A key United States’ objective for the Indo-Pacific region is to “maintain and promote peace and stability and prosperity in the region.” President Trump repeated this refrain eight times when he spoke in the Great Hall of the People during his state visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on November 8, 2017. Former President Obama said the exact same words about promoting peace, stability, and prosperity in 2011, indicating the consistency of this US approach across administrations. Peace and stability should be every Asian country’s goal as well. Yet, there is a trend in cross-Strait relations that foreshadows a future that could lead to a non-peaceful and unstable outcome even within five to 10 years. As China continues to strip Taiwan of its diplomatic allies, it could approach a situation where Taiwan has no diplomatic partners, which is what I would call “diplomatic zero.” As Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies dwindle down to 18 with the defections of Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Panama, and São Tomé and Príncipe, cross-Strait relations could become dangerously precarious as Taiwan approaches zero official diplomatic partners. Therefore, it is in the interest of the United States and all of Taiwan’s other official and unofficial partners to bolster Taiwan’s standing and engagement with the world.
It is difficult to find a corollary for Taiwan’s situation through any recent historical analogy of what happens when a country approaches “diplomatic zero.” The most likely candidates that come to mind with diplomatic statuses under dispute—such as Palestine or Eritrea—enjoy far more diplomatic recognition measured by the number of diplomatic partners. Palestine is recognized by 137 countries in the international system out of the total of 193 sovereign countries in the world. In addition, Eritrea is formally recognized by the United States, China, and over 25 other countries. It also occupies a seat in the United Nations, though it was previously considered part of Ethiopia. For perspective, Taiwan has lost several formal diplomatic partners in the recent two years and is now down to 18 diplomatic allies, which is a more dire diplomatic situation than other contemporary examples that come to mind.
Toward “diplomatic zero?”
At the current rate with which Beijing is stealing Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, Taipei could reach “diplomatic zero” within five to 10 years. China does not pull away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies all at once since it would no longer have any political leverage over Taiwan in this matter at that point, and because doing so all at once is incredibly difficult. Instead, China appears intent on pulling away one or two diplomatic partners around the time that President Tsai goes on an overseas state visit to visit its diplomatic allies. According to a Lowy Institute researcher, there seems to be this “method and rhythm of China’s punitiveness” that corresponds with Tsai’s diplomatic efforts. China peeled away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in June 2017 before Tsai’s trip to the South Pacific, also December 2016 before Tsai’s tour of Latin America, and after Tsai and Trump had their famous phone call. Since President Tsai makes a state visit roughly twice per year, it is possible that Taiwan could reach the point of having no diplomatic partners within five to 10 years at this current pace.
Of course, the future is not predetermined, so Taiwan reaching “diplomatic zero” is not inevitable. China could halt its efforts as it has in the past under some mutual agreement with Taiwan, or countries could unilaterally return to establish formal relations with Taiwan as Burkina Faso did when it cut ties with Taiwan in 1974, but then resumed relations with Taiwan in 1994. Of course, Taiwan still maintains strong informal ties with most countries in the world in spite of its dwindling formal diplomatic relations, which means the loss of diplomatic allies could be less of a concern than it seems at face value.
In addition, the Vatican could be the holdout to keep Taiwan from reaching “diplomatic zero.” There are those watching to see if the Vatican will be the next to break ties with Taiwan, since Pope Francis has been making a charm offensive toward China starting in 2014. Yet, the Vatican might never establish formal diplomatic relations with China because unlike most countries, it is more interested in human rights and securing religious freedoms than in receiving foreign aid or signing trade agreements. It is easier for China to offer aid and trade than to completely revise its infamous domestic approach toward human rights and religious freedom. Therefore, the Vatican could possibly be the next to go, but for the reasons of human rights and religious freedom, more likely it could very well be the last holdout that prevents Taiwan from ever reaching “diplomatic zero.”
Views from US Congress in support of Taiwan’s international recognition
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) recently warned countries in Latin America to be wary of China, and to be supportive of Taiwan’s international status at a recent public seminar held in Congress. She said these words at an event co-hosted by the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) and the International Strategy and Assessment Center (ISAC) on June 8. The Congresswoman’s words were scathing as she remarked, “Beijing is pouring money into Latin America, corruptly financing projects, securing influence, and trying to reduce American power. And the fact that Beijing has an opportunity to isolate another of its adversaries, Taiwan, while undermining US influence, makes Latin America an even more attractive place for its attention.” Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen also bolstered Taiwan’s diplomatic engagement in the region by adding, “just yesterday, I met with the Honduran President and relayed to him my concerns about China’s isolation campaign against Taiwan.” Her words at the meeting were a strong encouragement to US officials and others in the world to support Taiwan, along with the exhortation to be cautious about China’s intentions and long term influence. Furthermore, the Taiwan Travel Act and Taiwan Participation Act further reflect the US Congress’ support for Taiwan.
Therefore, “diplomatic zero” might never happen if Taiwan instead reaches a “diplomatic stasis” with its partners as the world recognizes the downsides and strings attached to China’s aid and infrastructure investments. Stasis is a steady point where the number is no longer growing or contracting. As Latin American countries and others in the world start to realize that the concerns that arise from China’s aid and investments are worse than they first appeared, it is likely that many will choose to stay as Taiwan’s official diplomatic partners.
Danger of growing cross-Strait regional instability
Taiwan is holding on to recognition as its one remaining criteria of sovereignty, but will lose that criteria as soon as it reaches “diplomatic zero.” In academic terms, the commonly accepted understanding of the four criteria of sovereignty include: geography, population, government, and international recognition. Taiwan surely fulfills all the criteria, but is struggling to maintain the fourth. Though the Taiwan government considers itself a sovereign country, and is recognized as such by some, the number of those that do recognize Taiwan is only 18 out of 193 sovereign countries in the international system.
Dropping that number from 18 towards zero countries would completely remove the fourth criteria, and it would not only be a tremendous change in the “status quo” but also increase Beijing’s justification for harsher actions against Taiwan. Without any official United Nations diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could more convincingly frame its approach toward Taiwan as purely domestic politics. It could therefore embolden China to take stronger action against Taiwan as it will have no diplomatic allies within the United Nations.
Professor Evan Ellis at the US Army War College also spoke at June 8 GTI-ISAC meeting in Congress mentioned earlier, specifically warning about negative outcomes as Taiwan loses diplomatic partners. According to Ellis, “expanding PRC presence in the region gives the PRC expanded options in a military conflict over Taiwan, even while the stripping away of the ROC’s remaining diplomatic allies increases the possibility of such a struggle. PRC economic leverage decreases the number of governments in the hemisphere that would join a United Nations vote, let alone a military coalition opposing China.” Ellis reasons that Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in the United Nations constrain China through UN votes, but Taiwan losing its allies effectively diminishes Taiwan’s voice and support in that important intergovernmental organization, and diminishes hope of a military coalition against China.
Diplomatic zero would increase instability in Taiwan
Diplomatic zero could lead to instability in Taiwan as well. Taiwan highly values its formal diplomatic relationships. These formal relationships and interactions with leaders from those diplomatic allies act as a form of normative constraints that encourages Taiwan to act steadily in line with international norms and expectations. If Taiwan reaches a point where Taiwan’s official partners are all gone, it may be far less constrained by diplomatic norms and could make non-conventional moves out of exasperation, such as a move toward de jure independence. Of course, Taiwan would always still be somewhat constrained by its respect for the views of its informal diplomatic partners such as the United States and Japan. However, the public could push toward a referendum on independence out of popular frustration with the situation, and anger towards Beijing’s poaching of Taiwan’s partners, while Taiwan’s leaders are forced to comply with the referendum process because Taiwan is in fact a genuine democracy.
Based on the shared interests of regional peace and stability, the United States and Taiwan’s other partners should provide Taiwan with greater support for its international recognition and international space based on their own international security interests. Doing so would prevent China from gaining new justification for tougher action against Taiwan under the cover of calling Taiwan a domestic issue as Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies continue to dwindle. It could also dissuade Taiwan from taking drastic political moves that arise from the bottom up. International support for Taiwan would ensure the continuation of key aspects of the “status quo” and preserve regional peace and stability.
The main point: As the number of Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies continue to dwindle, there could be a grave risk that China and Taiwan could both become emboldened as Taiwan reaches what I call “diplomatic zero” within the next five to 10 years. It is in the United States and others’ international security interests to lend greater support for Taiwan’s international status to prevent this dire outcome from happening.
 Maryann Cusimano Love., Maryann Cusimano. Beyond Sovereignty. (Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2010).