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