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Taiwan in the world
Most distracted guest at the party
For the first time since Taiwan lost its seat at the UN in 1971, the island sent representatives to a meeting of its aviation agency, the ICAO assembly, which is being held in Montreal (and scheduled to conclude on October 4th). The Taiwanese delegation were described as guests attending at the invitation of the ICAO’s council president, Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez. Given that China would normally crush any attempt from Taiwan to join in any UN activities, this counted as a major coup.
For more than 40 years now Taiwan, which has diplomatic relations with only 23 other countries, has been seeking to escape its isolation. Upon his election in 2008, Mr Ma adopted a new tack. By signing business agreements with the mainland, he eased the hostility that has raged across the Taiwan Strait ever since his Kuomintang party (the KMT) fled to the island in 1949, as it retreated from China’s civil war. Mr Ma’s goal has been to lessen the degree of diplomatic rivalry with China without dashing his people’s hopes for international recognition.
Mr Ma dropped Taiwan’s annual habit of applying to rejoin the UN as a state, a practice that was always condemned by China and anyway never successful in the least. Instead, more gently, Taiwan began pushing to join specific UN agencies as an observer. In essence, it has been pursuing a status that the UN has already awarded to Palestine. Taiwan joined the UN World Health Organisation (the WHO) as an observer in 2009, which marked the very first time the island was able to take part in UN activities since 1971. Since then, Mr Ma has been pushing for Taiwan to join the ICAO and also the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, also as an observer. While this year’s invitation to attend the ICAO as a guest marked a notable achievement, it still fell short of Taiwan’s long-term goal of attaining observer status.
Unfortunately for Mr Ma this rare achievement was eclipsed by the Taiwanese public’s fascination at an extraordinary spate of political strife. In early September Mr Ma alleged that prosecutors held evidence that the parliamentary speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, a member of Mr Ma’s ruling party, had tried to pervert the course of justice. Mr Ma alleges that Mr Wang asked the justice minister to stifle attempts from prosecutors to appeal a high-court acquittal of a leading opposition politician, Ker Chien-ming, who had been found guilty of embezzlement by a district court. (The whole story is extremely complicated.) Mr Ma said the prosecutors had gained this information by wiretapping Mr Ker’s mobile phone. As Mr Ma and Mr Wang are known to be bitter rivals, the public—rightly or wrongly—saw this as a rare event: a KMT power struggle, being fought out in public.
The KMT revoked Mr Wang’s party membership in mid-September, in an effort to remove him from the post of parliamentary speaker. This may have been due in part to Mr Ma’s irritation at Mr Wang’s willingness to make concessions to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) over major bills, when he could have used the KMT’s slim majority to force them through parliament. This all backfired when Mr Wang, who had remained popular with the pubic and even some of his comrades in the KMT, protested his innocence and quickly turned to the courts to win an injunction which let him keep his party membership while he contests his expulsion.
As a result, Mr Wang is staying on as parliamentary speaker and Mr Ma’s legislative agenda is now being handled by a rival he has declared unfit for office—a man who is quite likely to be angry with Mr Ma. As the president’s popularity plummeted to a new low of 9.2%, parliament has come close to paralysis. Taiwan’s autumn parliamentary session is supposed to have began two weeks ago but Mr Ma’s prime minister has been unable to deliver his opening policy address; he has been blocked by rowdy, protesting lawmakers from the opposition, who are upset at Mr Ma’s treatment of Mr Wang. All this psychodrama was taking place just when the ICAO coup was announced.
As if to aggravate the week’s political turmoil, thousands of protesters surrounded the Presidential Office on September 29th. The next day Mr Ma lost a high-court appeal against the injunction that is preserving Mr Wang’s party membership. And in perhaps the most inflammatory revelation of all, prosecutors revealed that they had wiretapped a parliament phone line in pursuit of Mr Ker. This caused a furore among lawmakers across the political spectrum. The government says the wiretapping was legal, but the opposition and even some KMT lawmakers say that the prosecutors overstepped their remit illegally. The DPP is now threatening to impeach or recall Mr Ma. As they have only 40 seats in the 113-seat parliament, and the KMT hold 65 of the remainder, they will need the help of quite a few sympathetic lawmakers from Mr Ma’s party even to table a motion.
Mr Ma’s coup with the ICAO was further damaged by remarks made by Mr Gonzalez, the agency’s president. He told some reporters at the Taipei Times that Taiwan had been invited to the ICAO meeting as guests at the suggestion of China. The DPP, which is much more opposed to identifying Taiwan with China, criticised Mr Ma ferociously for this. In effect, Mr Gonzalez had merely mentioned the elephant in the room. Although Taiwan’s participation in the ICAO was strongly backed by America, it seems that Mr Ma’s knack for compromising with China is what won Taiwan its invitation to the ICAO. Virtually any mention of involvement on China’s part is apt to make the Taiwan public see Mr Ma as a quisling to the government in Beijing.
As for Taiwan’s future with the ICAO, George Tsai, the vice-president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, says that while China will tolerate Taiwan’s presence at the aviation body, it will continue to resist Taiwan’s obtaining observer status. It would take a political breakthrough in the cross-Strait relationship to change that, and with the gridlocked state of local Taiwanese politics, this is unlikely to happen.
Mr Ma has other reasons to be frustrated with Mr Wang, the parliamentary speaker. There have been unprecedented delays over a pact signed with China in June that would liberalise trade in services. Mr Ma should worry that he might lose China’s trust, if this pact is not passed. On Mr Tsai’s view, there is a bright side for the embattled president. Taiwan’s participation in the ICAO shows that Beijing still “sees Mr Ma as workable", despite his troubles.