Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
Dominican Republic Severs Diplomatic Ties with Taiwan
Beijing is engaged in a full-court press against Taiwan’s international space. Containing Taiwan’s ability to meaningfully participate in international forums, forcing multinational corporations to take political positions, limiting the democratically elected leader’s contact with foreign leaders, peeling off the nation’s diplomatic allies and downgrading its unofficial ties, Beijing is rewriting the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Since January 2016, Gambia was the first to re-establish ties with Beijing, followed by Sao Tome and Principe, then Panama, the latest diplomatic “ally” of Taiwan to switch allegiances is the Dominican Republic. On May 1st, the small Caribbean nation announced that it was severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan and establishing official ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
While Taiwan and the Dominican Republic had diplomatic ties for 77 years, Santo Domingo has been on the fence about switching allegiances to Beijing for over a decade and actively courting China since as recently as 2013. Former Economy Minister Temístocles Montás’s visit to Beijing in 2013 for a talk on “Prospects for cooperation in the Caribbean Region” at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank affiliated with the PRC’s Ministry of State Security, combined with a series of “unofficial” visits by senior officials underscore Santo Domingo’s long-standing flirtation with the idea to forge closer ties with the PRC.
The motivation for why the Dominican Republic switched sides was on clear display in early April when President Danilo Medina appeared at the ribbon cutting ceremony for a US$ 10 million plant for manufacturing aluminum tubing created by China’s first company in the Dominican Republic. Reuters also reported that a Taiwan Foreign Ministry official revealed how “China dangled at least a $3.1 billion package of investments, financial assistance and low-interest loans for the Dominican Republic …. That included $400 million for a new freeway, $1.6 billion for infrastructure projects and $300 million for a new natural gas power plant.” At the signing ceremony of the agreement to establish diplomatic ties, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) declared: “Establishing diplomatic ties with China means unprecedented huge potential opportunities for the Dominican Republic’s development.” The fact of the matter is that the Dominican Republic was open to be on the take since as early as 2013.
In his first press briefing as the Taiwan’s new foreign minister, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) urged caution and threw cold water on Mr. Wang’s promises by highlighting the cases in which Beijing did not follow through with its promises. Wu also revealed that Medina, who became president of that country in 2012, “since 2016, he [Medina] has made two trips to China for talks on establishing diplomatic ties.” Foreign Minister Wu added: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly condemns China’s objectionable decision to use dollar diplomacy to convert Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Beijing’s attempts at foreign policy have only served to drive a wedge between the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, erode mutual trust, and further harm the feelings of the people of Taiwan.”
To be sure, the loss of Santo Domingo as a diplomatic ally on its own will do little to diminish Taiwan’s international standing or directly affect Taiwan’s interests. The Dominican Republic is ranked 73rd in the world in terms of GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rate below Belarus and above Azerbaijan. Taiwan still maintains diplomatic relations with four other countries in the Caribbean: Haiti, Saint Christopher and Nevis, St. Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. But there are implications beyond the bilateral relationship that may become apparent as China expands its footprint in the Western Hemisphere. As pointed out by Senator Marco Rubio in a press release: “I’m disappointed that the Dominican Republic has become the latest country in Latin American to bow to Chinese government pressure and sever ties with Taiwan. The United States stands with Taiwan, our ally and a fellow democracy. Congress must do more to counter China’s influence in the Western Hemisphere.”
Ten of Taiwan’s 19 remaining diplomatic allies are in the Latin America. Given that a huge bulk of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are in the region, it should be no surprise that the first two overseas trip that President Tsai took was to the region—and the focus of Beijing’s diplomatic offensive have been directed in the same direction. Her first overseas trip, in June 2016, was to Panama—which severed diplomatic ties in June 2017—and her second trip in January 2017 was to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Similar to its efforts on the military and economic fronts, Beijing is utilizing diplomatic pressure to coerce Taiwan back to the negotiating table on its terms. Beijing’s objective with this diplomatic assault is to bait the Tsai government into engaging in checkbook diplomacy. According to a State Department statement to Voice of America: “We are aware of the Dominican Republic ’s announcement that it has ended diplomatic ties with Taiwan. These efforts to alter the status quo are unhelpful and do not contribute to regional stability, the US has a deep and abiding interest in cross-Strait stability and believes the dialogue between the two sides has enabled peace, stability, and development in recent years. The United States urges China to work to restore productive dialogue and to avoid further escalatory or destabilizing moves.”
The main point: The loss of Santo Domingo as diplomatic ally for Taiwan will do little to diminish Taiwan’s international standing, but there are implications beyond the bilateral relationship that may become apparent as China expands its footprint in the Western Hemisphere.
Former TAO Director Zhang Zhijun Becomes ARATS President
The embattled former director of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) has been reassigned as president of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS, 海峽兩岸關係協會). On April 27, Zhang was approved as the president of ARATS during the first session of the 4th ARATS Board of Directors meeting that was held in Beijing. The meeting was attended by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee Member and Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Wang Yang (汪洋), the newly minted TAO director Liu Jieyi (劉結一), and reportedly included a total of 170 representatives from various government agencies, political parties, people’s organizations, academic institutions, government research institutions, state-owned enterprises, and provincial and municipal Taiwan Affairs Offices.
Zhang served as TAO director since 2013 but rumors began to swirl in 2016 that he would be replaced as early as 2017. Yet, it was never clear then whether he would remain involved in Taiwan policy or retire completely after leaving that post. With this recent appointment, it is evident that Zhang will remain a player in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Taiwan policy apparatuses since the president of ARATS sits on the policy-setting CCP Central Committee’s Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group (TALSG, 中共中央台灣工作領導小組會議) chaired by General Secretary Xi Jinping.
As TAO director, Zhang’s management of the Xi administration’s Taiwan policy was punctuated by no shortage of ups and down. While overseeing a series of landmark meetings between the State Council’s TAO and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC)—two central government-level agencies—as well as a historic meeting between Xi and Ma Ying-jeou, his tenure was rocked by several corruption scandals within TAO’s top ranks and a massive student-led protests on Taiwan that signaled an important turning point in cross-Strait relations. The student-led Sunflower Movement in the spring of 2014 not only shook the political establishment of the then ruling-Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan, but it caused a rethink in Beijing’s approach to United Front work against Taiwan. Despite the olive branches put forward by the Tsai Ing-wen government, Beijing froze high-level communications between the two governments.
As the new president of ARATS, Zhang replaces Chen Deming (陳德銘), a former Commerce minister (2007-2013) who was ostensibly picked for the position to further economic engagement between the two sides. While ARATS had been active in conducting cross-Strait negotiations during the previous Ma administration, the association has been idle on the cross-Strait front since 2016. A preliminary review of Chen’s public activities over the past two years—which is available on ARATS website—indicates that ARATS had been predominantly focused on engaging with Taiwan’s business community operating in the different provinces and cities of China than to engage its counterpart in Taiwan.
ARATS was established in 1991 as a quasi-governmental organization to serve as the counterpart to Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF, 海峽交流基金會), which had been created the year before to handle business and technical negotiations with Beijing. The current head of SEF is the former MAC minister, Katherine Chang (張小月), who stepped down from MAC in late February 2018 in a broader reshuffling of the Tsai administration’s national security and foreign policy apparatuses aimed at optimizing the administration’s policies.
Despite its apparent diminished importance due to its non-functional status in recent years, ARATS as well as its counterpart SEF played a critical intermediary role in the early stages of cross-Strait negotiations. The first and longest serving president of ARATS, Wang Daohan (汪道涵), was in the position from 1991 until his death in 2005. Wang was ARATS’ lead negotiator in the first formal talks between the two sides in 1993 with SEF Chairman Koo Chen-fu (辜振甫) in Singapore and on another occasion in 1998.
Talks between ARATS and SEF were discontinued in 1999 after then President Lee Teng-hui, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, described cross-Strait relations as between states: “Since the introduction of its constitutional reforms in 1991, [the Republic of China] has redefined its relationship with mainland China as being state to state relations or at least special state-to-state relations.” The position of ARATS president was left vacant for three years after Wang’s death until the Nationalist Party came into power in 2008. Another former TAO director, Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), was then selected to serve as ARATS president from 2008–2013 and he was replaced by Chen Deming in 2013.
Beijing has made it abundantly clear that it is unwilling to engage in high-level dialogue with the Tsai government unless Taipei agrees to its political preconditions—something her administration has steadfastly refused to do while repeatedly offering to engage in dialogue without preconditions. Instead, Beijing has ramped up its diplomatic, military, and economic pressure in an attempt to coerce Taiwan back to the negotiating table.
By closing the door to existing channels of dialogue, Beijing has effectively reset the clock on cross-Strait relations. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, a quarter century has passed since the Koo-Wang talks in April 1993. While Beijing may not want to engage Taipei through central government agencies perhaps because of concerns that it would confer legitimacy to the current Taiwan government, there should be no constraints to engage in dialogue through what are technically private organizations such as ARATS and SEF. Indeed, it behooves the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to return to the spirit that led to the Koo-Wang talks in 1993 by creatively utilizing ARATS and SEF to engage in dialogue. While Zhang’s assignment as head of ARATS in no way represents a change in the PRC’s policy towards Taiwan, it does highlight a potential opening after the 19th Party Congress that the two sides could and should explore, and the United States ought to encourage.
The main point: Zhang’s appointment as head of ARATS highlights a potential opening after the 19th Party Congress for the two sides to resume cross-Strait dialogue through ARATS and SEF that the two sides should explore and the United States ought to encourage.