Taiwan Communiqué No. 94, December 2000

A question of different perceptions

By ambassador Nat Bellocchi, former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan.

Ambassador Nat Bellocchi

I remember writing not too long ago that America seemed almost paranoid about cross-strait relations. The least grumble out of Beijing seemed to throw some of our China watchers into a state of panic. Yet in Taiwan at that time, news was about what was going on in Taiwan, while cross-strait matters were largely left for dinner conversation.

It seems to me, after my recent trip there, that the reverse is now true. America is more relaxed while Taiwan seems uptight. Another change is that not long ago it was Beijing hurling verbal attacks at Taiwan about its "one China" stance. Now it seems that the verbal attacks on this subject emanate from within Taiwan, not from Beijing.

This can be very confusing. Just imagine a foreigner, preparing to visit Taiwan, reads about the current events taking place there. In the Western newspapers and magazines he reads, he will learn that the economy there is doing quite well — 6.3 percent growth, record exports, record foreign exchange reserves and so on. The stock market is heading south, sharply, to be sure, but not as bad as some of the other countries in the region. On that score, Taiwan stands in about the middle.

On cross-strait relations, one reads that there is a sharp rise in outward investment to China. Large military exercises in the PRC were reported about a week before, but they had been termed routine by both the Ministry of National Defense spokesman in Taipei and the government in Washington. Statements relative to cross-strait relations on both sides were equally routine. The positions on each side on "one China" and the 1992 consensus or spirit remained in stalemate. Stalemate means no progress, but also no deterioration. There was what could be called a normal level of tension between the two sides.

On arrival in Taiwan, however, after a couple of days reading the press and watching the news on TV, one would have to conclude that the situation was radically different than similar sources in Washington were reporting.

Lets start with the economy. Some were saying the "three links" should move forward, while others complained that business was hollowing out industry on Taiwan by moving to China. Some were debating that the nuclear power plant issue was not about economics but about ideology, and others the reverse. Complaints that government did not have any plans to show where it wanted the economy to go did not seem to be challenged. That the stock market was dropping precipitously because of a lack of confidence or mismanagement of the stabilization fund was only weakly challenged.

All of these problems, apparently, could also be attributed to the "high tensions" between the two sides of the Strait. In addition, critics claimed that government was rewriting history by not accepting the "92 consensus" (which is what the PRC was saying), while others were denying it. There were efforts on all sides to define the difference between "consensus" and "spirit."

But an example of overkill on this issue came after watching the press conference on Oct. 14, when the premier announced the actions the administration would take to cope with the economic situation, and the inevitable instant analysis by experts that followed.

I kept hearing references to the impact these actions would have on cross-strait relations, which puzzled me. The meeting and the results were entirely domestic in purpose. Perhaps the media believes that giving any subject a cross-strait angle increases public attention. Even the week-old news about military exercises was resuscitated, almost neutralizing the impact of the economic meeting. Maybe that will become the normal practice — or people will get tired of the subject. Either way, it is not a good idea.

In Washington, though the elections, Korea, the Middle East, the World Series all monopolize the headlines in the media and the attention of government, there seems to be no change in how government views the situation in Taiwan.

I suppose, on the other hand, that China finds this behavior on Taiwan very comforting. They are not aware that a transition to a new government, as chaotic and debilitating as it may seem, is actually a strengthening of a democratic system. People unfamiliar with a bureaucracy are brought into government, and though mistakes are made, they soon become a bank of experience and knowledge. The number of people capable of governing the country is increased, and new ideas are given a chance.

Even where transitions to a new government has taken place many times over many years, the difficulties do not diminish by much. Each always seems somewhat unique. When the Clinton administration moved into government in early 1993, Taiwan would recognize some of the problems. I remember cartoons characterizing the new Clinton White House team as babies in diapers with policy portfolios, depicting the young and inexperienced team.

New appointees were also slow in getting into their new jobs. The new assistant secretary of state for East Asia, for example, didn't formally begin work until mid-year. It took even longer for plans on how to carry out the Clinton program were presented to Congress. There were many criticisms from the opposition, but Clinton was, and remains, an expert at using the "bully pulpit" (the president's access to the media to pressure the Congress), to gain support from the public and overcome his critics.

But Taiwan, turning over to a new government for the first time, does have some unique problems. One is the means of recruiting senior personnel of sufficient expertise to fill positions needing special knowledge. In Washington, many of this kind are found in think tanks. There are a great many throughout the country, usually near universities, and many in Washington.

Aside from the different perceptions of how the economy and cross-strait relations are progressing, the biggest surprise for me in my recent trip, was to find so many new think tanks in Taipei. It seems democracy has a natural self-correcting capability. The next time there is a transition to a new government, there will at least be more resources available to the winner.

Published in the Taipei Times on 3 November 2000. Reprint with permission.

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