The Incredible Durability of Ma’s Mendacious Cross-Strait NarrativeA powerful China lobby in the U.S. is helping to sustain President Ma Ying-jeou’s demonstrably false narrative on cross-strait relations. But increasing doubts about aggressive Chinese foreign and domestic policies now offer pro-status quo Taiwanese a way to render it moot
On April 9, in the midst of the Sunflower Movement’s game-changing occupation of the legislature, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) made one of his carefully choreographed video appearances before the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), arguably the most influential foreign-policy think tanks in Washington, D.C.
It was a typical Ma performance, particularly given the importance of his American audience. Much as he has done for the past six years, the Taiwanese leader insisted that his presidency has succeeded in restoring stability to the Taiwan Strait after the crisis-prone presidency of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), creating a “win-win-win” situation for the three parties most directly involved in the struggle for Taiwan’s future — Washington, Beijing and Taipei itself.
“When I took office in May 2008,” Ma told the group, “I made it my top priority to improve Taiwan’s relationship with the U.S. by restoring high-level mutual trust which was virtually non-existent at the time. Today R.O.C.-U.S. relations are the strongest they have been in 35 years or more. With U.S. support, Taiwan has been able to improve cross-strait relations and confidently engaged Beijing from a position of strength.”
The Washington attendees of the video-conference (they included people like former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Barbara Schrage, former managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan) appeared to accept Ma at his word, rushing to praise him for turning a perennial cockpit of conflict into a welcome fulcrum of stability.
Take, for example, the warm words of U.S.-Taiwan Business Council chairman and Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz.
”I think that what you’ve done in transforming the cross-strait relationship in a way that is positive not only for Taiwan and Mainland China, but for the United States as well and for Taiwan-U.S. relations is something that is a legacy you will always be proud of and we will always be grateful for,” Wolfowitz said.
The enthusiasm of the CSIS attendees for Ma’s description of the emerging cross-strait dynamic and its supposedly positive implications for the U.S. neatly encapsulates the seamless way in which influential Washington has come to embrace Ma’s increasingly questionable political narrative. Rather than seeing the Taiwanese leader for what he is — a feckless, wannabee autocrat with an approval rating of less than 20 percent — America’s preeminent foreign policy gurus mistakenly regard him as some sort of latter day Metternich, a successful practitioner of delicate balance of power politics whose patient sophistication endows him all the necessary tools to navigate the dangerous shoals of cross-state politics and domestic challenges with exemplary skill.
The obvious question is: Are these guys for real?
In at least one sense they are.
By engaging China (albeit it not necessarily from a position of strength) Ma has reduced the longstanding tensions between Taiwan and the mainland to their lowest point since Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Nationalist troops retreated across the Taiwan Strait following their defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Communists in 1949. For many in Washington, scared out of their wits by China’s angry reaction to Chen Shui-bian’s in your face cross-strait policies, this was a consummation devoutly to be wished.
It is the rest of the narrative that creates the problem, not only for the 23 million people of Taiwan (most of whom want nothing to do with China politically), but also for clear-headed people in the American foreign policy establishment, who even if they still dream of turning China into “a responsible stakeholder” with a cooperative take on the world, now understand that its aggressive posture in places like the South China and East China seas is a major cause for concern.
Start with its implications for the Taiwanese people, who since re-electing Ma in 2012 have been abandoning him in droves. Nowhere amid the deluge of praise heaped upon the Taiwanese leader during his CSIS video appearance was any mention made of his almost comically low standing in public opinion polls, or the lame duck status that important members of his own Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have now saddled him with as they seek to keep their heads above water in the run-up to Taiwanese mayoral elections later this year.
While some of this anti-Ma feeling no doubt reflects the growing disconnect between his proto-imperial style and the democratic sensibilities of his constituents, an even greater measure seems to be attributable to his policy of pushing for closer relations with China, particularly in the political sphere. To cite an obvious example, in the 2012 run-up to Ma’s re-election victory, popular outrage forced him to dump his idea of a peace treaty with Beijing less than 48 hours after he unveiled it, a clear indication of the public’s opposition to any move that might be construed as paving the way for political union with Beijing. Even more to the point, his insistence on pushing forward with his contentious China trade services agreement earlier this year unleashed a torrent of popular opposition, culminating in the unprecedented support that Taiwanese showed for occupation of the legislature and the emergence of the Sunflower Movement — a movement that at the end of the day demands a much more transparent Taiwanese administration, and a major slowdown in Ma’s accommodation with the Chinese Communists. To his credit, Ma did make passing reference to the legislative occupation in his CSIS appearance, even if he patently gave no indication that it would in any way cause him to reconsider the overall direction of his cross-strait enterprise.
Aside from demonstrably flying in the face of the Taiwanese people, Ma’s rosy narrative also appears to raise some troubling questions for the U.S. While it is true that Ma has done much to lower tensions in one of the post-World War II era’s preeminent zones of conflict, he has done so at great cost to the U.S.’s strategic standing in the region, creating not so much a “win-win” situation for Beijing and Washington, but a triumphant situation for Beijing, and a humiliating one for Washington. Conspicuously absent from all the laurels heaped upon Ma by Paul Wolfowitz and his well-placed CSIS friends, was any reference at all to the sharp turn toward China that his cross-strait policy has entailed. This includes Taipei’s tacit (and sometimes not so tacit) support for Beijing’s increasingly assertive postures in the South and East China seas, its disinclination to criticize other controversial aspects of Beijing’s foreign policy (see, for example the initial support by Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry for China’s refusal to condemn North Korea for its sinking in 2010 of the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette), and perhaps most troubling of all, its general reluctance to identify itself with the U.S.’s Asian policy, including the Pacific pivot, which Beijing views as a U.S. campaign to clip its strategic wings by encircling it. Anyone doubting the validity of this observation needs look no further than Taiwanese policy guru Huang Kwei-bo’s (黃奎博) disingenuous comments earlier this month concerning supposed popular opposition to the island’s inclusion in an American-backed early warning radar system aimed at China. Huang’s clearly specious comments — and episodes like Taiwan’s initial aversion to accepting American assistance to help deal with the devastation wrought by Typhoon Morakot in 2009 — are troubling signs that when it comes to balancing China and the U.S., Taiwan leans toward China.
Given these obvious problems with Ma’s cross-strait narrative, what then accounts for the enthusiasm of the American foreign policy elite in embracing it? It might be comforting to blame this on the international press, which by any objective standard covers Taiwan with about the same degree of granularity it covers Portugal or maybe even Andorra — neither of which is currently caught up in any international conflict. My own experience with The Associated Press seems instructive here. For nine years I covered Taiwan for this large and venerable institution, which despite facing the complex problems of the mainstream media everywhere — declining customer bases, truncated revenues — still sees itself as a serious and ambitious purveyor of international news. At least during my first several years in Taipei, this was very true: There were few limits on what I could write about, and our bureau boasted nine fulltime staff, three of whom were exclusively print reporters. Over time however, as budget considerations became more and more important, not only was the bureau’s size reduced (it currently has no print reporters at all), but with revenue considerations predominating, emphasis was put on turning out fluffy television pieces, which while sometimes pleasant and entertaining, were still devoid of any real insight on the two issues that seem to matter most to serious students of Taiwan — cross-strait politics and Ma’s domestic standing. This lacuna was particularly notable during the emergence of the Sunflower Movement several months ago, when I literally had to beg an editor in Bangkok to run a report on the student takeover of the legislature — not so much because he didn’t see its importance, but because staff reductions had left him with almost singlehandedly responsible for putting out stories on the Malaysian airplane affair, an objectively bigger story. Thus are editorial decisions made in a major international news organization, and thus is Taiwan sidelined. It’s an irreversible trend.
But even allowing for the generally short shrift the international media gives to Taiwan, that still doesn’t explain the Washington foreign policy establishment’s enthusiastic embrace of Ma Ying-jeou’s narrative on the dynamics of cross-strait relations. After all, does anyone really believe that people like Richard Armitage or Paul Wolfowitz somehow lack the resources to educate themselves about Ma’s political isolation, or the China tilt to his foreign policy? Given their sophistication and their wide range of contacts, that rationalization is simply not credible.
A much more convincing explanation is that at the end of the day the American foreign policy establishment accepts Ma’s narrative because it serves its interests to do so. Like it or not, this reflects the vise-like grip that China has on the American foreign policy imagination. From the Treasury Department to the State Department, from the Energy Department to the Agriculture Department, every major Washington bureaucracy is up to its neck in China business and seeming sinking ever deeper. It’s no wonder that more and more commentators are calling the U.S.-China relationship the most important set of bilateral ties on the planet. It merely reflects reality.
So what are the key levers China has at its disposal here? Beyond the obviously seductive dynamics of its billion plus customer base, China also relies on a sophisticated Washington-based lobbying network that embraces everyone from Henry Kissinger (he of the “China and the U.S. should run the world together” school of geopolitics) to somewhat lesser lights like Madeline Albright and Sandy Berger (respectively President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state and national security advisor), who co-chair the Albright Stonebridge Group, which among other things, entices corporate clients with alluring promises of preferred access to senior Chinese decision makers. Other major China levers include the influential think tank community, many of whose members are big-time recipients of opaque Chinese financial largesse, and leading members of the corporate community, whose bottom lines are increasingly tied to China market access. For all these actors, and for other actors unnamed, Ma’s cross-strait narrative of painless and mutually beneficial China engagement is beautiful music indeed. It’s no wonder that Washington likes listening to it so much. Not only does Ma provide a balmy cover for its craven self-interest, but he does so with maximum good grace, taking his “I am not a troublemaker” mantra to extraordinary lengths. “No on F-16 C/Ds?” Ma sometimes seems to be saying to an insistently credulous U.S. policy establishment. “That’s okay. Just as long as you cut me some slack on visa requirements I can take it to the bank. That’s what my people want anyway.”
All of this of course suggests that Ma’s narrative on cross-strait relations is so invulnerable that there is nothing that anyone can ever do to disrupt it. Happily, this is not the case. Ma’s replacement by a less China-friendly Taiwanese president in 2016 would obviously go a considerable way to helping alleviate the problem, though realistically, it remains to be seen for just how long: After all there are plenty of other people waiting in the KMT wings who share his cross-strait vision. For a more durable, and more comprehensive solution, another approach is required, an approach that focuses first and foremost on Washington, and involves shining a much more penetrating light on China’s aggressive policies. Fortunately, this is not nearly as difficult as it sounds. Despite the immense power of the American China lobby, Beijing is already suffering from an acute lack of sympathy in the American press. Anyone doubting this need look no further than this month’s 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, which featured virtually cover to cover condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party for attempting to erase the episode from Chinese history. In fact, the American press is now criticizing the Chinese communist regime in seven important areas — human rights, Tibet, persecution of Christians, policies toward Uighurs, foreign policy assertiveness (particularly in the South China Sea), cyber-espionage and economic mercantilism, including alleged exchange rate rigging and intellectual property violations. The totality of this criticism has contributed greatly to the erosion in China’s popular standing in the U.S., particularly as reflected in surveys like that undertaken by the Pew Research Center in 2012. Not surprisingly it also seems to be hastening the coming of a crucial inflection point in U.S.-China relations — a point at which growing American suspicions of China’s motives on the world stage harden into a perception that it is not only a competitor (the view of 66 percent of the respondents in the survey cited above), but also an enemy.
So the essential question is this: Is there anything that Taiwanese committed to an open-ended continuation of the political status quo and opposed to a Chinese takeover of their island can now do to bring this inflection point closer? At least one approach may now be worthy of serious consideration. It involves establishing a credible, non-partisan Taiwan lobbying organization in the U.S. and joining it with the other U.S.-based interest groups already pressing forward with their own China-skeptic agendas — Bob Fu’s (傅希秋) ChinaAid, for example, or the International Campaign for Tibet. By acting together on China, these various groups (none of which, felicitously, are mutually antagonistic) can clearly achieve a lot more than they can by acting alone, particularly if they adopt a nuanced, politically savvy approach to their work. They already have a lot going for them in the form of the growing American recognition that China’s rise is most definitively a zero-sum game — that is, that as China’s power increases, America’s can only recede. It’s time they start to exploit this and pull together now. Waiting isn’t an option. Waiting loses the game.
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.