Tough-guy Taipei's foreign policy punch in question

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2002, 12:00am

Annette Lu Hsiu-Lien was greeted triumphantly upon her return to Taiwan, but the Taiwan vice-president's trip to Indonesia yielded mixed results at best.

The island may well have raised expectations in Indonesia that it may not be able to fulfil. Moreover, Beijing will now put renewed pressure on Southeast Asian countries not to allow any visits by Taiwan leaders.

No doubt, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, left to their own devices, would be happy to roll out the red carpet for Ms Lu, and for Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, especially since Mr Chen is urging the Taiwan business community to 'go south' and invest in Southeast Asia rather than in the mainland. However, China's influence, both political and economic, is not something that any Southeast Asian country can ignore.

Already, the Philippines has disclosed that Beijing had tipped it off about a possible attempt by President Chen to enter the country. Manila has said that it would not admit him in any capacity.

'Whether he's coming in as a private citizen, official or as chairman of a political party, no way,' said Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Lauro Baja.

He disclosed that Ms Lu, while stranded in Bali, had applied for permission to land in the Philippines and had been told in no uncertain terms that her plane would 'not be given clearance to land'.

National People's Congress Chairman Li Peng is scheduled to visit Southeast Asia next month. No doubt, he will impress upon his hosts the importance of not having any official contact with senior Taiwan officials.

Nonetheless, Taiwan will make renewed efforts to end the isolation that China seeks to impose upon it. Despite the indignities initially suffered by Ms Lu, her Indonesia trip is being hailed as a breakthrough. She herself called it a victory in a 'battle without gunfire'.

Indications are that senior Taiwan officials are adopting a new, more aggressive strategy to improve relations with the rest of the world.

While in Taiwan's eyes the most important countries are the United States and Japan, Southeast Asian nations are also very high on their priority list.

Two days after Ms Lu's return, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Katharine Chang declared that Taiwan's representative offices in Southeast Asia had been ordered 'to attempt to enhance exchanges with these countries'.

She made herself clear by adding: 'We hope that bilateral visits of political figures, both in terms of frequency and level of representation, will grow over time.'

President Chen is apparently so dissatisfied with the performance of the Foreign Ministry that he has put responsibility for foreign affairs into the hands of the National Security Council, which is headed by Secretary-General Chiou I-jen, who masterminded the Democratic Progressive Party's street-fighting strategy when it was in the opposition.

Even before the recent defection by Nauru, Mr Chiou and Chen Shih-meng, Secretary-General of the Presidential Office, have been talking about the need to revitalise and refocus Taiwan's diplomatic efforts. Mr Chiou, in talks at the Foreign Ministry on July 18, is reported to have called on Taiwan to put more resources into offensive instead of defensive strategies in expanding Taiwan's foreign relations.

'Personally, I relatively favour an offensive foreign policy,' he was quoted by the Taipei Times as saying. 'This doesn't mean that we should quarrel or fight with others. What I meant to say is if Taiwan sticks to a defensive strategy when dealing with other sates, it would be a very hard job.'

An example of such an aggressive strategy could well be the means Ms Lu employed to gain access to Jakarta, and to procure meetings with several Indonesian officials. Her ability to meet such officials was a reflection of Taiwan's economic clout.

Taiwan imposed an embargo on the importation of Indonesian workers on August 1. Ms Lu was apparently able to parlay Indonesia's desire to continue to send workers to Taiwan into a meeting with the country's labour minister. Moreover, she dangled before Indonesian officials Taiwan's interest in buying liquefied natural gas, a deal that could be worth more than US$10 billion (HK$78 billion) over 10 years. This was particularly effective, coming as it did right after Beijing had disappointed Jakarta by deciding to import natural gas from Australia rather than Indonesia.

Indonesia, which initially barred Ms Lu from entering Jakarta, apparently had asked Taiwan to understand its position since it was under severe Chinese pressure. Taiwan, however, reportedly refused and was adamant Ms Lu be accorded due diplomatic niceties.

It is likely that, as Taiwan implements its 'offensive' foreign policy, such tactics will be used increasingly. Taiwan will no longer be Mr Nice Guy. It will try to be Mr Tough Guy. The question is whether Taipei or Beijing packs a greater wallop.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.