Tone Shifts in Head-of-State Diplomacy Due to Policy Blunders

Commentary, Office of the Editor-in-Chief, China Times

Speaking in Taipei on March 20, former American Institute in Taiwan Chairman Richard C. Bush warned that, “It will be of no benefit to Taiwan if China-U.S. relations continue to deteriorate,”* and that Taiwanese politicians must be neither complacent, nor tolerate stalemate, nor even run the risk of making serious policy mistakes. Widely respected for his professionalism, neutrality, and objectivity, and based on his support and affection for Taiwan, Bush faithfully exposed the harsh reality of the multiple crises Taiwan is facing in its external relations. Unfortunately, the Tsai Ing-wen administration would rather remain safe in its echo chamber, incapable of tolerating differences of opinion.

Official Visit for President Tsai Ing-wen, Trouble Brewing for Taiwan-Honduras Relations

Taiwan represents one of the main sticking points in the deterioration of China-U.S. relations, as the island is the focus of strategic competition between these two superpowers and a hotspot for potential military conflict. It is widely acknowledged that the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait has risen in lockstep with the spiraling of hostilities between the U.S. and China, but Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party naively believes that as long as it echoes U.S. anti-China strategy, the U.S. will strengthen Taiwan’s defense forces, enhance bilateral relations, and even send troops to defend Taiwan. Little do they realize that American and Taiwanese interests and objectives are not aligned, as there are significant uncertainties as to whether the U.S. can fully ensure Taiwan’s security. Bush hits the nail on the head when he states that the DPP’s “serious policy mistakes”* have led to a crisis in Taiwan’s democracy.

Tsai’s “Meeting Democratic Partners, Fostering Shared Prosperity” tour, expected to begin with a visit to Central American partners Guatemala and Belize on Mar. 29 and include stopovers in New York and Los Angeles, is a reflection of the deviations from current foreign policy objectives and the dysfunctions of the diplomatic system. Head-of-state diplomacy is the highest level of diplomatic action and should be carefully assessed, planned, and arranged to achieve the multiple goals of consolidating friendships and deepening bilateral ties between the U.S. and Taiwan, all in one go. But before Tsai had even departed, the bombshell news dropped that Honduras would be establishing diplomatic relations with the Chinese Communist Party.

Guided by policy blunders and illusory goals, Tsai has deliberately been attempting to create a so-called diplomatic breakthrough by meeting with Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy, who represents the anti-China forces in the U.S. Her efforts are symbolic at best, however, and the immediate effect has been to pay a painful price, revealing the lack of crisis awareness of the Tsai administration’s national security team, its misjudgment of the situation, and its inability to manage risk.

It is reported that Honduran Foreign Minister Eduardo Enrique Reyna has left for Beijing, and that our Foreign Ministry has recalled its ambassador to Honduras. If the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Honduras is finalized, the Tsai administration will have succeeded in cutting off diplomatic relations with nine friendly nations in fewer than seven years of rule, leaving only 13 diplomatic partners. A repeat occurrence of such a domino effect will spell the total defeat of Taiwan’s efforts to defend its diplomatic relations. That said, apart from condemning the CCP for its checkbook diplomacy and its diplomatic partners for choosing profit over principle, there is little the Tsai administration can do.

The cross-strait diplomatic offence and defense this time is different from the past. The U.S. has taken the initiative to join hands with Taiwan against China, and the tug-of-war on all sides has been brought to the forefront. The timing of the break in diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Honduras is likely to come at the most sensitive period of Tsai’s visit, and legislators are deeply concerned that, more than just a diplomatic issue, this is becoming a national security problem. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Wu Chao-hsieh has responded that the government has repeatedly rehearsed the situation and has a contingency mechanism in place, but Tsai’s visit has already lost its focus, having shifted from head-of-state diplomacy to a risk-laden crisis trip, barely concealing the serious lack of decision-making caused by incorrect guidance policies.

DPP Should Heed Bush’s Advice

In American academia and public opinion, a serious review is underway of the fact that current thinking among the U.S. diplomatic elite is still stuck in the era of American dominance. The consensus of extreme anti-China ideology has given rise to groupthink, according to which China poses an existential threat to the U.S. and the world order, China-U.S. military conflict is inevitable, and foreign policy has lost its resilience. In its foreign relations, the DPP has fallen prey to a similar fallacy, as adhering to the idea of resisting China to protect Taiwan and cozying up to the U.S. while being anti-China is inherently wrong. And now, we are blindly echoing the rigid, zero-sum, anti-China strategy of the U.S., and this will only serve to make Taiwan’s diplomatic situation even more precarious.

The DPP government has fully bought into American “deterrence theory,” believing that under the aegis of the U.S., comprehensive strengthening armaments and increasing asymmetric warfare capabilities can be effective in warding off a CCP invasion. But the reunification of Taiwan is not a purely military issue; the deciding factor is whether Taiwan declares independence, or whether it moves toward a permanent separation from China. While agreeing that Taiwan must build a stronger military force to avoid war, Bush emphasized that “the cross-strait issue is not about choosing between engagement or deterrence, but about how to balance and integrate the two,”* making it clear that Taiwan must adopt a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road approach.

As a long-time participant in and observer of Taiwan’s affairs, Bush argued with feeling that “A divided Taiwanese society will make itself even more fragile in the international arena.”* This is precisely the consequence of the DPP creating internal confrontation and fear in Taiwan. Since the DPP’s return to power, anyone who advocates cross-strait contact is labelled a “pro-China sellout,” and anyone who questions American policy toward Taiwan is labelled as suspicious of the U.S. and anti-American, leaving no room for rational and objective debate on foreign and cross-strait policies.

On March 21, Tsai met separately with Bush and Robert O’Brien, the former U.S. national security advisor, at the Presidential Office Building. For Bush, the presidential palace merely issued a simple press release and photos after the event. Compare that with O’Brien, an anti-China and high-ranking official of the Trump administration and the Republican Party, upon whom Tsai not only conferred the Order of Brilliant Star with Special Grand Cordon with great fanfare, but who also broadcast the whole process live. Such a stark contrast reflects the narrow vision and style of the DPP.

*Editor’s note: While accurately translated, this quote could not be sourced.

About this publication

About Matthew McKay 85 Articles
A British citizen and raised in Switzerland, Matthew received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford, and went on to earn his MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization at the University of Geneva, after 15 years in the private sector. Matthew is an associate of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and the Institute for Translation and Interpreting in the UK, and of the Association of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters in Switzerland. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his translation specialties include arts & culture, neurodivergence, and international cooperation.

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