On ending ‘checkbook diplomacy’


The commotion over the Papua New Guinea diplomatic fund scandal has been increasing in intensity. Yet I feel that if it were not for the structural weaknesses present in Taiwan’s diplomatic relations, it would be difficult for politicians, greedy officials, corrupt businessmen and middlemen to cheat the public and steal from the nation’s coffers.

Any corruption or dereliction of duty in this particular case should be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent. However, it is even more important to face up to these structural weaknesses. How should we do so? Allow me to address this matter using two recent news stories.

The first: More than 60,000 deaths resulted from the cyclone in Myanmar, and the victims are still awaiting international aid. The second: In a television interview, premier-designate Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) said that it would not be easy to completely eliminate “checkbook diplomacy,” and that it would be too idealistic to do so.

How does one define “checkbook diplomacy,” I wonder? Which definition was Liu using when he said that talk of eliminating it was too idealistic?

The first possibility is “checkbook diplomacy” means that when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, causing tens of thousands of deaths and wreaking havoc on hundreds of thousands of other Burmese,Taiwan without hesitation established a US$30 million relief fund and threw itself into humanitarian efforts for that country, which maintains no diplomatic relations with Taipei.

In this is what is meant by “checkbook diplomacy,” then I think there is an indisputable need for it. If Taiwan spent US$30 million on a diplomatic (or non-diplomatic) ally to build hospitals for disadvantaged people, send an agricultural team to help impoverished rural areas, provide educational development assistance to less developed nations or sponsor poor children, than I entirely agree with the argument that eliminating checkbook diplomacy is too idealistic.

The second possibility is that “checkbook diplomacy” refers to Taiwan giving money, without knowledge of how it will be used, to foreign politicians in exchange for diplomatic relations.

We should condemn any official who, for the sake of visible political accomplishment, still advocates these kinds of exchanges as necessary.

In 2004 I wrote an article about abandoning the myth of the importance of the number of diplomatic allies and seeking to fight the right diplomatic battles. As a result of this article, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a seminar on this topic. My views on the matter have not changed to this day.

The 23 diplomatic allies that we have do not even make up 13 percent of the countries of the world. If you look at their combined population, they hardly reach 1.5 percent of the world’s population. If you look at their total area, it is only 1.2 percent of the world’s total.

It is not hard to see from these numbers how incredibly silly it is that US$30 million was spent to buy diplomatic relations with Papua New Guinea, only to have it stolen by a middleman. Besides, when Taiwan gains or loses a diplomatic ally, people just think: “So what?”

When we spend a fortune in an attempt to add another “diplomatic ally” to the list, government officials should ask themselves whether there is any meaning in having these “allies.”

Once these countries go through changes in political power, we have no guarantee that the incoming leader will be friendlier than the incumbent whose favors we have bought. Does that mean we have to make “another purchase”?

Also, most cases of money-based “diplomatic shopping” involve under-the-table political donations. Not only does this violate the target country’s laws, it is also extremely unethical.

I believe that if the US$30 million that disappeared as part of the Papua New Guinea scandal were given to premier-designate Liu or foreign affairs minister-designate Francisco Ou (歐鴻鍊), they would use it for the first kind of checkbook diplomacy described above.

This is quite consistent with president-elect Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) remarks at a Taiwan Fund for Children and Families event, where he said that Taiwan is ranked fifth in the world according to the number of needy children it sponsors, and that this is the best way for it to display its strength on the international stage.

Although Taiwan’s finances are in difficult straits, we continue to engage in this kind of self-emaciating, yet disgraceful diplomatic policy, all for meaningless numbers of diplomatic allies.

It would be better to employ a transparent method to work with local non-governmental organizations to expend diplomatic resources on charitable works in less developed nations.

Only in this way will Taiwan gain respect internationally as well as engage in meaningful diplomacy.

By C.V. Chen 陳長文, C.V. Chen is the president of The Red Cross Society, ROC.


The Taipei Times. Sunday, May 11, 2008, Page 8

【2008/05/11 Taipei Times 970511】