Reviving Taiwan A TALL ORDER

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 February, 2012, 12:00am


With the European debt crisis complicating the world economy, new Taiwanese Premier Sean Chen has no time to waste in steering the cabinet through wave upon wave of difficulties washing over the island.

The 62-year-old head of the new cabinet - appointed by the re-elected president, mainland-friendly Ma Ying-jeou - headed into his new job this week with a key long-term mission: to help Ma leave a meaningful legacy after his second presidential term expires in 2016.

That will be a tall order, given that Ma's first term was marred by accusations of insensitivity to public needs, an ever-widening wealth gap and serious unemployment among young adults aged 20 to 29.

But first the former vice-premier, known as a 'finance wit', must address the challenges created by the European debt crisis and a hot dispute over US beef imports, analysts and the media say.

'The European debt crisis will be at its worst from next month and it will be too late for the new cabinet to head off the crisis if it waits until after Ma is inaugurated on May 20,' said Norman Yin, finance and banking professor at National Chengchi University.

Recent comments by US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke that the Fed plans to keep interest rates low until at least 2014 were a warning that the global economy might face a rougher year than expected, the China Times daily in Taipei said in an editorial.

The paper said Chen must get his economic and finance team ready to handle the global volatility, especially when Taiwan's exports have been declining over the past month because of Europe's slump.

But if anyone can help the Ma government weather the crisis, Chen is the 'best available choice', according to many pundits.

A technocrat who worked his way up the government echelons, Chen is a graduate of the prestigious National Taiwan University's law school and is now a financial expert.

Married to a wealthy woman and the father of a son and daughter, his stellar resume includes stints as vice-finance minister, head of the Monetary Affairs Bureau, chairman of the Taiwan Co-operative Bank, head of the Taiwan Stocks Exchange and chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission.

He is known for leading Taiwan through the global financial crisis of 2008 as head of the supervisory commission. In that same role, he signed a memorandum of understanding on financial supervisory co-operation with the mainland in 2009.

Although he was a Kuomintang member, the Chen Shui-bian administration kept him in key roles until he quit in 2006. Two years later he was recruited by the Ma government. Taiwanese media say he was one of the few people able to stage such a comeback and straddle both parties - all because of his expertise and managerial ability.

He is one of the richest officials in Taiwan, thanks to his wife, who used to work as a European regional manager for a high-paying Taiwanese electronics company.

'He is also good at knowing his position and will not do things that step in another's area unless he is given the authority to do so,' said a KMT official.

As deputy of the previous premier, Wu Den-yih, Chen was careful to avoid showing Wu up, well aware that a deputy should always be the shadow of his boss, always giving useful proposals, and doing work quietly without taking credit, the official said.

But political commentator Sisy Chen wonders if Sean Chen is forceful enough to get things done without hindrance from Ma.

'Being a Mr Nice Guy who is not willing to offend others, I don't know whether he is gutsy enough to do that,' she said on a political talk show last week.

Liu Bi-rong, professor of political science at Soochow University, said it would be best for the new cabinet head to achieve some accomplishments in economics or other areas before Ma's swearing-in.

'The immediate issue he must address is the US beef import issue,' Liu said.

Taipei and Washington have been disputing the issue since 2006, when the Chen government banned the import of US beef containing residues of ractopamine, a leanness-enhancing drug.

In 2009, a year after Ma took office, his government permitted the re-import of such beef, reportedly under US pressure, enraging the public and even lawmakers from the ruling Kuomintang.

The Ma government, its popularity falling from the mishandling of a typhoon disaster, again blocked the imports, and Washington interpreted the re-imposition of the ban as a breach of trust, abruptly calling off a planned reopening of trade talks.

In the past two weeks, Washington sent envoy Raymond Burghardt to Taipei to meet Ma and other top officials.

Burghardt emphatically asked the island to put the beef-import issue in the context of a liberal economy.

Some local media reported that Ma agreed to restart imports of the controversial meat.

Some news reports and opposition politicians called the commitment Ma's 'payback' for America's backing him for a second term - assertions denied by the Ma government and the US.

During Ma's campaign, a senior US official reportedly said Washington was concerned about the ability of Ma's challenger, Dr Tsai Ing-wen, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, to maintain warming cross-strait ties, given that she denied the existence of the so-called '1992 consensus' - a tacit understanding that allows Taiwan and the mainland to talk with each other without agreeing on whether Taiwan is part of China.

Late last year, the US listed Taiwan as a potential candidate for its Visas Waiver Programme - a benefit that stemmed, the Ma government claimed, from Ma's engagement with the mainland.

A few days before the January 14 election, a retired US envoy, Douglas Paal, came to Taiwan to observe the balloting.

He told a TV station that Ma's '1992 consensus' was an effective means of addressing cross-strait relations, while Tsai's proposed 'Taiwan consensus' could in no way do the same.

The opposition saw the remarks as US advice for the Taiwanese to vote for Ma to keep cross-strait stability and peace, though Washington insisted that it had remained neutral.

When Burghardt arrived in Taiwan on January 29 to talk about the beef and trade issues, most Taiwanese media said it was pay-back time, that the US envoy was in town to demand Ma return the favour.

By now, there's a lot more than beef to chew on in this dispute.

'It is not just an agriculture or food industry-related controversy,' said Chen Bao-ji, the new chairman of the Council of Agriculture - it has become a critical problem linked to Taiwan's major policy and future development.

Last Saturday, Sean Chen said the beef controversy was a complicated one that required co-operation between at least four government agencies: the economics, agriculture and health ministries and the Consumer Protection Commission.

'The cabinet will seek consensus and professional opinions before making a final decision over the ban,' he said.