21 October 2016
Tsai Ing-wen will have to deal with two thorny issues -- fixing ties with Tokyo and steering Taiwan's representation in the WHO -- soon after taking office next week. Photos: Reuters, VOA,
Tsai Ing-wen will have to deal with two thorny issues -- fixing ties with Tokyo and steering Taiwan's representation in the WHO -- soon after taking office next week. Photos: Reuters, VOA,

Taiwan’s Tsai to face two quick challenges

Taiwan is counting down to the inauguration of its new president, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who will take office on May 20.

As the 59-year-old woman prepares to become the 14th President of the Republic of China, the outgoing Kuomintang regime will see its pro-reunification elements fade into obscurity.

In the wake of the 2014 Sunflower student movement, independence sentiments are no longer anathema to the majority of the Taiwan public.

But after assuming office, Tsai will face some formidable headwind, both from inside and outside of the island.

At the end of last month, a Taiwan fishing boat and its crew were detained by Japanese Coast Guard in waters surrounding the Okinotori-shima, an uninhabited atoll east of the Bashi Channel. The crew was allowed to leave after paying a fine of NT$1.76 million (US$54,254).

Such an incident is usually not a big deal as similar arrests and releases had occurred multiple times in the past decade. Yet, this time the soon-to-retire incumbent leader Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) surprised many when he decided to send a Lafayette-class frigate, on top of several vessels from the Fisheries Agency and the Coast Guard Administration, to the Okinotori-shima waters for a month-long patrol.

A deputy defense minister was quoted as saying that Taiwan “won’t avoid or dread a war”.

The lame duck Ma’s sudden bellicosity was also on display when he met a special envoy from Tokyo after the rare face-off. That leaved his successor Tsai in a conundrum as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) needs Tokyo on its side to fend off Beijing.

Now Ma has done an “inside job” for Beijing, lending credence to former President Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) foresight and warning that Ma “could still sell Taiwan out before he steps down”.

The United Nations recognizes Tokyo’s sovereignty over the Okinotori-shima after it was annexed in the 1920s, but disputes have remained ever since.

Tokyo says the Okinotori-shima is an island and that it has rights over 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) of marine water, the extent of its exclusive economic zone.

However, Beijing, Taipei and Seoul all insist the area only consists of rocks, and that boats can pass through and fish on the high seas 12 nautical miles from the atoll.

Tokyo and Taipei have a de facto agreement. The latter makes sure its boats leave the disputed waters after prior notification of patrol is given, but this time a Taiwan fishing boat stayed behind, as the coxswain was told by the island’s Coast Guard Administration that his boat was “on high seas” before the arrest, media reports revealed.

Ma’s bellicosity is surprising as Taiwan’s military strength can hardly stack up against that of Tokyo. The only possible explanation could be this: having done Beijing a favor, he seeks to get something in return after he retires. Perhaps, he has on mind the courtesies being extended by Beijing to former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) after the latter groveled to patrons on the mainland.

Almost at the same time comes another diplomatic crisis for the incoming Taiwan government: an invitation from the World Health Organization to attend the World Health Assembly in Geneva on May 23, three days after Tsai’s inauguration, with a newly-inserted precondition — admission that Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan delegates were expelled from all UN organizations in 1972 with the UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 that recognized the People’s Republic of China as “the only legitimate representative of China to the UN”.

The WHO, since 2009, has been inviting Taiwan to attend annual assembly meetings under the name of “Chinese Taipei”, but, this year’s “One PRC” precondition is believed to be the result of Beijing’s string-pulling.

Don’t forget that WHO Director General Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, Hong Kong’s former Director of Health from 1994-2003, won the 2006 election to head the WHO and secured a second term in 2012, all thanks to Beijing’s support.

One fact that must be pointed out is, contrary to Beijing’s assertions, the UN Resolution 2758 doesn’t stipulate that Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China.

Even the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, was once fooled so much so that the United States Ambassador to the UN had to correct him and point out that no UN motions have ever laid out Beijing’s sovereignty over the island.

On the issue of UN language on the status of Taiwan, Ban said he realized he had gone too far in some recent public statements, and confirmed that the UN would no longer use the phrase “Taiwan is a part of China”.

Washington also protested when the WHO listed Taiwan as a province of China in its official documents: no organization of the UN has a right to unilaterally determine the position of Taiwan.

Whether Taiwan representatives can attend the Geneva assembly remains to be seen, even after the DPP agreed to send a delegation, as it depends on how Tsai will assess the cross-strait relations in her inauguration speech and how Beijing may respond.

Still, the Taiwan Strait should remain calm for a long period for a number of reasons. One is the somewhat tense political climate between China and its Asian neighbors. Second, Beijing has enough problems from its slackening economy and graft-ridden military establishment.

Another thing that will guarantee that matters do not go out of hand is the support offered to Taipei by its alliance partners.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 9.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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