The always insightful Ting-i Tsai has a commentary in the Asia Times on the recent decision by the US to take a step back on the referendum. He argues that the US has reluctantly decided to live with it:

Burghardt’s approach, which deviated from that of other US officials in recent months, may have signaled that Washington has reluctantly decided to change course after concluding that its efforts to compel Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to drop the referendum were futile.

Washington now appears willing to “tolerate” the referendum but is hoping to encourage its failure so that it will not be over-interpreted with expansive and elaborate statements on what the referendum means.

Some US-based analysts believe that Burghardt’s comments reflected a shift in attitude, prompted by Washington’s realization that it could not have high expectations that Chen would drop the referendum.

Bonnie Glaser, senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she sensed that Washington had shifted to acceptance of the referendum after a meeting with a senior US official a few weeks ago.

The view is echoed by Richard Bush, former chairman of the AIT and director of the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Study. “The attitude [of Washington] has been shifting for some time,” Bush said, as the US government has known for a while that the chances were pretty low that the DPP would abandon the referendum.

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The train of US officials speaking out against the referendum reached another high with Sec. Rice herself labeling it “provocative” in remarks yesterday, the day after she received a letter from two Congressmen asking the Administration to stop this unseemingly behavior. The BBC reports:

At an end-of-year news conference at the state department, Ms Rice said: “We think that Taiwan’s referendum to apply to the United Nations under the name ‘Taiwan’ is a provocative policy.

“It unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage.”

Beijing has attacked the referendum, calling it a precursor to attempts to declare independence.

It has consistently threatened to use force if that happens.

Driving this wave of Bush Administration self-expression, I suspect, is the belief that Taiwan’s voters actually correctly receive, interpret, and act on, warnings from the US. Tom Christensen, who has been particularly active in elaborating this policy of attacking the referendum on China’s behalf, seems to hold this belief. Do people really care what the US says? How can they see what it is saying when everything that is reported here goes through the pro-Blue media’s distortion machine?

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Max Hirsch of Kyodo News, consistently one of the best reporters on the island’s affairs, has another insightful piece on the emerging importance of Japan in the domestic political battle here. I’ve been observing over the last couple of years how Japan’s Taiwan policy has undergone a shift in response to China’s challenge to Japan, a very favorable shift for Taiwan. Hirsch’s piece elaborates on how this has affected Taiwan’s internal struggles. Interesting bits highlighted (now in the Japan Times):

Such is the significance of Japan to Taiwan’s Mar. 22 presidential election, in which tacit support from the vital trading and strategic partner could make or break the diplomacy platforms of Ma and Hsieh. Hence, Japan has emerged as a key battleground in the political fight for Taiwan’s top job, as both frontrunners scramble to curry favor with Tokyo.

”Obviously…both candidates put Taiwan-Japan relations front and center in this race,” says Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taipei-based think tank.

Concern in Tokyo over whether Taiwan’s next president will ”exercise an independent voice” for the island ”while avoiding miscalculations with Beijing” is behind Tokyo’s keen interest in the race, Yang says.

Taiwan’s growing interest in Japan, meanwhile, is obvious.

Amid booming trade and tourism links, Japan’s importance to Taiwan on security hit a zenith in 2005, when Tokyo joined Washington in referring to Taiwan as a ”common strategic objective” — a veiled reference to likely intervention by the United States and Japan in a Taiwan Strait conflict.

China views Taiwan as a breakaway province that must be united with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Beijing’s threats to attack the island have spurred Hsieh to capitalize on Japan’s 2005 statement — issued by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — by seeking U.S.-style security guarantees from Tokyo during his trip.

However, fears abound in Taipei that the current prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda — known for his ”China-friendly” stance — will back off of commitments to the island to soothe Beijing.

”We have a poster of Junichiro Koizumi tacked up in our office, but not of Prime Minister Fukuda,” says DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim, who serves in Hsieh’s campaign and runs foreign affairs for the DPP.

”It’s not that we don’t like [Fukuda]; it’s just that we connect more with leaders like…Koizumi,” she adds.

All the more reason, then, for Ma and Hsieh to court Fukuda’s administration. Bullish economic ties further explain why wooing Japan is more important in this race than in past races.

Taiwan’s trade with Japan, for example, totaled nearly US$63 billion last year, a record high allowing Japan to overtake the United States as Taiwan’s second largest trading partner, after China. Taiwan for its part ranks fourth among Japan’s trading partners, while the two exchanged some 2.3 million tourists last year — another record high.

That both frontrunners sent their running-mates to the United States on goodwill visits before visiting Japan themselves, undermines another piece of conventional wisdom — that Washington mainly arbitrates the island’s geopolitical fate.

Ma’s trip to Japan was apparently very successful. The DPP places such importance on its relationship with Japan that its website is available in both Anglais and Japanese….

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Finally, from a blogger where the south polar star is found comes this tale of growing Chinese influence in the Cook Islands….

Given the paucity of news in New Zealand media about events in our South Pacific neighbours, unless it is about coups, riots or cyclones, I’m not surprised there has been virtually no news here about the wonderful benevolence of China in the Cook Islands. But I am surprised there has been no coverage whatsoever here of the farewell speech given in Rarotonga a few days ago by the departing New Zealand high commissioner John Bryan, which received considerable publicity in the Cooks because of his candid thoughts on the China connection. It’s not as if our media did not know he was leaving – they have been speculating he will be replaced by NZ First MP Brian Donnelly.

As the daily newspaper, the Cook Islands News, put it, career diplomats seldom express their views on important issues in public, so Bryan’s comments were all the more remarkable and worthy of reporting by the New Zealand media.

“People are saying there is no such thing as a free lunch so what do the Chinese want in return for the assistance they are providing?” Bryan said. “There are lots of ideas floating around, including them wanting access to Cook Islands fishing grounds, the establishment of a fishing fleet in the northern group and the facilitation of migrants. May be there is an ounce of truth in that.”

But what John Bryan believes to be China’s main interest is the Taiwan issue. There is great rivalry between China and Taiwan, the province that broke away after Mao’s communists took over the mainland in 1949 and which was recognised by most Western countries as the “official” China until the early 1970s. Some countries still recognise Taiwan rather than China, including Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. Almost unnoticed by the New Zealand media, China and Taiwan have been quietly competing for influence in the region, in much the same way, though not as nakedly, as Japan has been trying to buy the votes of Pacific nations at the International Whaling Commission. This makes it all the more disappointing that the New Zealand media missed John Bryan’s speech.

Let me report what he said: “I think it comes down to the bitter rivalry that exists between China and Taiwan in securing diplomatic recognition across the Pacific. China advocates, and most members of the United Nations agree, that Taiwan is still a legitimate province of the mainland. Taiwan likes to think they are ‘autonomous’ and can operate accordingly. Several Pacific nations agree with them and they all have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China would, of course, prefer these countries to respect the one China policy and they continue to try and persuade them to change allegiance. Some argue that this situation is the cause of what is commonly referred to as ‘chequebook diplomacy’ in the Pacific, where the one with the highest financial offering tends to win the battle for diplomatic recognition. Naturally China is concerned that the Pacific island countries that currently support China, including the Cook Islands, might also be courted by Taiwan and be persuaded to change diplomatic recognition. That is why I think they are enhancing their relationship with the Cook Islands and offering tangible assistance. Also, China sees the Cook Islands as having a very good reputation in the region and that they might have the ability to influence those Pacific countries who currently acknowledge Taiwan to change their diplomatic position towards China.”

This is important stuff indeed. An almost unnoticed battle between Taiwan and China for diplomatic influence in our own backyard. These views are presumably what John Bryan was reporting back to Wellington, and what would have been reported from our other diplomatic missions in the region. The Cold War is long over, thank goodness, and China is our friend. But so is Taiwan. We have excellent relationships with both, and we are seeking a free trade deal with China, the first it is likely to sign with a Western country. This makes activities such as China’s and Taiwan’s in our region of more than passing interest, as we could easily be caught up in them. As reported last Sunday by The Hive, Niue has established diplomatic relations with China despite New Zealand being responsible for Niue’s foreign affairs. The Taiwan issue is apparent there, too.

John Bryan’s opinions are of somewhat greater importance than what Lucy Lawless, Hollie Smith and Marcus Lush emote about whales, which the capital’s morning paper saw fit to make its page one lead yesterday. It would be nice to see his cogent, relevant views also get an airing in the mainstream media.

Wow! I would have thought the NZ media would be more interested in South Seas nations, especially since the foreign relations of so many of them are entangled with New Zealand’s.