In mid to late December 2016, the nation known as the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe established diplomatic relations with China and broke with Taiwan. The event attracted considerable media attention and evoked speculation as to its significance.
An island country (with two main islands) off Africa’s west coast, São Tomé and Príncipe is home to less than two hundred thousand people; in land area it is small — the second smallest in Africa. It is not located strategically. It has no important natural resources.
Why then was its decision regarded as important?
The move reduced Taiwan’s diplomatic partners to 21, leaving only two African countries with such ties and one European country (the Vatican) with formal relations with Taipei. Taiwan has diplomatic links with no Asian country. Taiwan’s supporters are mainly in Latin America and Oceania.
It was the first country to break with Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen became president and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) assumed control over Taiwan’s legislature for the first time ever in early 2016. Both advocate independence and are hostile toward China. They proclaimed after the election China would have to “come around” and make concessions to deal with the new government.
This event signaled — if it was not clear already by China cutting some economic ties and reducing the number of tourists it sends to Taiwan, both of which hurt Taiwan’s already weak economy — that China was not “coming around.” It was also part of China’s second, or diplomatic, strategy to deal with Taiwan. Economic pressure was its first and preferred one. Military force remains its third.
The “event” as some called it also occurred in the milieu of US President-elect Donald Trump having questioned America’s one-China policy. Some conjectured that this seriously impacted US-China relations and even threatened to escalate it into a hard conflict. Finally, Taiwan responded to China’s “act” by charging Beijing with “dollar diplomacy” and damaging cross-Strait relations. This supposedly hurt Beijing’s global image.
The truth is twenty-one is not a magic number and does not spell doom for Taiwan. (Some important countries at one time have had formal ties with less than five countries.) But it did amplify fear in Taipei that there will be more. Some officials in Taiwan have suggested it may lose ten more soon if Beijing goes on a diplomatic offensive.
It also indicates that the diplomatic truce with China brokered by former President Ma Ying-jeou has ended. Taiwan lost no diplomatic partners during his eight years in office save Gambia, which decided to make the move in 2013 though that was not finalized (by China) until March 2016 — after Tsai and the DPP had won the election. Former DPP President Chen Shui-bian, who had also challenged Beijing with talk of independence, lost nine.
This has prompted critics to charge that Tsai and the DPP cannot get along with China, but the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) can, causing further tension between the two parties. It has also made São Tomé’s move look more important than it really was.
President Tsai accused China of enticing São Tomé (the capital of São Tomé and Príncipe) with money — “dollar diplomacy”. This, of course, is an easy case to make in view of the fact China has large volumes of cash to spend and has become the main driver, through its foreign aid and investments, behind many developing countries successfully engineering good economic growth. São Tomé leaders knew that.
In the case of São Tomé, a small matter has been made into a big one and Trump’s proximate comments made to look ominous.
Further, Taiwan has also practiced dollar diplomacy. This worked for a while when Taiwan’s economy was doing well and China’s wasn’t. Now it is the opposite. Taiwan’s economic growth currently is only somewhat over 1 percent of its gross domestic product and it is not forecast to exceed 2 percent in the immediate future (while China’s is expanding at more than 6 percent).
Was grabbing São Tomé and Príncipe bad for China’s image? Hardly. It shows China has been adept at managing its economy and Taiwan hasn’t. It also reflects normal diplomatic practice.
In any case China made no specific promises of financial help or at least did not announce any. Meanwhile Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry stated that São Tomé wanted USD 210 million in aid — which Taiwan considered unreasonable and rejected. Thus, this may be a case of Taiwan not playing dollar diplomacy and that this was the reason for the break.
Or it may have been simply a case of São Tomé wanting to have ties with China because it is an important country and, moreover, is growing very fast in global influence. Also, few developing countries (and no important ones) have no diplomatic relations with Beijing. This has been a decades long trend.
Another question: Was this a case of São Tomé having requested diplomatic relations with China much earlier? It had been reported that at least five countries sought to set up embassies in Beijing during the Ma years and China demurred. Thus, it seems likely it was an issue long in the making and Beijing delayed it for some time.
Then there is the proposition that China accepted São Tomé’s request because of Trump upsetting relations by casting doubt on America’s one-China policy. This may well be true. São Tomé did confirm Beijing’s one-China position.
In that connection, Trump has been accused of practicing “madman diplomacy” used successfully by Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to accomplish breakthroughs in US foreign relations. Trump regards the US trade deficit as unacceptable and very much unsustainable—which most observers think is true and Chinese leaders perceive is a valid concern. He probably thinks causing some upset may create the conditions for a reset on trade.
Trump’s statement also draws attention to the fact that US relations with China under President Barack Obama have not been seen as worse than any time since Nixon and that Obama’s timid diplomacy and the failures of his pivot to Asia and his Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement are the reasons for this. Trump likely thinks that a new and different approach is needed and that a more aggressive stance is called for.
It is also reasonable to believe that the Trump camp is aware that China might try to take advantage of a new president. This is not exactly unprecedented. Obama is a case in point: On his first visit to China, Chinese leaders got him to concur on China’s “core interests.” Obama soon regretted this.
On their part, Chinese leaders are very aware that relations with the US have been fraught with problems during election campaigns, only to improve markedly after a few months. So, some tension now is normal. In the meantime, Chinese leaders barked back to answer Trump’s challenge. They did some “shaking up” too. Trump has taken this in stride.
Both sides realize that their relationship is an indispensable one, and is “too big to fail.” Thus, the terms “Chinamerica,” “G-2” and others that reflect that US-China cooperation is the only game in town to maintain global financial stability, deal with nuclear proliferation, trammel terrorism, and much more, are still valid. In other words, order in international politics is at stake. But Trump’s critics do not seem to care about that. In the case of São Tomé, a small matter has been made into a big one and Trump’s proximate comments have been made to look ominous.
Hence, if the Western media, which hates Trump with a passion cum obsession and is slanted and hostile toward China, can be ignored, working US-China relations will almost certainly survive and become amicable again and the world will be more peaceful and better off for that.