Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

On Tuesday – the day El Salvador formally switched its allegiance from Taiwan to China – the Chinese state-run Global Times published an editorial, headlined: “After El Salvador, which country will be next to abandon Taiwan?” and a cartoon with the caption: “Taiwan down to 17 ‘allies’ and counting.”

All of this neatly summarizes the triumphalist mood in (the People’s Republic of China and in some respects, such a reaction is understandable.

In a matter of months, Taiwan lost three allies to the PRC. In May, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso cut ties with Taipei. El Salvador is Taiwan’s fifth diplomatic loss since Tsai Ing-wen came to power as São Tomé and Príncipe and Panama also jumped ship in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Other countries will likely abandon Taiwan in the months or years to come. Most of its 17 remaining allies are poor and small nations and they need huge sums of money for their development that the island cannot afford but the mainland giant can or is willing to promise to give.

When Panama switched sides, Tsai said, “Although we have lost a diplomatic ally, our refusal to engage in a diplomatic bidding war will not change.” In May this year, when the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso followed suit, the Taiwan leader again acknowledged that her country “will not engage in dollar diplomacy with China,” which promises “vast amounts of money to establish official relations with many countries” and that “Taiwan’s diplomatic situation is truly grim.”

In addition to its ability to lure away Taipei’s allies, Beijing has apparently succeeded in its far-reaching “namefare” against Taiwan as a number of big airlines, hotels and other companies have bowed to Beijing’s demand to list Taiwan as part of China.

In the long run, the PRC’s current campaign to diplomatically isolate the democratic, self-governing island, to eradicate its global identity as well as to militarily intimidate it could produce unwanted adverse consequences

But in the long run, the PRC’s current campaign to diplomatically isolate the democratic, self-governing island, to eradicate its global identity as well as to militarily intimidate it could produce unwanted adverse consequences.

In an interview with AP in June, Tsai stated that it is the island’s resilience that is key to its remarkable survival and success. Indeed, as previously noted, its resilience has enabled Taiwan to overcome hardships and threats to become not just a prosperous economy but also a flourishing democracy that has become – as hailed by two US presidents, Barack Obama and George W Bush – a shining example for many countries in the region and the world to follow.

Faced with an ever greater threat from an increasingly authoritarian and forceful China, it is probable that the Taiwan people will become even more resilient to preserve its hard-earned democracy, freedom and way of life.

In her “statement on termination of diplomatic relations with El Salvador,” the Taiwan leader reiterated such a resilience, emphasizing “that the more we are suppressed, the more we must unite! The more we are suppressed, the more we must go out into the world.” She then vowed: “Taiwan will not bow to pressure … We have never succumbed to pressure in the past, and now, we will overcome any and all difficulties because we are united as one.”

Evidently, Beijing’s coercive campaign mainly targets Tsai’s government and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). But, as shown many times in the past, such as during the 1996, 2000 and 2016 elections, instead of winning their hearts and minds, its aggression will also probably further alienate the island’s people.

In its editorial, the Global Times said, “No one is surprised by the news [about the El Salvador move] … as the wave of ‘diplomatic’ break-ups with Taiwan continues [and] El Salvador will not be the last”, triumphantly declaring, “It is only a matter of time before Taiwan has zero ‘allies’.”

Such a wipeout for Taiwan remains unlikely – at least for now because some, such as eSwatini, Taiwan’s last remaining ally in Africa, still resist Beijing’s overtures and promises. But, if that day eventually comes, it isn’t necessarily an excellent outcome for China and a total disaster for Taiwan.

Taiwan is officially called the Republic of China (ROC) and countries maintain – or break – diplomatic ties with the ROC. In her “remarks on termination of diplomatic relations with Panama,” Tsai stated that whatever happens, “the fact that the [ROC] exists will not change” and “it remains undeniable that the [ROC] is a sovereign country.”

It’s worth noting, however, that unlike her Panama remarks, Tsai’s El Salvador statement always put “Taiwan” (in brackets) after “the Republic of China” whenever the island’s official name was mentioned. Her statement also stressed that “the force of China’s offensive against Taiwan sovereignty is unprecedented.”

It’s unclear whether such wording and phrasing is an intentional move that reflects some change in posture in Taipei. Yet, it’s possible that, as some have already argued, if no country or international organization recognizes it as the ROC, the island, which exists and functions as an independent state, will have no choice but to call itself Taiwan and, consequently, will disconnect with the Chinese mainland.

There are already some signs that it could head toward such a disassociation. A recent poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation found that 51.9% didn’t like the island being referred to as “Chinese Taipei” and 65% percent favored the idea of using “Taiwan” at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

In fact, a petition for a public referendum on the designation of “Chinese Taipei” has been launched and it is expected that it could reach the minimum threshold of 281,745 signatures by this weekend (August 25-26).

It is also said that many signed the petition because of China’s recent bullying incidents, including its pressing East Asian Olympic Committee to cancel Taichung’s right to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games.

There is another, and more important, reason why the self-ruled island could abandon its formal name and still maintain its status quo. It is not its formal ties with small, impoverished diplomatic allies but rather its unofficial relations with key like-minded partners, notably the US, that is the key to its survival and prosperity.

As rightly pointed out, the US’s de facto embassy in Taipei doesn’t have the word “China” in its name. It’s called the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which was recently relocated and hugely expanded.

What’s reassuring for Taiwan is that, despite lacking formal ties, its relations with the US, its vital ally and primary protector, have been remarkably strengthened in recent years.

All of this was clearly manifested in Tsai’s recent nine-day trip that included visits to Paraguay and Belize and two stopovers in the US.

In the survey mentioned, 50.2% said Tsai’s latest outing helped elevate Taiwan’s global presence – an increase of nearly 10 percentage points compared with respondents’ perception about her visit to Eswatini in April.

What’s reassuring for Taiwan is that, despite lacking formal ties, its relations with the US, its vital ally and primary protector, have been remarkably strengthened in recent years

While exact reasons were not given, it’s undoubted that her high-profile stopovers in Los Angeles on her way to Paraguay and Belize, and then in Houston on her way back home – rather than her official visits to Paraguay and Belize – enhanced Tsai’s public profile and Taiwan’s international clout.

While in Los Angeles, California, on August 13, Taiwan’s first female president met with New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, three congresspersons (Maxine Waters, Andy Biggs and Brad Sherman) and Senator Cory Gardner and held a phone conversation with Marco Rubio, another prominent senator. All of these lawmakers are ardent Taiwan supporters.

Whist meeting with her, Gardner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, “expressed concern about the suppression Taiwan suffers in the international community, and said the [US] will give Taiwan its full support.”

In a transit stop that marked many firsts, Tsai visited Taipei Economic and Cultural Office – her country’s de facto consulate – in Los Angeles. In another first, she visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and when talking to American media, she recalled a famous saying by the former president that “everything [was] negotiable except two things: our freedom and our future,” adding that that is also “how the people of Taiwan feel today.”

The 61-year-old leader also joined a dinner banquet with Taiwanese expatriates that was also attended by other senior US politicians, including Ed Royce, chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a prominent Republican congressman, who was a key figure behind the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA).

Her transit stop in Houston, Texas, was equally remarkable. Besides speaking on the phone with Senator John McCain and meeting with Ted Cruz, another influential Republican senator, and Louisiana Governor John Edwards, she toured the NASA space center, becoming Taiwan’s first sitting leader to visit a US federal facility on American soil.

In many respects, as illustrated by these pictures posted on her Twitter account, her two stays in the US, which were covered by journalists, another first, were not transit stops but official visits by a national leader making an official trip to a foreign country.

All of her high-profile activities and meetings in the US were possible mainly thanks to symbolic and substantive developments in US-Taiwan relations over the past two years, including the TTA.

Again, China’s forceful posture was a main – if not the defining – factor behind such improvements.

If Beijing’s attitude hardens, it isn’t ruled out that she will be invited to visit Washington, meet with high-ranking government officials and even address the US Congress, where, though the parties rarely reach a consensus, as Senator Gardner stressed, “Taiwan enjoys bipartisan support.”

Against this backdrop, China shouldn’t be too euphoric about its recent diplomatic gains and Taiwan’s losses.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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