Tsai Ing-wen, the rebel.
That was the headline in prominent French newsmagazine L’Express this week, as the publication launched a series of profiles of powerful Asian women.
In a passage unlikely to be widely understood outside of Europe, the writer compared Taiwan to Asterix’s village as viewed from Rome.
Most Europeans have grown up reading the French cartoons relating the adventures of Asterix, a young man who lived in the only village able to resist the onslaught of Julius Caesar and his Roman legions thanks to a magic potion.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, there is no magic potion available outside a wise combination of its own actions and outside help.
Questions have been asked however about certain elements of that mix on both sides. On July 11, American Institute in Taiwan Chairman James Moriarty came up with the surprising statement that naval vessels from the United States might never visit the island while describing such port calls as potentially dangerous.
Just last month, the Armed Services Committee at the U.S. Senate precisely approved a provision to re-establish regular ports of call by the U.S. Navy at Taiwanese harbors. The measure would form part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, but Moriarty interpreted the move as mere theory unlikely to happen.
The provision came “out of a Senate committee and of course that’s a long way from becoming U.S. legislation, and as I understand it’s a sense of the Senate so it’s not a binding legislative requirement,” the AIT official said.
His statement could be described as extremely ill timed since it came more or less as China’s aircraft carrier the Liaoning moved through the Taiwan Straits. The ship first traveled down from Qingdao to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China, and then spent most of Wednesday sailing back through Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
As should be, the Ministry of National Defense did not let itself be cowed by fears of danger but sent in F-16 equipped with missiles to keep an eye on the Chinese flotilla, according to Taiwanese media reports. Earlier, the ministry denied the Chinese Navy units had been conducting exercises with takeoffs and landings during their passage through Taiwan’s ADIZ on the way south.
The Kaohsiung port authorities reportedly said they were technically able to welcome U.S. Navy vessels, which were smaller than the biggest ships the harbor has handled before.
In other words, the only danger for U.S. Navy ships wanted to dock in Taiwan would not come from merely technical elements, but from bullying by China, though Moriarty failed to mention that aspect.
His comments were also rather surprising in the way that he represents the administration of President Donald Trump, who recently approved a US$1.42 billion arms deal for Taiwan. As the French magazine article points out, this is also the same president who accepted a phone call from Tsai, the first such direct conversation between a Taiwanese president and a U.S. president – or president-elect – since the two countries ended formal diplomatic relations.
One would have expected fewer reservations from a Trump Administration official – be it one appointed under the previous government – vis-à-vis Taiwan’s important strategic role.
The island is part of a string of East Asian countries which Washington can rely on in eventual conflicts with China, the communist nation rapidly modernizing its military and looking like it is following in the footsteps of 1920s Japan.
When Asterix feared a Roman attack, he just drank the magic potion to defend his village. Just like the cartoon hero, when facing Beijing’s military drive and its relentless campaign to isolate Taiwan on the international stage, Tsai and the U.S. should both continue on their road of cooperation and not restrain themselves where no restraint is necessary.