Beijing Set to Increase Pressure on Taiwan’s Diplomatic Space in Tsai’s Second Term

Beijing Set to Increase Pressure on Taiwan’s Diplomatic Space in Tsai’s Second Term

Beijing Set to Increase Pressure on Taiwan’s Diplomatic Space in Tsai’s Second Term

After President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in 2016, China unilaterally ended a period of suspended hostility—albeit in overt form only—toward Taiwan that began under the  Kuomintang (KMT) presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). As its first order of business, Beijing resumed the tactic of poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies as a means to pressure the island to accept the “One-China Principle” and the so-called “1992 Consensus” that support the concept of eventual unification under “One China” but leaves unstated which “China.” Since the reinstatement of a more aggressive unification agenda, the Chinese government has convinced seven nations—Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Panama, and São Tomé and Príncipe—to switch diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the most recent switch, Kiribati severed ties in September 2019, just one week after the Pacific island-nation Solomon Islands recognized the PRC. 

This pressure campaign spans the globe. Even before the termination of ties between Taiwan and the Solomon Islands, reports had surfaced that China had made several economic offers to Haiti in exchange for the island-nation’s diplomatic allegiance to the PRC. China promised interest-free and concessional loans, along with cooperation on several matters such as trade and education, according to reports. Beijing’s implementation of such “checkbook” or “dollar” diplomacy suggests a continued effort to constrain Taiwan’s presence and participation on the international stage. Unlike her predecessor, President Tsai has continually refused to publicly recognize the “1992 Consensus,” which the PRC has adamantly insisted is the only way “the two sides can ensure the peaceful and stable development of cross-Strait ties.” With only 15 diplomatic allies left, Taiwan could lose still more of its remaining partners during Tsai’s second term. China’s steadfast “race to zero” goal puts Taipei in a tight corner, prompting Taiwanese policymakers to discuss what Taipei should do to combat this contingency and how it can ensure that Taiwan remains internationally relevant even after it loses all formal diplomatic ties.

Beijing’s Strategy

Although Beijing has used varying tactics to successfully woo Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, its most prominent tool is its checkbook diplomacy. To seal the deal with the Solomon Islands, Beijing reportedly promised the island-nation USD $500 million to terminate diplomatic ties with Taiwan by October 1, 2019. In determining the monetary value of their offers, the Chinese government often uses amounts that Taiwan’s diplomatic allies had previously demanded from Taipei. When it sees that Taipei is unwilling or unable to meet that demand, China will then provide a similar offer. For example, before the Dominican Republic switched ties in 2018, Beijing had pledged USD $4.1 million in investment and loans, along with an increase in financial assistance, including funding for freeway infrastructure and a new natural gas power plant, along with the sale of Chinese military vehicles. However, within the first year of the establishment of relations, it became clear that these grandiose Chinese promises had been oversold. In particular, the Dominican Republic’s imports from China have far exceeded its exports to the PRC. In addition, the Chinese gifts of infrastructure and showy projects are meant to pressure the Dominican government to vote in China’s favor on international issues, particularly in the United Nations.

For many countries, the diplomatic switch is a relatively easy decision to make, since China offers the prospect of being a more crucial economic partner than Taiwan. However, the case of the Dominican Republic shows that these promises can be false or deceptive.

The Taiwanese Perspective

The Tsai administration and the opposition KMT have repeatedly rejected Beijing’s proposal of the “one country, two systems” framework for Taiwan that has been implemented in Hong Kong and Macao. The PRC’s management of the recent calls for independent civil liberties in Hong Kong has become a further reminder to Taiwan of the risk of building closer political ties with China, a message that Tsai successfully pushed home during her re-election campaign earlier this year. In response to the PRC’s diplomatic poaching strategy, Tsai made clear in 2016 that she will not engage in excessive “checkbook diplomacy” as a way to incentivize diplomatic partners to remain with the ROC. She has since stuck by her word and turned down several economic ultimatums from different allied nations. For example, she rejected the São Tomé and Príncipe government’s 2016 request for USD $210 million in financial aid, resulting in São Tomé and Príncipe breaking ties with Taiwan.

After both Kiribati and the Solomon Island severed their relations with Taiwan in 2019, a poll released by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (台灣民意基金會) found that 53 percent of Taiwanese do not worry about losing diplomatic allies, while 43 percent do. Interestingly, according to Ming-sho Ho (何明修), a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, Taiwanese citizens are growing immune to these diplomatic setbacks, as Beijing’s poaching successes are viewed as of minimal concern. Taiwan’s diplomatic losses involve small countries that are not deemed significant by the Taiwanese public.

Role of Diplomatic Allies in Aiding Taiwan on the International Stage

China has repeatedly used its clout to prevent Taiwanese participation in multiple international organizations. Most recently, this has been witnessed in Beijing’s adamant exclusion of Taiwan from the World Health Organization (WHO) as the international community frantically works to combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Along with blocking Taiwan’s participation as an observer in the World Health Assembly since 2006, Beijing has shown no compunction in leveraging its power to force the WHO to put symbolic politics above public health. Additionally, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has faced international criticism for classifying Taiwan as part of China. As canceled flights and travel bans to and from China were being initiated during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the ICAO created international confusion when it made misleading statements about Taiwan being a province of China. Consequently, individuals relying on the ICAO had no way to determine whether international flights to and from Taiwan remained available, causing unnecessary travel disruptions. In response, several diplomatic allies have spoken up on Taiwan’s exclusion from these organizations. Earlier, in September 2019, 12 of Taiwan’s allies sent a letter to the ICAO’s President Olumyiwa Benard Aliu and Secretary-General Fang Liu in support of Taiwan’s participation in the international aviation organization. Although such expressions of support from diplomatic partners have helped raise the profile of Taiwan in varying institutions, Beijing’s dominating presence in transnational bodies has hindered Taiwan’s pursuit of greater international space.

Possible Outcomes of China’s Big Squeeze

Beijing’s strategy to whittle Taiwan’s diplomatic partners to zero could be counterproductive for the PRC. If cornered, Taiwan could declare independence. In any case, it appears to be already re-focusing more attention on strengthening its informal relations with more powerful countries, such as the United States and Japan. [1] Taiwan currently has ties with virtually every major power, with existing de-facto embassies and offices in almost all major cities abroad. Even if Taiwan were to face formal diplomatic isolation, China will have great difficulty in severing these unofficial ties, particularly with the United States. The Trump administration’s policy on Asia is focused on maintaining strategic leadership in the Indo-Pacific region, including taking on a more confrontational posture with China. Additionally, many members of Congress continually emphasize that US leadership in the region could be severely compromised if Washington stood idly by while allowing China’s authoritarian regime to obtain political control of a small but vibrant democracy like Taiwan. Therefore, Taiwan’s loss of all formal diplomatic ties would likely incentivize the United States to further strengthen ties with Taiwan in order to maintain a strong US presence in East Asia.

Although China can offer greater economic incentives than Taiwan, the PRC’s distribution of development aid in regions such as South Asia, South America, and Africa has been criticized as exploitative, while Taiwan’s approach has been praiseworthy. As Taiwan loses more allies, the United States should invest more time and resources into programs such as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework to promote Taipei’s technical cooperation in different regions and counter Beijing’s emphasis on infrastructure investments, thereby strengthening Taiwan’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Alongside this, the United States and Taiwan should engage in more cooperation on detecting and combating information warfare and electoral interference in order to move the US-ROC relationship toward a comprehensive strategic partnership. Doing so would better position the United States to deter Chinese aggression toward Taiwan.

The Role of the United States

Taiwan’s continued prosperity as a strong Asian democracy undoubtedly serves the interest of the US and other like-minded partners, especially given its geopolitical position along the “first island chain.” As Beijing continues to ramp up efforts to diplomatically isolate Taiwan, it is immensely important for the United States to bolster its support for the island with increased arms sales and active encouragement of more international engagement. There is already evidence of heightened US interest. It is already evident that President Tsai’s second term in office is a source of frustration for Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi will become increasingly determined to tighten the PRC’s grip over the island. Thus, it is likely that Chinese political pressure from Taiwan will only grow exponentially in the coming years.

It is within this context that the passage and signing of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) in late March is all the more meaningful. The Act is aimed at strengthening US support of Taiwan in the face of increasing diplomatic pressure from China. Not only does the act advise the Executive Branch to strengthen bilateral relations with Taiwan in the economic, political, and other realms; it also calls on the US government to alter its engagement with nations in consideration of their ties to Taiwan. As Tsai’s administration navigates through its second term in office in an even more precarious situation, Beijing is likely to continue to ramp up pressure on Taiwan and use economic means to poach remaining Taiwanese allies—the United States must avail itself of the tools offered by the TAIPEI Act to shore up Taiwan’s international space.

The main point: As Beijing continues to undermine ROC sovereignty by poaching its official allies, the United States should enact countervailing measures to reinforce Taipei’s valuable presence in the global space. This will aid American interests in the Indo-Pacific region and provide Taiwan with the international breathing room it needs to continue to thrive as a paragon of democracy in the region.

[1] Jacques deLisle, “International Law and Institutions,” in Hans Stockton and Yao-Yuan Yeh, eds., Taiwan: The Development of an Asia Tiger (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2020), pp. 186-87.