Any strategy by Beijing to leave Taiwan stripped of allies may well backfire
Michal Thim says Taiwan appears unlikely to lose sleep over losing Sao Tome ties to China, and attempts to leave Taipei diplomatically isolated may work against unification hopes
In 1971, when representatives of the Republic of China walked out of the UN in protest over what would likely lead to expulsion anyway, Taipei still possessed greater recognition than Beijing.
Competition for recognition between Taipei and Beijing, which became known as “cheque book diplomacy”, has been an extension of cross-strait conflict to a global diplomatic arena. South Korea, Singapore, and South Africa were among notable nations to switch recognition to Beijing in the 1990s.
Thus, it is no wonder that many see Beijing pulling strings whenever one of Taiwan’s “diplomatic allies” switches recognition. Sao Tome and Principe recently announced it would establish diplomatic relations with China. What followed was a very predictable string of events, including the termination of diplomatic ties with the West African nation by Taipei, Beijing’s acceptance of the recognition, and accusations and defiance on Taiwan’s side.
Watch: Taipei loses another ally
Unsurprisingly, analysts speculate that the change in recognition is Beijing’s punishment following the election victory of the Democratic Progressive Party and newly elected President Tsai Ing-wen’s implicit refusal to embrace the so-called “1992 consensus”. Poaching Taiwan’s “diplomatic allies” has been named among the tools Beijing could use to punish the new administration, along with cuts in tourists to Taiwan and a increased of military exercises near the island.
Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou had touted a “diplomatic truce” with Beijing as one of the demonstrable achievements of his cross-strait outreach in his eight years in power. But the so-called truce was probably just time-limited concession for the Kuomintang-led government.
Renewal of diplomatic competition is a distinct possibility now, with the KMT in the opposition. However, the conditions on the ground have changed. And that is both good and bad news for Beijing. It is good because the asymmetry between their economic powers means any competition is doomed to be decisively one-sided. However, it is bad for Beijing because none of the countries that have diplomatic ties with Taiwan is politically or economically significant enough to shock Taiwan’s government and people into giving in to Beijing. Perhaps the one exception that could cause more concern would be a loss of the Vatican, Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally in Europe.
Renewed calls by Beijing for the Vatican to be flexible and pragmatic in its relations with China would suggest that it indeed wishes to punish Tsai by stripping Taiwan of a few more allies.
However, what is clear is that Taiwan is not going to lose sleep over the loss of Sao Tome. The people of Taiwan have grown accustomed to the possibility that the number of its diplomatic allies would shrink further. The public also views finances allocated as development aid to such allies as resources that could be better spent elsewhere, even if such an attitude does not fairly reflect on the efforts on Taiwan’s behalf from some of its remaining allies, particularly in the UN.
There is, however, one seemingly confusing factor that could hold Beijing back. For better or worse, from Beijing’s perspective, the existence of the Republic of China still ties Taiwan to China. Removing the Republic of China’s external recognition would symbolically pull Taiwan further from, and not closer to, Beijing’s desire for incorporating the island into the People’s Republic of China, a scenario that most people in Taiwan find extremely undesirable.
Moreover, even if the last official embassy closes in Taipei, there is still a large group of representations whose purpose is to maintain relations, albeit unofficial, and chief among them is the American Institute in Taiwan. Presence in Taiwan is maintained by Japan, Canada, Australia, Germany, the European Union, and scores of other countries hiding their missions under names emphasising culture and economic relations but staffed by career diplomats dealing with a broad spectrum of bilateral issues.
No, poaching Taiwan’s “diplomatic allies” is not going to bring Taiwan closer to Beijing.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Prague-based think tank, Association for International Affairs, and a member of the Centre for International Maritime Security