China’s successful luring of two of Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies last month, and the high possibility of more to come between now and the January 2020 elections in Taiwan, suggests that Beijing is once again weaponizing diplomatic relations and the island-nation’s undefined legal status as a means to interfere in Taiwan’s democratic processes.
During the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) years (2008-2016), Beijing and Taipei had agreed to a “diplomatic truce,” a period which indeed saw Beijing refrain from attempting to poach official diplomatic allies of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as it made gains in other areas. Following the election of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 2016 elections and an ensuing freeze in cross-Strait relations, Beijing resumed its aggressive efforts to downsize Taiwan’s recognition on the international stage, first by using its influence at the United Nations to prevent Taiwan from participating at specialized UN agencies and then by using promises of economic largesse to Taiwan’s allies.
Since May 2016 until last month, Taiwan has a lost a total of seven official diplomatic allies, including two within the space of a week in September 2019—the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, both in the South Pacific, a zone of growing strategic competition between the United States, Australia, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Stealing allies is part of Beijing’s multifaceted coercive approach to Taiwan, a means by which to (1) undermine morale within the Taiwanese public and among Taiwanese diplomats, (2) pressure the Tsai administration into recognizing the so-called “1992 Consensus” and “One-China” and (3) helping political parties, politicians, and municipalities in Taiwan that have shown a willingness to abide by Beijing’s demands.
Following the DPP’s debacle in the November 24, 2018 local elections across Taiwan and the rise of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Han Kuo-yu as mayor of Kaohsiung and subsequently as the KMT’s presidential pick for the 2020 elections, there was much speculation as to whether Beijing would draw down its aggressive behavior toward Taiwan with the hopes of limiting its footprint ahead of the general elections, or whether it would sustain its coercive efforts to further undermine morale in Taiwan and support for the embattled Tsai administration.
Following November’s upset, the Han “wave” seemed unstoppable. For a while, polls indicated that Han would prevail against Tsai, and the DPP seemed at a loss as to how to regain momentum—so much so that Tsai’s former premier, William Lai (賴清德), took the unprecedented (and, according to some, divisive) step of challenging her for the primary. Tsai eventually prevailed against her challenger and despite being hit by a cigarette smuggling scandal, her support numbers began to rise, in part thanks to the crisis that was developing in Hong Kong over the controversial extradition bill.
Around that time, divisions within the KMT that had never completely disappeared—even following its unexpectedly good showing in the November elections—began to resurface. A marginal populist within his own party, with appeal mainly among an older and more conservative segment of society, Han was regarded as unpredictable and out of control. Online and off, Han’s supporters would brook no opposition to his seemingly predestined ascendance to the presidency and started to threaten his critics, including many members of the mainstream KMT and its elite. The split within the blue camp was exacerbated by billionaire tycoon Terry Gou (郭台銘), who only begrudgingly accepted Han’s nomination on the KMT ticket and then signaled that he could run as an independent with support from Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and the new party he had created in August, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨). Gou then pulled out of the race and subsequently relinquished his party membership, fueling further speculation of disunity within the blue camp.
By September, President Tsai was polling well ahead of any challenger or combination thereof, and the situation in Hong Kong was continuing to deteriorate into spasms of violence. It became increasingly difficult to fault President Tsai’s China policy and her refusal to regard the “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) framework—Beijing’s one and only offer to Taiwan, reaffirmed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary-General Xi Jinping (習近平) during his January 2 address to Taiwanese compatriots—as a viable option.
With Han, ostensibly a Beijing favorite, engaged on an apparent self-destructive trajectory and mainstream elements within the KMT distancing themselves from him, rumors began circulating that the party could, just as it had ahead of the 2016 elections, replace its original candidate at the eleventh-hour. Beijing has now conceivably concluded that trends in Taiwan are no longer in its favor and that it needs to intervene to slow the momentum, if not prevent a Tsai re-election. After lying low while Han soared, it once again has become necessary for Beijing to put pressure on the Tsai administration. Beijing thus scooped up two allies, promising more to come and threatening that all of them could go if Tsai were re-elected in January. The latter statement dispelled any notion that Beijing would not interfere with Taiwan’s elections.
If we are to fully comprehend the rationale behind the CCP’s thinking on diplomatic allies, it is crucial that we also take into account considerations other than Taiwan. In other words, while “punishing” Taiwan or hoping to give assistance to Taiwanese politicians whom it regards as potential willing partners is undoubtedly part of Beijing’s calculations, geopolitics are also involved. Its decision to poach Taiwan’s allies in strategic parts of the world, such as the South Pacific or Central and Latin America (e.g., Panama), is aimed not only at Taiwan but is also very much part of its efforts to (1) push the United States out of what it regards as its near-abroad and (2) shape the environment in favor of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, 一帶一路, also known as One Belt, One Road). Put simply, not everything that Beijing does is about Taiwan; in some cases, it might be more about hitting two birds with one stone while in others, Taiwan might only be a secondary consideration in a much bigger game of geopolitics.
Whatever the motivation, the consequences for Taiwan are a loss of formal ties with a UN member, the dismantling of its diplomatic presence and influence in the countries involved, and ammunition for opposition parties which are blaming the Tsai administration’s “intransigent” China policy for Taiwan’s diplomatic setbacks.
While the direct repercussions of losing official allies are arguably minimal and entirely survivable for Taiwan, the symbolic effects may nevertheless require countervailing measures to ensure that Taiwan’s sovereignty and ability to prosper are not unduly affected. The key to this is for Taiwan’s principal unofficial diplomatic partners, chief among them the United States, to step in whenever China does anything to constrain Taiwan’s international space. The idea isn’t so much to threaten or boycott sovereign states that, for reasons legitimate or not, decided (sometimes despite opposition from the public, as was the case in the Solomon Islands) to abandon Taiwan and embrace China, nor should the main elements of the countervailing strategy involve retribution aimed at Beijing. Instead, Taiwan and its democratic partners should adopt an asymmetrical, squeeze-the-balloon strategy whereby any time Beijing takes a course of action that threatens Taiwan’s sovereignty, commensurate action elsewhere will be taken to strengthen Taiwan’s presence and connectivity internationally. This could include high-level visits by officials, efforts to ensure Taiwan’s participation at multilateral agencies despite Beijing’s opposition, or the consolidation into something more permanent of ad hoc alternative mechanisms that have been triggered in response to Beijing’s preventing Taiwan from joining global organizations.
Arguably, since 2016 the United States and other countries have already augmented their relationship with Taiwan, which has helped Taipei to weather the diplomatic storm and the Tsai administration to retain its legitimacy. However, countervailing efforts should be more systematic and Beijing should be made aware that such responses will be automatic. This kind of messaging will be particularly important should Tsai be re-elected next year and if Beijing decide to act on its threat to punish Taiwan by stealing every one of its remaining official diplomatic allies.
It is important to add that none of these would require formal recognition of Taiwan, departure from the Taiwan Relations Act or the violation of a country’s “One-China” policy.
Such countervailing efforts would mitigate the psychological and material effects of such punitive action by China toward Taiwan. It would also lower the incentives for Beijing to act in such a way as it realizes that this strategy will inevitably trigger corrective measures on the part of Taiwan’s democratic partners. This way, despite efforts by Beijing to restrict Taiwan’s international space, a certain balance could be maintained, which would reassure Taiwanese authorities, as well as the public, that they can continue to abide by their principles and will not be punished for doing so.
The main point: Beijing has ramped up its efforts to constrain Taiwan’s presence internationally and can be expected to further increase the pressure if President Tsai is re-elected in January. To mitigate the effects of Beijing’s punitive strategy and ensure a balance of power, democratic allies of Taiwan like the United States must adopt a countervailing strategy.