Taiwan: Diplomatic Blunder

Chen Shui-bian
Chen Shiu-bian (Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP).

On Dec. 14, Indonesia’s English-language daily The Jakarta Post broke a story with important implications for Taiwanese-Indonesian relations. In a front-page article, the paper exposed the secret plans of  Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian to visit the Indonesian city of  Yogyakarta later that week. It asserted that Chen was to have led a delegation of 90 Taiwanese businesspeople and was to have met with Yogyakarta’s governor, Sultan Hamengkubuwono.

Beijing, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and opposes international travel by Taiwan’s leaders, immediately went on the offensive. Under pressure from the Chinese government, Indonesia’s president convened an emergency meeting and then called Taipei to discuss the situation. The next day, Taiwan’s presidential office announced that Chen’s trip had been canceled to preserve the president’s dignity and safety.

Taiwan’s pro-independence newspapers were quick to assign blame for the fiasco. In a Dec. 16 editorial, Liberty Times quoted an Indonesian involved in planning the visit as saying that an insider in Taiwan’s government must have revealed Chen’s plans to the media. The paper speculated that such an informer must have pro-Beijing leanings and asserted that those who identify with China are loathe to see Taiwan act as a sovereign state and will do what they can to suppress such activities. Commons Daily accused Indonesian officials of both arranging Chen’s meeting and revealing the plan to the media. In a Dec. 16 column, commentator Lin Ching-chiang asked: “What was Indonesia after? Did it inform China about the Taiwanese leader’s visit in exchange for investment promises?”

On Dec. 17, Taiwan’s Economic Ministry set out a series of retaliatory measures, including discouraging investment in Indonesia (which it had advocated as part of its “Go South” campaign to strengthen economic ties with Southeast Asia) and freezing the employment of Indonesian laborers in Taiwan.

But the Taiwanese press did not support the ministry’s plans.  The sanctions “will have little actual effect....[The move] is little more than a face-saving gesture,” the pro-unification United Daily News commentator Hua Ying-huei said on Dec. 18. “China’s increasing economic strength compared with Taiwan’s has already led many Southeast Asia countries [which formerly depended on Taiwan] to turn to China.” Similarly, in a Dec. 20 editorial, Liberty Times asserted that excessive retaliation would only serve to hurt Taiwanese-Indonesian relations, leaving China to capitalize on the resulting strained ties.

The pro-unification Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News reflected a general consensus when it noted that presidential diplomacy is not child’s play. A Dec. 20 editorial said: “Presidential diplomacy requires suitable circumstances. Diplomacy is not blind guerrilla warfare, but the accumulation of bits of effort....Only after the Foreign Affairs Ministry has made progress should there be presidential diplomacy.”