Taiwan’s Slow Disaster Response Could Undercut China Outreach

Our guest bloggers are Winny Chen, Research Associate, and Natasha Vickers, a National Security intern at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

American and international aid has begun to arrive in Taiwan after Typhoon Morakot devastated the island, killing at least 127 people and leaving thousands more stranded. The aid comes more than a week after the storm, raising serious questions and criticism surrounding President Ma Ying-jeou’s slow response.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry reportedly refused several offers of foreign assistance in the days after the storm. The announcement, which rejected all non-monetary aid, elicited heavy fire from the media and the Taiwanese people, as the death toll, now projected to top 500, climbed and thousands remained homeless.

To make matters worse, Ma’s comment to a British reporter a few days after Morakat struck appeared to put the blame on the victims themselves. “They were not fully prepared. If they were, they should have been evacuated much earlier,” Ma stated. “They didn’t realize how serious the disaster was.” Ma has also come under criticism for his decision not to declare a state of emergency or fully mobilizing the military to respond.


President Ma has issued two apologies, taking full responsibility for the slow response, reversing the decision to refuse foreign aid, and promising to investigate the country’s emergency response system. But the damage was already done. Vice Foreign Minister Andrew Hsia resigned his post today, in large part because of his role in the Foreign Ministry’s instruction to foreign representative offices to decline non-monetary aid. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have called for the resignation of Premier Liu Chao-shiuan and his entire Cabinet.

Ma already suffers from a 35% approval rating, and his bungled response to the nation’s biggest disaster in fifty years is sure to sink the ratings even lower. Moreover, in Taiwan, where it’s all politics all the time, the opposition party predictably didn’t miss a beat. The DPP, whose strong base is located in the hardest hit regions, wasted no time in attacking Ma’s handling of the crisis.

Some have compared Ma’s handling of Morakat to George W. Bush’s “Katrina moment.” But the implications of Morakat go beyond substantial loss of life and domestic political concerns. The loss of the public’s support may jeopardize Ma’s much applauded cross-Strait agenda, which has eased tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

Disapproval of Ma in the aftermath of Morakat may translate into declining support of his foreign policy agenda. Ma’s Nationalist Party may lose in some upcoming local elections as a result of Morakat, while the Taiwanese public has already called into question Ma’s leadership. In a strange twist of irony, Ma must now save what he does best –- foreign policy -– by concentrating on what he has so far done worst –- saving and consoling the people of Taiwan.