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Sunday, February 11, 2007


There they go again

I blogged last week on the rectification of names in Taiwan and how completely normal it is in postcolonial political settings, but apparently the US State Department wasn't listening. The Taipei Times reported today that our elder brother in Washington, fresh from successful decisions to invade Iraq and Afghanistan and now preparing another brilliant war against Iran to world acclaim, criticized the Taiwan government's decision:

The remarks came in response to comments made by US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who on Friday said the US did not support "administrative steps by Taiwan authorities that would appear to change Taiwan's status unilaterally or move toward independence."

Several state-owned enterprises, including the Chinese Petroleum Corp (CPC, 中國石油), China Shipbuilding Corp (CSBC, 中國造船), and the Chunghwa Post Co (中華郵政) decided in their board meetings on Friday to drop the references to "China" and include "Taiwan" in their titles.

In a particularly strong statement, McCormack also said the changes could affect Taiwan's "relationship with others," a possible warning that US-Taiwan ties would be hurt if President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) goes ahead with his plans.

McCormack said that Chen's actions on the issue "will be a test of leadership, dependability and statesmanship."

To underscore its concern, the department also took the seldom-used step of issuing a formal statement, in addition to the comments made by McCormack in answer to a question at his daily press briefing.

That's right folks, you don't have a fever -- those are actual printed words. In the twisted world of Washington's view of Taiwan, if you change the name of a local state-run company from "China" to "Taiwan" you are committing a violation so great that it requires a formal notification of deathly fear from the US State Department, but if you are China and increase the number of missiles pointed at Taiwan by 100 annually, that is a profound act of statesmanship that the State Department apparently feels no need to comment on. It's a wonder everyone who follows the State Department's remarks on Taiwan hasn't checked into a rehab farm for substance abuse.....

McCormack said Washington's main interest was maintaining peace and stability in the strait, and repeated the standard mantra that the US did not support Taiwan independence and opposed steps to change the status quo.
While the department's formal statement largely repeated what McCormack said, it added a reference to Chen's "four Noes" pledge in his 2000 inaugural address.

The inclusion of that sentence may indicate that the US feels changing the name on stamps and other enterprises might violate those pledges, which some observers feel US officials may have helped write as a gauge of Chen's commitment not to exacerbate US-China relations.

The fascinating thing is that it is not Taiwan that is causing the trouble here, but the US State Department. Let's suppose the State Department hadn't said a word about changing the names of state-owned companies in Taiwan, which everyone except the pro-China crowd feels is a necessary and logical step -- since, after all, they are from Taiwan. Let's suppose the State Department had instead simply shrugged and looked on benignly. Not applauded, simply did nothing. What would have happened?


Instead, we have a newspaper report that notes:

The issue could sour Taiwan's relations with the Bush administration at a time when relations were improving, as the brouhaha over Chen's decision to mothball the National Unification Council early last year became a distant memory.

The NUC change had zero repeat zero concrete effect on the cross-strait relations (in fact, the agency hadn't operated in years and its disappearance had no effect on anything). China did not attack. The US did not get involved in a war. Investment from Taiwan to China continued. Life went on, the planet still spun on its axis, and the stars remained in their courses. The very reasonable name changes that the government is proposing will also have zero concrete effect on cross-strait relations, but will very much ease the confusion that Taiwanese have to deal with in their day-to-day relations with other countries.

As with the NUC change, they are also part of the DPP's package to rally the party's core support, in this case for the upcoming elections later this year. The State Department could have at least indicated it had some understanding of that issue, as well as indicated support for Taiwan's democracy. It could also have simply asked why China was upset, since there are thousands of companies that bear the names of Chinese cities, provinces, and regions. I assume the State Department has similarly complained that using the name Air Macau may lead to independence for the island, and that China Eastern Airlines may cause rampant splittism on the east coast?

Apparently the US has failed to heed the lessons from its past errors, turning normal evolution into a faux-serious problem, when nothing need have occurred. Changing the names of the state run companies will not make Taiwan independent nor move it one whit closer to formal independence. Not only is the US reaction plainly shortsighted and ill-considered, it also serves the needs of Beijing and of the pro-China forces in Taiwan, who promptly accused Chen of causing trouble in Taiwan's relations with the US. In the long run, each time the State Department makes noises at Taiwan, it validates Beijing's drive to annex the island, leading to even more demands on Beijing's part that it must fulfill, and increasing the probability that violence will break out.

Looks to me like someone in Beijing made a phone call to someone in the State Department and demanded that harsh words be said, and the State Department leaped to obey. The sad part is that six months will go by, nothing will happen, and the US will then have to issue a statement reassuring everyone that US-Taiwan relations are peachy-keen and that it has no problems with Chen. That's what happens, folks, when you decide to serve Beijing instead of democracy.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, a former AIT head calls for the US to rethink its Taiwan position.

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At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I agree with the point that it sounds like the US State Department were under pressure from Beijing on this one, I’ve always thought that the US government stance was not really what it claims to be.
There seems to be an unspoken assumption every where throughout US government announcements that one day Taiwan will come to its senses and rejoin its motherland. It’s never expressed openly but without that or some similar assumption I find it very difficult to understand the US government’s stance.
I enjoy your blog by the way.


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