Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen addressed a welcome banquet in New York. Photo: Handout

With the poaching of two of Taipei’s diplomatic allies this month, Beijing’s leadership is breaking out the baijiu – celebrating what they believe to be a significant victory in the battle to limit the Republic of China’s international presence.

Just days ahead of the October 1 celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has never ruled Taiwan, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati were both lured away from recognizing Taiwan with the promise of riches from Beijing.

The decision by Honiara to drop its 36 years of political allegiance to Taipei was reportedly influenced by the promise of US$500 million in financial aid and the prospect of China’s investment in a major gold mine. Curiously, the same day Solomon Islands dropped its recognition of Taiwan as an independent country, a subsidiary of the China Railway Group signed an $825 million contract to develop the above project. Kiribati was reportedly lured away by the promise of funding for commercial aircraft.

With the loss of Solomon Islands and Kiribati as diplomatic allies, Taipei has seen seven countries switch their allegiance to Beijing since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016. Taipei now maintains diplomatic relations with the Vatican and 14 countries, mostly small nations in Central America and the Pacific, that continue to recognize the island as an independent nation.

The loss of more diplomatic allies also comes amid pressure from Beijing to discredit Tsai’s foreign-policy credentials prior to her attempt at another presidential term in the run-up to elections in January 2020. Since the status-quo-minded Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party took power, Beijing has ceased official communications with Taipei, stepped up military exercises near Taiwan, blocked access of Taiwanese officials to international forums, banned individual visits to Taiwan by its nationals, threatened the profits of multinational companies that refer to Taiwan as a nation, and, using promises of financial support, persuaded several of Taipei’s diplomatic allies to withdraw recognition of Taiwan.

How important are Taiwan’s allies?

The Republic of China on Taiwan withdrew from the United Nations in 1971 after the admittance of the PRC and ahead of Resolution 2758 “to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.” As Beijing is strongly opposed to dual recognition, it forces countries to choose between the PRC and ROC, and most nations have sided with the larger country.

Despite their small size and number, Taiwan’s allies are member states of the United Nations and have some voice in advancing Taipei’s agenda. This month, 11 of Taipei’s allies signed a petition calling for the inclusion of Taiwan in the UN and affiliated organizations, and for access to UN-affiliated facilities for Taiwanese passport holders and journalists.

Conversely, there is an argument popular with some Taiwanese that Taiwan’s official allies are too few and too small to matter, and have done little to advance Taiwan’s standing at the United Nations. Also, some argue that the limited funds Taipei has on offer to support its allies cannot hope to match offers from Beijing, and Taipei’s funds could be better used for domestic programs.

Other Taiwanese argue that foreign aid is too often subject to corruption, as witnessed in 2014 when former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo pleaded guilty in a US federal court in New York to receiving $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan in exchange for continuing to recognize the country diplomatically.

For the majority of Taiwanese, though, the loss of diplomatic allies may be of less of a concern than for diplomats, academics and foreign-policy wonks. When a recent poll asked about the island’s decreasing number of diplomatic allies, some 53% of respondents said they were not worried, compared with 43% who said they were worried. Taiwanese may be growing less jarred by the loss of allies – after diplomatic ally Panama was lost in 2017, a survey showed a higher percentage of the population was worried (47%) and a lower percentage was not worried (48%).

Newton’s third law

Beijing may have hoped the loss of diplomatic allies would undermine support for Tsai’s re-election, but she may be benefiting from Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. The 17th-century English physicist’s third law – for every force there is an equal and opposite force or reaction – seems to be drawing in more sympathy and reaction from Taipei’s strongest de facto ally, Washington, as well as other powerful nations. Concurrent with Beijing’s stepped-up poaching of Taipei’s allies has been unprecedented support from Washington, with the passing last year of such legislation as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act and the Taiwan Travel Act, and the introduction of the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019.

Washington is now seeking to discourage other nations from cutting ties with Taipei by reviving the cleverly titled Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, first introduced in September 2018. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a draft bill on September 25, which, if the bill is passed by the Senate and House of Representatives, could be signed into law by the president, allowing for the downgrade of diplomatic relations and withdrawal of foreign assistance from those nations altering or downgrading ties with Taiwan.

Of course, there are many circumstances where it may not be in Washington’s best interest to downgrade diplomatic ties or reduce foreign assistance (for example humanitarian aid, security cooperation, competing with China), but the proposed legislation can still retain high symbolic value while adding to Taiwan’s de facto independent status. Fortunately for Taipei, the inability of Beijing to take heed to Newton’s third law (especially lately concerning the Hong Kong protests) has turned what first appeared as an unequivocal de jure victory for Beijing into a de facto victory for Taipei.

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