Huang’s uneasy time in the spotlight

Huang in his TAITRA role. (Photo from Nikkei Asian Review)

My op-ed from Taipei Times, Sunday 26 November: 

Foreign policy was always going to be tricky for President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration. It was one of the few areas that her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), could hail as a success when he left power on single-digit approval ratings.

Granted, Ma’s can be regarded as something of a Pyrrhic victory, coming on the back of emasculating concessions to China that yielded an unofficial “diplomatic truce” and brought a suspension to years of ally poaching.

However, regardless of how it was achieved, Ma’s performance was always likely to be seen as a step up from the abysmal record of the man he replaced.

Former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) two terms in power were marked by almost constant accusations of “checkbook diplomacy.”

Chen was unfortunate to be the first Taiwanese president to be subjected to the scrutiny of a largely hostile free press. He also had to contend with a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-dominated legislature eager to cast every diplomatic misstep as, if not outright venal, at the very least hopelessly naive.

Yet there can be no doubt that Chen’s government made a rod for its own back, and few figures came to be more strongly identified with this self-flagellation than James Huang (黃志芳), who Chen appointed minister of foreign affairs in January 2006.

Some online sources have erroneously referred to Huang as having left this post as a matter of course with the outgoing administration in May 2008, but Huang had actually resigned days earlier, following what was the most shameful of several notorious debacles that had stained his tenure.

The Pacific Island nations, among which Taiwan has maintained a perennially fluctuating ally count, provided fertile ground for scandal during Huang’s time at the helm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

Thrown in at the deep end just three months after his appointment, Huang was called on to rebut as “groundless” claims by the Australian government that Taipei had interfered in controversial general elections in the Solomon Islands.

The vote led to rioting in the capital, Honiara, with Chinese-owned businesses targeted and an estimated 90 percent of the city’s Chinatown burned down. The Pacific Casino, an alleged front for Taiwanese money laundering, was among the buildings torched.

If Huang was thrown a hospital pass with this first high-profile outing, he can surely have had only himself to blame for the tragicomically inept series of events that precipitated his downfall.

In 2006, Huang oversaw a failed bid to lure Papua New Guinea away from China with a US$30 million bribe. The money was heading for the pockets of Papua New Guinean legislators before the deal fell through.

According to Huang, he called a halt to proceedings on deducing that the Papua New Guineans had no intention of establishing ties and were simply angling for a handout.

Papua New Guinean officials had a slightly different take, with then-Papua New Guinean minister for national planning and monitoring Paul Tiensten saying that Port Moresby had made it quite clear that full diplomatic ties were not on the table.

Whatever the case, the collapse of the deal was the least of Taipei’s concerns in light of revelations that the intermediaries charged with conveying the funds had absconded with the money.

When one of them — a Taiwanese-American named Ching Chi-ju (金紀玖) — was brought to book in a court in Singapore, he claimed that he had taken his share of the money (US$10 million) as payment for work he had undertaken as a secret emissary to China under then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) from 1995 to 2000. Ching even went so far as to suggest that he had helped avert a military confrontation during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995 to 1996.

Understandably, the court cast doubt on Ching’s Mitty-esque claims.

However, Huang’s statements on the matter were scarcely more credible. Having admitted that the money was to be given in exchange for diplomatic recognition, Huang absurdly continued to insist that the deal did not constitute “dollar diplomacy.”

This was far from the only time that Taipei was taken for a ride on Huang’s watch. MOFA officials have privately furnished several strikingly similar examples of intermediaries making off with “diplomatic funds,” albeit on a much smaller scale.

One former employee of the International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF), Taiwan’s development aid organ, recalls an abortive microloans initiative to small-scale farmers in the Caribbean island nation of Grenada.

When the farmers defaulted on the loans, a Grenadian legal firm was tasked with interceding on the ICDF’s behalf. Not only did the lawyers fail to recoup the debt, they stripped a bank account of a sizeable retainer fee, then muted all channels of correspondence.

As in other such instances, Taipei was hobbled by the fact that it had no course of legal or diplomatic redress with the government of the country involved.

Aside from the slush fund allegations, Huang drew strong cross-party criticism for his handling of Costa Rica’s defection to Beijing in 2007.

The break with this ally of 60 years came just a couple of weeks after the Central American nation had slapped Taipei squarely in the face by voting against a discussion of its application for WHO membership.

When asked to explain its actions, San Jose claimed that its representative at the vote was a replacement who had voted the wrong way due to a “miscommunication.”

Understandably, this excuse was derided as “ridiculous” and drew the ire of Taiwanese legislators of all stripes.

Even then-vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) weighed in, publicly saying that Taiwan’s ambassador to Costa Rica, Wu Tzu-dan (吳子丹), had been “completely in the dark” about a joint communique that San Jose had inked with Beijing a week before the break. Lu continued her criticism by saying that Wu and his predecessor could not even speak Spanish.

A decade later, Huang once again finds himself in the spotlight following revelations that he met Chen Ching-nan (陳慶男), president of scandal-plagued Ching Fu Shipbuilding, and his son, Chen Wei-chih (陳偉志). The meeting, which occurred in September last year, came during Huang’s time as director of the New Southbound Policy Office.

To be clear, the allegations surrounding the company’s contract to build minesweepers for the Ministry of National Defense predate Huang’s return to politics.

Still, Huang’s statement that the focus of the meetings was cooperation with Indonesian businesses and that the minesweeper contract was mentioned only in passing made for uncomfortable reading.

The unwanted attention does not end there. Having assumed the role of chairman of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) in January, Huang was forced to deny reports that the organization had misused government resources to compete against private firms in bidding for public infrastructure projects.

On top of these allegations, there is the issue of Huang’s exact role since his return to public life.

Months after he was named New Southbound Policy Office director, Huang was being linked to the position of representative to Singapore. With no official word on the matter, it looked as if he might be asked to perform his duties in tandem.

Then, when he was shifted to the TAITRA post, there was virtually no mention of the job he was leaving nor, indeed, whether he was actually leaving it.

Lest we forget, his was a role overseeing a policy that Tsai had initially touted as a linchpin of her incoming administration.

The confusion that has surrounded Huang’s exact role reflects the wider lack of clarity over the New Southbound Policy Office and perceptions of inefficiency and a potential overlap in responsibilities.

At a news conference last month, a Presidential Office spokesman attempted to downplay reports that the policy office was to be subsumed under the Executive Yuan or even closed altogether.

The office was said to be undergoing “mission adjustment” due to the establishment of the Office of Trade Negotiations, which, the spokesman said, shared some functions with the New Southbound Office.

However, the Office of Trade Negotiations was established in September last year under — you guessed it — the Executive Yuan, so it is hard not to hear classic doublespeak in the government’s statements here.

There is also the question of why exactly this second office was tasked with covering ground that was supposedly already being trodden by an entity set up specifically for the purpose.

Equally disconcerting in its vagueness was the spokesman’s assertion that budget cuts for the New Southbound Policy Office were due to a diminished need for overseas inspections in the wake of Huang’s departure.

These uncertainties hark back to the days when, under Huang’s stewardship, MOFA was routinely berated in the legislature for its perceived lack of a coordinated strategy.

It is true that the KMT jumped on any opportunity to cast Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party government as clueless dilettantes with no real experience in foreign policy formulation.

It also true that, as a one-party dictatorship for most of its time in power, the KMT had never had to contend with such levels of scrutiny.

Yet, as it turned out, not all of the opposition’s accusations were groundless.

How much Huang was to blame for the scandals, missteps and incompetence that dogged him during his time as MOFA head is debatable, but even a lenient assessment would surmise that he did not excel in his role.

On the contrary, his two years in charge came to be associated with some of the worst excesses of the Chen Shui-bian era.

On her ascension to the presidency, Tsai vowed that there would be no return to the bad old days of checkbook diplomacy.

Staffing a high-profile post with a figure who, rightly or wrongly, carried the can for a series of embarrassing foreign policy scandals, was at best questionable and at worst an indication of recessive tendencies that do not inspire confidence.


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