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One flag too far

One flag too far

Taiwan and the United States might not have an official diplomatic relationship, but they are still widely regarded as allies, with the island maintaining close economic, cultural and even military ties with Washington, D.C.
So it came as a surprise that a rare diplomatic incident pitted the two nations against each other, with China of course agitating in the background.
Taiwan representative to the US Shen Lu-shyun presided over a New Year’s Day flag-raising ceremony at the Twin Oaks Estate in Washington mimicking the similar event held each year early on January 1 in front of the Presidential Office Building in Taipei.
The estate served as the official residence of the Republic of China ambassador from President Chiang Kai-shek’s China-based government period in 1937 until President Jimmy Carter severed ties with Taipei in 1978. Even though the People’s Republic of China became Washington’s diplomatic partner, the Taiwan government was allowed to hold on to the property.
While the building might be considered as private property and therefore no outsider should have any business with any kind of flags being waved there, the US administration still considers it as having the special significance of a “representative compound.”
As a result, only cultural and social events have been allowed to take place at Twin Oaks. The first change occurred in 2011, when for the first time in 32 years, the Taiwanese office was allowed to host its Double Ten National Day event at the location. Last October, the national anthem was sung at a Double Ten reception and the ROC flag was flown there, according to Shen.
January’s flag-raising ceremony might have been seen as a major step forward in the relaxation of relations between the two countries, but the way it was handled only provoked recriminations.
Shen told the Legislative Yuan in Taipei that he had not really told the US authorities all that much in a kind of “plausible deniability” scenario preparing for the expected protests from Beijing. If China came knocking on the door of the State Department to condemn the Twin Oaks event, at least the US could claim it was not aware of what had happened, was Shen’s apparent reasoning.
However, he did not count on the Obama Administration feeling “disappointed” with the event, as worded by State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. She said the flag-raising ceremony “violated” the longstanding understanding between the US and Taiwan on the conduct of unofficial relations. Other US government-related units including the American Institute in Taiwan also issued statements describing how they hoped the Twin Oaks incident was the first but also the last of its kind.
In its reaction to the US criticism, Taiwan government officials said they would improve their communications with Washington. The comments from the Obama Administration were obviously an unexpected embarrassment for Taipei.
What should have been a diplomatic triumph of sorts for Taiwan’s government turned into a mess throwing doubt on the country’s reputation in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
President Ma Ying-jeou has consistently boasted of how after coming to power in 2008, he had mended damaged relations with the US and of how relations between Taiwan on the one hand and the US, Japan and China on the other hand had reached their best level in a long time.
On Thursday, he still insisted the relationship between Taipei and Washington was making stable progress.
However, the incident with the flag was just another example exposing the president’s supposedly “viable diplomacy” and “diplomatic truce” as a form of delusion and wishful thinking. When he was elected in 2008, he put the prime emphasis on moving closer to China ahead of all other diplomatic concerns.
“Viable diplomacy” and the “diplomatic truce” were supposed to end the previous period of alleged “dollar diplomacy” during which China and Taiwan tried to steal away as many as each other’s diplomatic allies as possible. In return for a policy which was never publicly acknowledged by Beijing, the Ma Administration made many concessions both on cross-straits agreements but also on the defense of Taiwan’s interests and sovereignty overseas.
The improved relations did not prevent China from simply charging ahead with its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan and with its ridiculous protests at anything which might be interpreted as recognition of the islands’ sovereign and independent status.
The lack of restraint on Beijing’s part over the flag-raising ceremony at Twin Oaks again shows how brittle the status is of the so-called best cross-straits relations in 60 years. Just because its officials frequently visit Taiwan with smiles for the Taiwanese, it does not mean that China has given up its campaign to annex the island by any means possible.
Ma would do well to bear all this unfriendly protestations from Beijing in mind and take a more active role in promoting Taiwan’s interests in the 17 months he has left at the Presidential Office.
Over the past six years, the Ma Administration signed agreements, such as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and the trade-in-services pact, which it praised as major signs of progress, yet they faced growing public anger.
Taiwan paid a heavy price for improving relations with China without receiving any binding promises of respect and recognition in return. The “viable diplomacy” and “diplomatic truce” have still brought only minimal progress in Taiwan’s hoped-for accession to international bodies.
The apparent improvement in cross-straits economic relations provoked a backlash from the public worried by rising Chinese influence over the domestic economy, and by the leverage this would give Beijing once the nation’s international status and defense policies are at stake.
Taiwanese voters presented Ma’s Kuomintang with the bill for his policies in the November 29 local elections, leading to his resignation from the party chairmanship. It still remains to be seen whether he will adapt his general policies to public opinion during the remainder of his term or stay the course.
Ma should take the defense of Taiwan’s interests in the face of China’s arrogance to heart, rather than provoke and embarrass the nation’s closest allies.
At the Twin Oaks Estate, President Ma went one flag too far in the wrong direction.


Updated : 2021-09-24 02:37 GMT+08:00