Jilted lover

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 February, 2003, 12:00am

This being Valentine's Day, a tale of as-yet-unrequited love might be timely. The Taiwan government has been ardently pursuing Southeast Asian countries, in particular Thailand and Indonesia. However, despite occasional successes - such as Vice-President Annette Lu Hsiu-lien's 'holiday' in August in Bali and subsequent visit to Jakarta, after first having been turned away - Taiwan's advances have, for the most part, been rebuffed.

But Taiwan is an ardent suitor and, in December, it became known that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, like his vice-president, also wanted a chance to take a holiday in Indonesia. At the time, it looked as though blushing Indonesia might be willing to respond positively to Taiwan's blandishments, but at that crucial juncture the mainland declared its opposition to a visit by Mr Chen 'in any capacity'.

As is the case in such affairs of the heart, the outcome was predictable. Indonesia reiterated its faithfulness to the 'one China' policy and denied any interest in a dalliance with Taiwan. An Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman reportedly said that, in the past, such ostensibly private visits by senior Taiwan officials inevitably became politicised.

'Politicised' in this instance means 'publicised', and that, after all, is Taiwan's aim. It wants to show the world that, despite the mainland's best efforts, top Taiwanese officials can still travel to countries that maintain diplomatic relations with officials in Beijing. But such 'kiss and tell' antics go down badly in the diplomatic arena, as Taiwan has learned.

The mainland position on Southeast Asian countries' relations with Taiwan was set out by Li Peng, chairman of the National People's Congress, when he toured Southeast Asia in September. He said the mainland had no objections if these countries maintained normal trade, business and economic ties with Taiwan. But he made it clear that there must not be any political hanky-panky.

The other Southeast Asian country that has been vigorously pursued by an ardent Taiwan is Thailand. Last August, Taiwan was looking forward to the rare pleasure of one of its senior officials, Chen Chu, head of the Council of Labour Affairs, being officially embraced by Thailand.

Thailand's Labour Ministry, apparently thinking that the mainland was not looking, approved the issuing of an invitation to Ms Chen to take part in a ceremony in Phuket to mark the signing of a labour agreement between the two sides. However, at the last minute - China having apparently got wind of this and protested vehemently - the Thai Foreign Ministry refused to issue her a visa. Taiwan reacted like any scorned lady and threatened to 'readjust bilateral relations'. Economic warfare with Taiwan could have dealt a serious economic blow to Thailand, since Taiwan is the third biggest foreign investor in the country, after the United States and Japan. Timing was also an issue. Mr Li was due to visit Thailand on September 3, only days after the scheduled signing of the labour agreement with Taiwan.

The dispute between Thailand and Taiwan proved to be little more than a lovers' tiff. By the end of the year, all was forgiven. Ms Chen was again invited to Phuket and, this time, a visa was forthcoming. The labour agreement was duly signed. The lovers kissed and made up. Or did they? The following month, Taiwan accused Thailand of giving its favours only to the mainland. It turned out that Taiwan applied in mid-January for visas for a delegation of legislators to visit Thailand on January 19. Officials in Bangkok considered the timing inopportune, as Chinese Vice-Premier Li Lanqing was due to visit Thailand the following week.

It was like watching an old soap opera. Again, the Thais asked for the visit to be deferred. Again, Taiwan fretted and fumed. But Thailand is unlikely to budge, at least for a while. After all, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is visiting Beijing next week.

He is getting acquainted with China's new rulers and will not want to spoil his honeymoon with them.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator