1995 / 4月
interview by Elaine Chen /tr. by Phil Newell
As the current chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, everything Vincent Siew says is placed under a microscope.
Yet, though his name often appears in the headlines, virtually everything in the papers is fragmentary; very rarely is one offered a complete view of his policy ideas. He gave an interview to Sinorama after a long day of being grilled in interpellation sessions in the Legislative Yuan.
A record of the interview follows:
Q: It seems there is a new situation in relations between Taiwan and mainland China. Premier Lien Chan has stated that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have already entered an era of discussion. Ever-higher-ranked people are participating in this dialogue. What do you see as the role for the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) at the present time? How will things be different than in the past?
A: The MAC has to make plans for the era of discussion. This includes many levels of activity, including training personnel, defining the subject matter, and prioritizing items for future discussion.
In order that discussions can go forward smoothly, we must increase interactions; only then can the two sides increase their understanding of one another. In the past, we had many restrictions in this respect. We are now reassessing things and will gradually relax restrictions. But in general, the MAC still believes that we cannot go forward rashly, but that we must have steady, stable progress to create conditions of mutual trust, for that is what will really be helpful to discussions.
Q: You have a background in international affairs, and you have several times been involved in negotiations directly affecting the national interest. How will your international experience be useful in bilateral discussions with mainland China? If necessary, will you stand on the front line of negotiations?
A: I think that my past experience will prove helpful, of course. At the very least, I can draw upon the past in planning negotiating techniques and strategy.
But there is one point that must be made clear: The purpose of international negotiations is straight forward--the two sides are trying to resolve problems. Sometimes your opposite number will be in a greater rush to resolve the problem, and will make more concessions. Correspondingly, if it is our side that is more anxious to settle, we will make more concessions.
But cross-strait discussions are not very simple. Forty years of separation plus differences in ideology will both have an impact when problems are discussed. Therefore, knowing their complexity and sensitivity, we must take account of more things when planning. In short, we need to have greater coordination and greater wisdom.
Moreover, we also need greater patience. People in Taiwan have had excessive expectations of the pace of cross-strait discussions, and the media often focuses on such talks, increasing their sensitivity. This also gives them a somewhat different nature than typical international negotiations.
Q: What methods can be used so that discussions are not distorted? For example, North and South Korea have routine consultations at Panmunjon, so they can avoid excessive attention from the media and can keep a sense of normalcy.
A: Of course right now people are making all kinds of suggestions, and we are evaluating them. In principle we should be able to consider them. Take for example some relatively routine or technical matters. They can first be discussed through some regular channel, and, when the time is right, they can again be placed on the negotiating table. I think that this is a more positive method.
Q: There have always been problems between the MAC and its nominal subordinate, the Straits Exchange Foundation [Taiwan's unofficial body responsible for contacts with mainland China, known as the SEF]. Premier Lien Chan has recently stated that the functions of the SEF should be adjusted. Do you have any concrete ideas on this matter? How will responsibilities be divided in the future?
A: I think that the negotiating function of the SEF should be more clearly defined. In the past the SEF often argued that the MAC did not delegate enough authority to it, creating the misunderstanding among the public that relations between the two agencies were not harmonious. I want to make it clear that when the SEF goes forward to negotiate, the question is not whether or not there has been enough of a delegation of authority. The function of the SEF is to do only what it has been delegated the authority to do, nothing more. That's simply the way negotiations are: Negotiators should not promote their own views.
Furthermore, as far as how to make things more efficient, I think this involves the problem of expertise. Each field, such as hijacking law, copyright law, and so on, has its own nature. These problems are very specialized. Anyone who is not in the relevant specialized department is not likely to be able to fully grasp a given issue. Negotiating is not socializing--it is aimed at solving specific problems. It is not fair to those in the SEF to require them to have a complete understanding of each issue before it is put on the table. Therefore in the future officials from government agencies should participate in SEF negotiations on relevant questions.
Q: People have been saying that our mainland policy has been one of "politics being forced ahead by business interests," and that the MAC [seen by some business people as not moving quickly enough to eliminate political obstacles to doing business with mainland China] and the Ministry of Economic Affairs are not in step. The business community expects that, based on your experience in economics and trade, you will do more to resolve problems for them. Is this what you plan to do?
A:I will try to find ways to solve problems for the business community on the condition that the overall national interest is not compromised. I will take a practical, pragmatic approach.
But you have to understand that when there is a conflict between business interests and the national interest, we have to give priority to the national interest. For example, the business community has long been calling for direct travel, postal service, and shipping of goods between the mainland and Taiwan, but the MAC cannot act rashly. This affects the nation's security and dignity. In other words, there are political considerations.
Q: When you first proposed the idea of making Taiwan into a "regional operations center," many people thought this was the correct road for Taiwan to follow. But a key obstacle is relations between Taiwan and mainland China: If political problems between the two sides cannot be resolved soon, we may miss our opportunity, and it will not come again.
A: This is not a problem. We are working on ways to resolve this right now. For example, what kinds of restrictions on cross-strait relations need to be eliminated to create an Asia-Pacific regional operations center? We will assess this, under the precondition of not jeopardizing larger interests. For example, there is really no reason to continue the ban on mainland trade and economic personnel coming to Taiwan. As for direct air travel, I feel we must be cautious. However, we also understand that it will be necessary to promote an air traffic center as part of the regional operations center. Therefore the idea of an "offshore operations center" has arisen as a first step.
Q: The recent talks between Tang Shubei [of mainland China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait] and Chiao Jen-ho [of the SEF] ended in discord. Some of the media said that you are just following the pattern set by Huang Kun-huei, your predecessor, and that the outcome of the talks is at odds with the public's expectations, based on their previous impressions of you, that you would make more rapid progress in relations with mainland China. Do you find such criticism acceptable?
A: This is why right from the start I said that people should not have any particular expectations of me, or that they should not have excessive expectations. This is the reason. If our mainland policy were such that we could make a 180 degree shift just by changing the MAC chairman, that would be dangerous indeed. There is continuity and coherence to mainland policy. A change in the chairman merely means that perhaps methods will be somewhat different. The basic policy will not change. I hope to use flexible methods, while not changing our basic stance.
Q: You once described your guiding principles as "pragmatic in handling matters, farsighted in considering matters, and balanced in judging matters." How will you apply these principles in your current duties?
A: For example, the main axis of our work is economics. This is pragmatic insofar as the aspect of cross-strait relations which has the most practical impact on citizens is trade and economics. And if you ignore this aspect, and deliberately avoid talking about it, concrete problems will not get resolved.
At the same time there are many people who feel that the business community is being disloyal to the government [in placing practical commercial issues ahead of political issues], and that businessmen are "forcing politics in the interests of business." But we should instead ask: Why do businessmen put so little faith in their own compatriots in the government? If these businessmen go out and side with the mainland to force us to adopt a certain policy, then we in the government should first take stock of ourselves. We must remain pragmatic, and help business people to resolve problems that they face. This is the only way Taiwanese business people will feel that their loyalty belongs here.
We are also farsighted. The process of stable progress in relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is essential for the pursuit of reunification. How can we go about it? By increasing exchanges, and moving step by step. Only by increasing exchanges can we increase mutual understanding and mutual trust. This shows great foresight. We must eliminate obstacles to exchanges as much as we can. We must define the process of reunification, and not only see reunification as an end point.
Let's look at "balance." I cannot be complacent and expect to achieve a great deal all at once just because people have confidence in me. I must do the best job I can in the position I am in today. That is balance, and a sense of normalcy. The principles that have guided me in the past still guide me today.
Q: There are many people and agencies involved in mainland policy, including the MAC, the SEF, the National Reunification Council, and the National Security Council, and President Lee Teng-hui has publicly stated that he is in charge of guiding mainland policy. Under these circumstances, are there really "constraints" (as some outsiders suggest) that you will find impossible to break?
A: Not at all. Naturally, since relations between Taiwan and mainland China affect the nation's future and the well-being of the 21 million people on Taiwan, it is a critical area of national policy. The Constitution clearly indicates that it is the President's responsibility, so he must be intimately involved. Therefore the President decided to establish the National Reunification Council to advise him. Furthermore, the Constitution indicates that the National Security Council should provide staff support to the President.
The MAC, on the other hand, was founded based on the Regulations Governing Relations Between the Two Sides of the Taiwan Strait and the Organization Law of the Executive Yuan. It is the agency in charge of research, planning, and coordination of mainland policy for the Executive Yuan. It is in the form of a council [rather than a functional ministry] because its role is to coordinate. The heads of the relevant ministries are members of the MAC, and major policies must be harmonized within the MAC before they can be finalized. Our duties and responsibilities are very clearly laid out, and there are no difficulties or obstacles in our work.
Q: You not only have to coordinate the various ministries. There are great differences among political parties in Taiwan on the question of national identity and relations with the mainland. How will you build a consensus so that when you go out to face the Chinese Communists, there is not a lot of pulling and hauling among various interests going on behind your back?
A: You are right, this is a problem. You could say that it is a difficult position in which we find ourselves today. On their side, they speak with one voice, and policy is made from the top down. On our side, each of our 21 million people has the right to state his or her opinions. Indeed, as you just mentioned, there are problems even with the basic question of national identity. It is hard to negotiate under these conditions.
Therefore I hope there can be a consensus among citizens that we are acting for the well-being of all 21 million people, and we should have the viewpoint of being a community sharing a common fate. We should put the question of ultimate independence or reunification aside for now, and undertake practical exchanges between the two sides, so as to steadily build up positive interactions between the two sides.
Q: What concrete methods will the MAC try?
A: This requires ceaseless communication, coordination, and disseminating of information. I feel very gratified that after Jiang Zemin's "Eight Points" came out, the President stated that he wanted to broadly collect opinions from all points of view and draw on a broad range of wisdom. Therefore we held five seminars as well as discussions with the governing and opposition parties and independent legislators in the Legislative Yuan.
After having participated in these meetings, I feel that there is no one who does not take seriously and feel concerned about the security of our country. Everyone is stating their opinions from this same foundation. Although some people are optimistic and others are reserved, everyone is starting out from the same point. This situation pleases me, and at least some kind of consensus is taking shape. Of course, the process will be long and arduous, but it must still be undertaken.
Q: You have said that you bring a personal sense of mission to the MAC. It is rumored that you were hesitant when the Premier first offered you this portfolio. Why? What do feel is the biggest challenge facing you?
A: I have spent all of my decades of public life in the field of economics and trade. The MAC is a highly politicized area, and, given my personality, I felt perhaps I might not be able to adapt. I am a can-do type of person. Though I have been a government official in name, I have always thought of myself as a technocrat. Therefore I didn't really expect this assignment.
But there are considerations behind the way personnel have been assigned in the government. I am grateful for the confidence Premier Lien has shown in me, and in giving me this important job he has presented me with a major challenge.
Having been given the job, I was determined to tackle it with a sense of mission. Cross-strait relations are simply too important, and they affect the future of the 21 million people of the Republic of China. Our foreign policy, domestic policy, economic policy, and defense policy are all intimately connected to cross-strait relations. Given the complexity of these connections, I am convinced that it will be of great help to the future of our country to see that my job goes smoothly. Therefore, I wanted to take on this challenge not for myself, but for my country, and do the job well.
Yet many friends told me that I could not succeed in this job merely because I have the qualifications and dedication to do so, and that my work could only progress smoothly if a number of objective factors fell into place. So I can only say that I will do the best that I can.
Q: You have just taken the helm at MAC, and given Deng Xiaoping's health it is unlikely he has long to live. Therefore it is very likely that the two sides of the strait will be faced with the transition to the post-Deng era sometime in your tenure. How do you feel about this? What counter-measures have already been devised?
A: I won't talk about my own feelings on this matter. I can only say that we are paying the closest attention to developments in mainland China. We collect information wherever we can, are doing research and analysis, and are working with the relevant agencies to map out policies that we may need to adopt in the future. But the time has not arrived, so we still cannot say anything for sure.
(photo by Hsueh Chi-kuang)
Siew, who previously served as Minister of Economic Affairs, is well aware of the demands made, and the difficulties faced, by Taiwan's business community. The photo shows a business awards ceremony in 1992. (photo b y Tung Chun-fei)
With direct transport between mainland China and Taiwan still prohibited, the government is looking into the possibility of creating an "offshore transshipment center" to reduce transportation costs for Taiwan businesses. (photo by Vincent Chang)