Tai­wan shifts gears as China poaches diplo­matic al­lies

Taipei looks to build links with big democ­ra­cies as old part­ners switch to Bei­jing


Tai­wan is try­ing to strengthen re­la­tions with in­flu­en­tial democ­ra­cies, as the coun­try strug­gles to de­fend its in­ter­na­tional space against a diplo­matic on­slaught from China

Tai­wan is try­ing to strengthen re­la­tions with in­flu­en­tial democ­ra­cies, as the coun­try strug­gles to de­fend its in­ter­na­tional space against a diplo­matic on­slaught from China.

Taipei is seek­ing to build a web of ties that might help soften the blow if one day the num­ber of its diplo­matic al­lies — now 17 — drops to zero.

The gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen has en­gaged in di­a­logue with un­of­fi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the US,

UK, Ger­many, France, Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and New Zealand, em­pha­sis­ing shared threats em­a­nat­ing from China to a host of prag­matic co-op­er­a­tion projects.

Tai­wan has been func­tion­ing as a sov­er­eign state since Ja­pan, its colo­nial ruler for the pre­vi­ous 50 years, was de­feated in the sec­ond world war in

1945. But the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China claims it as its ter­ri­tory.

But since the Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party, which re­fuses to recog­nise that Tai­wan is part of a sin­gle Chi­nese na­tion, won both the pres­i­dency and con­trol over par­lia­ment in 2016, Tai­wan has lost five of its diplo­matic al­lies to China. The Do­mini­can Repub­lic, El Sal­vador and Burk­ina Faso have all switched recog­ni­tion to Bei­jing within the past six months.

The Vat­i­can signed an agree­ment with China in late Septem­ber on the ap­point­ment of Catholic bish­ops, serv­ing as a re­minder to Taipei that the clock might be tick­ing on its last diplo­matic re­la­tion­ship in Europe.

Ms Tsai fre­quently stresses the val­ues Tai­wan shares with other democ­ra­cies such as free­dom, trans­parency, equal­ity and ad­her­ence to a rules-based or­der. Joseph Wu, Tai­wan’s for­eign min­is­ter, has in­sti­tu­tion­alised this ap­proach since tak­ing of­fice in Feb­ru­ary through in­for­mal meet­ings with diplo­mats from the US, UK, Ger­many, France, Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

“They have re­ally stepped up the game with the like-minded coun­tries,” said a Euro­pean diplo­mat in Taipei. “It was long over­due.”

Tai­wan’s of­fi­cial al­lies, many im­pov­er­ished, au­to­crat­i­cally run small na­tions, are of­ten frowned upon by Taipei’s own diplo­mats. But with­out them, Tai­wan’s claim to sovereignty could be shaken fur­ther.

“Los­ing all diplo­matic recog­ni­tion would be a big blow to pub­lic con­fi­dence,” said a se­nior Tai­wanese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial.

Al­lies speak up for Tai­wan at fo­rums where it is not al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate, such as the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly. Tai­wan’s pres­i­dent would also no longer be able to travel via the US to visit diplo­matic al­lies. “Our po­lit­i­cal leader would be trapped on the is­land,” the of­fi­cial said.

Such a sce­nario has come to look more likely with the cur­rent gov­ern­ment los­ing al­lies at a faster rate than dur­ing the last DPP ad­min­is­tra­tion of Chen Shui-bian, who lost nine al­lies in eight years.

“There was the be­lief that China would not take all diplo­matic al­lies away be­cause once we lost them all, the call for Tai­wan in­de­pen­dence would be­come quite nat­u­ral and re­ceive more sym­pa­thy,” said Lai I-chung, for­mer head of the rul­ing DPP’s China af­fairs de­part­ment. “But I think right now China is try­ing to do ev­ery­thing to just elim­i­nate us from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.”

Tra­di­tion­ally, all that mat­tered to Taipei was its re­la­tion­ship with the US; de­spite switch­ing recog­ni­tion to China in 1979, Wash­ing­ton has main­tained a com­mit­ment to help Tai­wan de­fend it­self.

The Tai­wanese gov­ern­ment sees an op­por­tu­nity to strengthen this re­la­tion­ship as the US grows in­creas­ingly wary of China. “There is a real, bi­par­ti­san de­bate in the US now that en­gage­ment has failed,” said a se­nior Tai­wanese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial. “Peo­ple re­alise that with cy­ber at­tacks, med­dling in elec­tions, in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty theft, they re­ally face some very sim­i­lar threats as we do.”

Over the past year, the US Con­gress has adopted leg­is­la­tion call­ing for more of­fi­cial vis­its to Tai­wan and Ms Tsai em­barked on a high-pro­file trip in Au­gust.

The US ad­min­is­tra­tion also re­called its am­bas­sadors from the Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries that re­cently switched recog­ni­tion, crit­i­cis­ing at­tempts to change the “sta­tus quo” across the Tai­wan Strait.

“Tsai has be­haved cor­rectly so as not to in­flame cross-strait re­la­tions di­rectly, though Bei­jing will al­ways be sus­pi­cious of her de-sini­fi­ca­tion ef­forts,” said Dou­glas Paal, a vicepres­i­dent at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace and a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute in Tai­wan. “For this rea­son, the US has ev­ery rea­son to give her face.”

The next im­por­tant test case for Taipei’s prag­ma­tism in pur­su­ing bet­ter re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton will be whether the two can over­come decades-old dif­fer­ences over im­ports of US pork and beef and start talks to­wards a bi­lat­eral trade deal.

Taipei is also in­creas­ingly reach­ing out to Europe. “The cur­rent gov­ern­ment’s for­eign pol­icy is quite rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from [the past DPP pres­i­dency],” said Michael Reilly, a for­mer UK rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Tai­wan. “Back then, some of my Euro­pean col­leagues felt that there was not enough at­ten­tion on Europe.”

Tai­wan’s lib­eral stance on sex­u­al­ity — the con­sti­tu­tional court ruled last year that gay mar­riage must be al­lowed — has struck a chord with sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries. Mr Reilly said Taipei would be well ad­vised to re­new its mora­to­rium on the death penalty to earn more good­will in Europe.

Taipei has also been more ac­tive in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. The gov­ern­ment has sought a di­a­logue with In­dia. It has also tried to shake off the legacy of “cheque book diplo­macy” by hav­ing dis­cus­sions with Aus­tralia and New Zealand on rais­ing ef­fi­ciency and im­prov­ing gov­er­nance in aid to

Pa­cific is­land na­tions.

A protest last month against Tai­wan’s con­tin­ued ex­clu­sion from the UN and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity © AP

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