Delicate business for regional powers to skirt cross-strait rivalry
Hard on the heels of Taiwan Vice-President Annette Lu Hsiu-lien's controversial visit to Jakarta, a new dispute involving Taiwan, China and another Southeast Asian country has erupted.
Apparently as a result of Chinese pressure, Thailand refused to issue a visa to a senior Taiwan official, Chen Chu, after having invited her to witness the signing of a labour agreement in Phuket. Now Taiwan is threatening to retaliate against Thailand.
An increasingly assertive Taiwan is playing hard ball in its attempt to break through the diplomatic isolation imposed on it by Beijing. While Taiwan's priority is to improve its standing with the US and Japan, it is also keen to leverage its economic muscle into political influence in Southeast Asia before China gains a dominant position in the region.
The island is also hoping to prevail on the countries of Southeast Asia to use the US as a model in upgrading their ostensibly 'unofficial' relations.
The tussle between China and Taiwan has already led to questioning in some quarters of the feasibility of maintaining the 'one China' policy insisted upon by Beijing.
The debate has spread to the media as well. The Bangkok Post, for example, discussed the issue in a recent editorial, asserting that 'Taiwan, similar to China, is a viable state'. But it concluded that the 'one-China policy works well for now'.
However, Beijing's constant pressure on governments to honour their one-China commitment has resulted in resentment. The Nation, an influential English-language newspaper in Bangkok, has criticised the Thai government for its inability 'to find the courage to tell the Chinese to back off'.
But even that paper declared: 'Certainly, there should be no change to the one-China policy, nor should diplomatic ties with Taiwan be established.'
The dispute stemmed from Thailand's last-minute withdrawal of an invitation to the Taiwan labour minister to witness the signing ceremony of an important labour agreement on the resort island scheduled for August 29. Although Ms Chen had been invited as early as August 6, fear of Chinese fury caused the Thais to have second thoughts and a visa was withheld at the last minute.
Taiwan accused Bangkok of not standing up for the interests of Thai workers and knuckling under Chinese pressure. Ms Chen described Thailand as 'a country that is incapable of taking pressure from outside'.
The proposed labour agreement would greatly improve the lot of Thai workers. There are about 140,000 in Taiwan, many of whom are exploited by illegal Thai placement agencies. Under the agreement, workers would be able to get jobs simply by paying a nominal fee.
Though the competition between Taiwan and the mainland has profound political ramifications, it is being carried out in the economic realm. So far, Taiwan has an advantage. For one thing, it has absorbed 350,000 workers from such countries as Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. China, with its huge army of unemployed, is not in a position to take in workers from the region.
Taiwan also has substantial investments in Southeast Asia, far greater than those of China. Moreover, Southeast Asian governments know that Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian is urging businessmen to invest in the region rather than China as part of his Go South policy.
Recently, Taiwan sought to apply its successes in the US to the region. Just as Taiwan has cultivated the support of American congressmen, it is now hoping to cultivate similar support from the region's lawmakers.
This is clear from President Chen's recent meeting with Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the Golkar party in Indonesia. The Taiwan leader urged friendly Indonesian lawmakers to 'organise a Taiwan caucus' to enhance relations.
This suggestion was inspired by the establishment of a Congressional Taiwan Caucus by pro-Taiwan American legislators. The caucus is aimed at improving relations between Taiwan and the US and at upgrading American relations with Taiwan.
Moreover, Vice-President Lu is calling upon Southeast Asian governments to practise 'dual diplomacy' by passing their own version of an American-style Taiwan Relations Act so as to enable them to develop unofficial relations with the island.
Southeast Asians do not want to be forced to choose between China and Taiwan. They made that choice when they broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan more than 20 years ago. But they want to be able to do business with both the mainland and Taiwan.
Along with Taiwan, they would like a little more space in which to manoeuvre. But it seems they will continue to be caught between a rock and a hard place.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.