakot 颱風莫拉克, local DPP political leaders from the seriously stricken region decided to invite the Dalai Lama ཏཱ་ལའི་བླ་མ to come and provide comfort to the victims of this devastating natural disaster. The DPP's central leadership quickly — and disingenuously — called on President Ma to approve the visit and 'not to politicize the event.' All well and good, except that the DPP leadership was fully aware that the mere invitation of the Dalai Lama, seen as a 'dangerous splittist' by Beijing, would invoke the ire of its giant neighbor and create a lose-lose situation for Ma. Either Ma gives in to predictable Chinese objections and denies the Dalai Lama a visa or he allows the visit and awaits Beijing's anticipated retribution. Politically speaking, this was another stroke of genius for an opposition party that seems to have the majority running scared, especially in the wake of negative publicity over its initial handling of typhoon recovery operations."

Of course, the DPP saw a chance to use the Dalai Lama, and acted. That's what politicians and parties do in a democracy. What I find disturbing is that Cossa appears to accept that it is only natural for China to pressure other countries when it comes to the free movement of Nobel Peace Prize winners, and he fails to inform us that Ma stated last year that the Dalai Lama was basically not welcome in Taiwan, an amazing act of acquiescence to Chinese "sensibilities" that would be hard to find in any other democratic country (with the possible exception of Venezuela!).

"Ma had little option other than to approve the Dalai Lama's visit. Beijing, for all its anger and complaints, was likely to be more understanding and forgiving than the Taiwan electorate. The Chinese leadership has figured out what the DPP is up to, but finds it hard to resist reacting. What it has not yet figured out is that it is China's predictable protests against any action, however benign, by the Dalai Lama that makes his visits the politically charged events that they have become. Thus far, the Chinese response has been muted: ritualistic protests and the cancellation of a number of events aimed at highlighting improved cross-strait relations. But there is a real danger that Beijing will at some point reach the conclusion that the Ma administration is too weak and incompetent to deal with and revert to its old tactic: marginalizing Taiwan and limiting its political and economic opportunities."

Cossa seems to sympathize with Beijing's (and Ma's) "predicament" over allowing a figure revered the world over to enter Taiwan for a few days to conduct prayer services on behalf of some disaster victims. At no point in his analysis does Cossa view Taiwan as a sovereign state that is capable of making decisions on its own to promote its national interests. With the exception of agreeing to Taiwan's observer status at the World Health Organization (and with a number of conditions attached at that), what has China done in the past year to allow Taiwan to pursue greater political and economic opportunities? Cossa doesn't seem to have followed local political developments since Ma came to power in 2008, for he appears unaware of the numerous steps taken by this island's own elected representatives to marginalize Taiwan in the international arena.

"This coud put at risk Taipei's attempts to negotiate an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) — in effect, a cross-strait Free Trade Agreement (FTA) — with China. Such an agreement is not only significant in its own right, as a boost to Taiwan's economic recovery, but is expected to open the door for similar FTAs between Taiwan and many of its Southeast Asia neighbors and, perhaps, even with the United States."

Nobody, Cossa included, knows what the final form an ECFA/FTA will take because the Ma administration hasn't given out any details (though some Chinese officials have bluntly stated that such a pact will help to speed the process of "reunification"). I'm left scratching my head at Cossa's belief that China holds the power to prevent Taiwan from negotiating FTA's with other countries. Taiwan has concluded a number of agreements over the years with many countries that don't recognize the Republic of China 中華民國 as a sovereign state, and it wasn't necessary to get approval from China first before doing so. It appears that Cossa is repeating Ma's line on ECFA when, in fact, it could be argued that Taiwan should be aggressively pursuing such free trade agreements now instead of placing all its eggs into a Chinese basket. Or is Cossa overlooking the possibility that ECFA isn't meant just an economic agreement, but also a further step in the process of making it impossible to disentangle Taiwan from its dependence on the Chinese market?

"Unnecessarily and deliberately antagonizing Beijing just to score political points in Taiwan may have its domestic political benefits, but it could end up costing Taiwan dearly, both economically and in terms of cross-strait political stability. Perhaps the time has come for the DPP to understand that the role of a responsible opposition is not just to oppose everything for the sake of embarrassing the party in power but to craft policies that serve both the party's and the people's interests."

Where was Ralph Cossa while the KMT was playing the role of a "responsible oppostion" - preventing important legislation from being debated in the legislature, refusing to fund some parts of the central government, continually threatening to impeach a DPP president and taking part in street protests designed to circumvent the democratic process? Perhaps the time has come for ignorant "experts" to stop telling the Taiwanese they must embrace the Chinese for the sake of "stability". The DPP has a far better grasp of the dangers facing Taiwan than the likes of Cossa. What could cost Taiwan dearly in the near future is the direction the KMT has been taking Taiwan in, but "people in the know" like Cossa are blissfully (intentionally?) ignorant of what the Chinese Nationalists have been up to in recent years.

"It also seems hard to believe that the KMT, for all its political clout, has been unable to take its case to the people of Taiwan and has instead allowed the DPP to seize and keep the initiative. A more enlightened attitude on the part of Beijing toward the Dalai Lama in the future would also help."

A reduction in the number of missiles pointed at Taiwan, the repeal of the Anti-Secession Law 反分裂國家法 and an acceptance of what "non-interference" actually means would do far more to help than just being nicer to the Dalai Lama. The column concludes by noting that Cossa "has just returned from a weeklong visit to Taipei and Beijing." Apparently, he must have been suffering from jetlag as a result of the long flight from Honolulu.

Next time, Ralph, try actually talking to someone from the DPP before rushing to pass judgment on what you think is the best course for the 23 million people on Taiwan.

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