Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has promised to increase defense budget. Photo: Handout

By any metric, Taiwan is in a difficult geopolitical position. Pressure from China is increasing, the domestic barriers to sustained growth and innovation are substantial, and Taiwan’s diplomatic partners are fading away. In September Solomon Islands and Kiribati ended their diplomatic relations with Taiwan, leaving it with formal recognition by only 15 countries.

At the National Day celebrations, President Tsai Ing-wen talked loquaciously about defending national sovereignty, letting the Republic of China feel pride on the international arena. In contrast to the wave of ruptures in diplomatic ties in the South Pacific, her talk of “preserving national dignity” is empty rhetoric.

In three years, the Tsai government has lost seven diplomatic partners, to the extent of even breaking diplomatic ties with two countries in a single week, and has been barred by international organizations, yet we have not seen any review of cross-Strait and foreign policies, besides assigning the blame to Beijing’s oppression, and even seizing the occasion of diplomatic ruptures to win votes.

These seven countries have a common trait: They chose Beijing over Taipei on economic grounds. The failure of Taiwan’s foreign policy is centered on checkbook diplomacy. In the past, when the two sides of the Strait struggled to court diplomatic partners, usually the battle was decided by the amount of economic assistance being offered; however, China has long changed tactics, now using state-owned enterprises as vanguards, carrying out infrastructure construction and improving transportation facilities for wooed allies. Later, Beijing would gradually introduce economic assistance and investments to strengthen its political influence in these countries.

In contrast, Taipei has not jumped out of the diplomatic mode centered on financial assistance for its former diplomatic partners. And with respect to the challenge of huge economic dividends brought by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Taiwan must fundamentally review its foreign policy.

There is also the problem of an ineffectual early warning system. After Tsai assumed power, the two sides of the Strait have lacked channels of dialogue and the foundation for mutual trust, plus her government has actively coalesced with the US and Japan in countering China, leading cross-Strait relations to a confrontational situation. China uses the pilfering of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners and compressing Taipei’s international space to exert maximum pressure on Taiwan. Under the imbalance in cross-Strait economic strengths, the Tsai government has thus coalesced with the US to consolidate its diplomacy, utilizing the situation in which the US counters and contains China, equating the consolidating of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners with safeguarding US strategic interests.

Faced with China’s increasingly sophisticated economic assistance policies, the Tsai government should change its binomial foreign policy and instead use polynomial thinking to handle diplomacy. Otherwise, even when Taiwan-US relations make further breakthroughs, Taipei will only become a sacrificial lamb in the wrangling between Washington and Beijing, and once those two have achieved a compromise, Taiwan will truly be reduced to an abandoned pawn.

For the past three years, Tsai’s narrative has remained unchanged: the rupture of diplomatic ties was the result of “Beijing’s oppression,” “checkbook lure” and “sacrificing righteousness for benefits” on the part of erstwhile diplomatic partners. With such easy excuses, the Tsai government has never self-reflected on whether its own cross-Strait policy was reasonable or whether her diplomatic strategy was wise. If the public accepted such rhetoric of passing the buck, believing all was because of China’s manipulations and oppression, then Tsai would not have to be responsible for any diplomatic missteps, as she has the best scapegoat to shoulder limitless sins.

If the Tsai government’s cross-Strait policy is not adjusted, with respect to its impact on Taiwan’s diplomacy, national defense, economy and trade, it will be a bottomless pit. At this juncture, a sense of the nation’s demise permeates Taiwan, which partly comes from the constriction of Taipei’s international space. EvenUS power could not have prevented these countries’ decisions to break ties with Taiwan; how long can the Tsai government continue to harbor wishful thinking?

The US does not recognize the “Republic of China,” yet the Tsai administration leads the public in feeling pride by underscoring their sovereignty, and using the pretext of being oppressed by Beijing to console themselves. The myopic focus on Taiwan’s formal recognition perpetuates a victimization narrative that ignores how the Taiwanese public views diplomatic relations.

Since Tsai came to power in 2016, Beijing has piled more pressure on Taipei. Beijing has also been blocking Taiwanese representatives from attending international conferences as observers. China’s aggressive diplomatic efforts to isolate Taiwan have alarmed the authorities in Taipei, as they feel they are being systematically cornered. As the number of countries maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan continues to dwindle, can Taiwan counter China’s diplomatic aggression?

As China’s economic and military power has grown in recent decades, most countries have given up relations with Taiwan in favor of Beijing. China’s growing global influence means that Taiwan has become increasingly isolated. Tsai is pro-US, while anti-China; Taiwan-US relations have been upgraded because of external factors and opportunities. However, if her diplomacy were to sacrifice cross-Strait peace, and make Taiwan a chess piece in exchange for protection, it could aggravate the island’s diplomatic isolation.

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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