Taiwan Suffers Further Diplomatic Isolation
Photo Credit: Xinhua
By John F. Copper

Taiwan Suffers Further Diplomatic Isolation

Jun. 01, 2018  |     |  0 comments

On May 24, 2018, the African country of Burkina Faso announced that it was breaking diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It was the second such setback for Taipei in one month. The Dominican Republic made the same move just over three weeks earlier. This was the fourth loss for President Tsai Ing-wen’s government after Sao Tome and Principe vacated Taiwan in 2016 and Panama in 2017. It would be the fifth if Gambia, which made the decision in March 2016 — after Tsai had been elected but before her inauguration — was also counted. This was also the second diplomatic defeat for Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, who was appointed in February just three months earlier. Hence Wu took responsibility for the loss and turned in his resignation.


For President Tsai, the loss of four (or five) diplomatic partners at the crossroads of her second anniversary in office was a blow. Her predecessor, President Ma Ying-jeou lost none in eight years (if Gambia is not counted). Before Ma, President Chen Shui-bian, of Tsai’s political party, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, lost six. Burkina Faso’s departure leaves Taiwan with formal diplomatic ties with just 18 countries: none in Asia, one in Europe (the Vatican), one in Latin America (Paraguay) and one in Africa (eSwatini, formerly Swaziland, a small landlocked monarchy with less than 1.4 million population). Taipei has diplomatic ties with no important country.


After the Dominican Republic broke with Taipei, other Caribbean countries were said to likely go too, including Haiti. The Vatican, which has been in talks with Beijing, is mentioned as another. Some of Taiwan’s top leaders, including former vice president Annette Lu, have expressed concern that Taiwan will soon have only a single-digit number of diplomatic partners.


Taiwan’s response to Burkina Faso’s decision ranged from displeasure to outright anger and condemnation of China. Officials, including Foreign Minister Wu, attributed the event to China’s generous economic aid against which Taiwan cannot compete. Others called it China’s “dollar diplomacy.”


A number of government and DPP officials said China’s action would make Taiwan’s residents unhappy and would cause a further deterioration in cross-Strait relations. President Tsai spoke of China’s interference, oppression of Taiwan, and its insecurity and lack of self-confidence. She cited the context of the event: Chinese warplanes circling Taiwan, Beijing’s blocking Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly, and China pressuring global companies to change any wording they use online or in their advertisements that reference Taiwan as separate from China. She declared Taiwan would continue seeking international support and participation in global affairs.


Burkina Faso officials did not say exactly why they made the decision except to mention the “evolution of the world” and “socio-economic challenges.” They did not say that China had pressured them or enticed them with economic help. In fact, they did not mention China in their announcement. Thus, one can only speculate why China made the decision it did assuming it could have delayed or even rejected ties with Burkina Faso. It had put off for some time countries that wanted diplomatic ties during President Ma’s tenure.


Chinese officials in Beijing may have simply reasoned that there was no reason to cut some slack for pro-independence President Tsai as it had for pro-China President Ma and that when the conditions (such as accepting one China) were presented for establishing relations China should so act. Or Chinese leaders may have reckoned that President Tsai would alter her China policy of not accepting the ’92 Consensus (an agreement made in 1992 whereby China and Taiwan would espouse a policy of one China but each could have their own definition of China). Tsai’s predecessor had accepted this agreement and the United States had spoken in favor of it. It did not seem to encroach on Taiwan’s sovereignty and many thought it was a “minimum” compromise to make to keep the peace. But Tsai did not change her election campaign stance. China’s leadership likely didn’t believe the argument that President Tsai had to reject the ’92 Consensus because her base in the party opposes it and she needed to maintain her popular support within the party. Recent public opinion polls in Taiwan indicate that most residents do not reject it and support less hostile relations with China.

Given that Taiwan's and China’s stances on the matter of Taiwan’s diplomatic relations and its status in the international community are far apart, it appears the feud over Taiwan’s ambassadorial ties will go on.

Chinese officials may also have been attentive to the fact that President Tsai’s popularity has declined significantly (from 70 percent approval when she became president to some recent polls registering support in the 20-plus percent range). Her management of cross-Strait relations was said to account for this in some measure. So, to China it was time to strike when the adversary was down. Indeed, President Tsai seemed vulnerable. In this connection, when she was a candidate for president in 2015, Tsai pledged to fix and improve Taiwan’s problem of its losing “international space.” Obviously, she had not done that.


Further, President Tsai’s party is looking ahead to a major election in November. While it is a collection of local elections, it is an important one and issues broader than local problems are part of the debate. Clearly President Tsai’s record and her involvement in the campaign would help or hurt her party a great deal. Ancillary to this, the so-called “mid-term” election is widely seen as a predictor of which candidate and which party will win the 2020 joint presidential and legislative elections. Beijing does not favor Tsai or her party.


Another factor was top Chinese leaders may have figured that decisions made at the 19th Party Congress in October on China’s place in the world and on Taiwan’s reunification and at a top government meeting after that meant China had to pursue the incorporation of Taiwan with more verve. China’s view of its influence in the world and vis-à-vis Taiwan had changed. Thus, China’s policy toward Taiwan of using economic incentives and pressure first and diplomatic and military tools second has shifted toward using all three legs of its policy simultaneously. China has been using its influence to block Taiwan from participation in international organizations or using its informal diplomacy to gain in international space. China has also been showing its growing military clout by dispatching military planes and ships to areas close to Taiwan.


China’s decision makers were no doubt also influenced by Taiwan’s government’s narrative of China not being a democracy but rather an authoritarian regime as witnessed by President Xi ending term limits and China’s aggressive policies in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Taiwan’s leaders also castigated China for being a bully while citing polls on Taiwan’s residents’ views on their national identity that did not confirm Taiwan is part of China as Beijing maintains. Central to the Taiwan leadership’s position is that Taiwan is entitled to self-determination and should be independent.


Chinese leaders no doubt also resent the refrain coming from top Taiwan officials and the Democratic Progressive Party that mimic the anti-China slant on the news coming from the Western liberal media. Some have even suggested that Taiwan is in league with the most radical Western media outlets that are obsessed with and hate China (because China threatens the Western liberal global order with its own — the “China dream”) and Donald Trump (because he is an outlier and undermines their interests) and would like to see the two go to war to “kill two birds with one stone.”


Beijing may also have sought to refute Taiwan’s account of the United States supporting Taiwan’s case against China based on weapons sales, port calls by the US Navy, the Taiwan Travel Act, and more that constitutes, to some in Taiwan, America offering Taiwan a shield and supporting its separation from China. But this is hardly the case. US-China relations are too important to both for that, not to mention working Washington-Beijing ties are critical to the global financial system working, trammeling nuclear proliferation, protecting the world against terrorism, and caring for the global environment.


Finally, China’s leadership for good reasons disliked Foreign Minister Wu and wanted to see him go. Alternatively, it was not personal but he represented a step in the wrong direction for the Tsai government. The previous Minister, David Lee, was much more moderate on the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty and cross-Strait relations. Appointing Wu, who had a history of supporting Taiwan’s independence, was a provocation to Beijing. Incidentally, President Tsai’s harsh reaction toward Beijing regarding Burkina Faso was buttressed by her not accepting Wu’s resignation, which some contended could have been a start in her improving cross-Strait relations.


Given that Taiwan’s and China’s stances on the matter of Taiwan’s diplomatic relations and its status in the international community are far apart, it appears the feud over Taiwan’s ambassadorial ties will go on even though Taiwan’s cause is based on its progressive ideology — not on a realistic view of international relations — and has little hope of succeeding. This gives rise to the question: What nation(s) will be next to switch sides and how will Taiwan and China respond?


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