Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen attends the New Year's Eve news conference in Taipei, Taiwan December 31, 2016. REUTERS/Fabian Hamacher
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen attends the New Year's Eve news conference in Taipei, Taiwan December 31, 2016. REUTERS/Fabian Hamacher

The cross-strait truce is definitely gone. China is stepping up its pressure on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, amid concerns in Taipei that the mainland is deliberately trying to erode its system of international relations. After the loss of diplomatic recognition from two tiny African countries, now Taiwan is focused on Beijing’s courting of the Vatican State, but also of its political allies in Latin America.

Return to checkbook diplomacy competition

Through the eight-year term of former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, the pro-China exponent of the Kuomintang (KMT) in charge until last May, a tacit diplomatic detente was in place between China and Taiwan. As early as March, Beijing ended this praxis and snatched the Gambia’s diplomatic acknowledgment from Taipei.

In a new development, Sao Tome and Principe in West Africa cut off diplomatic ties with the self-ruled island on December 20. The move was apparently due to Taiwan’s decision to reject a demand for financial aid from the debt-ridden Western African island nation, which Taiwanese media put at some US$200 million, citing government sources.

China hailed Sao Tome and Principe’s announcement as a return to the “one-China” path and re-established diplomatic relations with the African country in the Gulf of Guinea on December 26.

China is critical of Tsai’s refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus between the Chinese government and the KMT on the one-China policy. For Beijing, Taiwan is a rebel province to take back, with force if needed; a position that the mainland has not changed since 1949, when the KMT lost the Chinese civil war to the communists and fled to the island, setting up a de facto state entity there.

Taiwan finds itself in a bind, subject to blackmail by large part of its remaining 21 diplomatic allies, i.e. underdeveloped nations in Oceania, Africa and Latin America that look to Taipei only to get financial and development aid; and in a “checkbook diplomacy” competition, China will inevitably trump its Taiwanese nemesis.

The Vatican and Latin America on target

The Vatican, the main prize in the Sino-Taiwanese diplomatic battle, is immune to China’s dollar diplomacy, but at the same time it is sensitive to the Chinese apparent political overtures. Beijing is trying to complete a thaw in relations with the Holy See, although the process is fraught with ups and downs.

A Sino-Vatican agreement on episcopal ordinations would pave the way for the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the Roman Church and Communist China, which were severed in 1951. Progresses in this respect are still slow and could come to a halt after Yu Zhengsheng, one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, stressed on December 29 that the Chinese Church had to act independently from foreign forces and foster socialism and patriotism. Both parties – notably the Chinese Foreign Ministry – had opted for a softer approach in the past months; Yu’s words, pronounced at the end of a meeting of Beijing’s official Catholic Church, ultimately broke up this dynamic.

If the Vatican were to establish formal ties with China, that would certainly lead to the termination of official diplomatic relationships between Taipei and the Holy See – in fact, Beijing does deny its diplomatic recognition to countries that have state-to-state connections with Taiwan.

The Vatican is the bedrock of Taiwan’s formal diplomacy. Its shift to China would further undermine the Taiwanese web of political alliances, notably in traditionally Catholic Latin America.

The Taiwanese government is confident that formal ties with the Holy Sea will not be jeopardized in the near term. But Tsai’s planned nine-day visit to some allies in Central America (Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador) from January 7 on could be seen in the background of diplomatic skirmishing with China over the Vatican.

Taipei must act to save what it can; Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister Javier Ching-shan Hou acknowledged on December 21 that yet another country could cut official relations with Taipei anytime soon. He did not name it, but there are rumours it is either Panama, Honduras or Nicaragua – however, the isthmus nation in Central America promptly dismissed recent reports suggesting the switch of its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

To preserve its diplomatic alliances in Latin America, Taipei must hope that the Sino-Vatican dialogue keeps stalling. Differently, Tsai should find an arrangement with China to ease cross-strait tensions, which have also been exacerbated by US President-elect Donald Trump’s phone conversation with the Taiwanese leader on December 2 and eventual questioning of Beijing’s one-China policy.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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