For all its power, China can’t sever Taiwan’s links to the rest of the world

Michal Thim says the poaching of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies may seem a symbolic victory for Beijing, but it will do little to dent the island’s relationships with its unofficial allies 

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 6:44pm

First it was Sao Tome and Principe, then Panama and now the Dominican Republic. These three countries have one thing in common: all have switched recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China following the 2016 electoral victory of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan. The Dominican Republic made its move on May 1 and became the most recent of Taiwan’s erstwhile “diplomatic allies” to do so. 

But calling countries that recognise Taiwan “allies” doesn’t really reflect the true meaning of the term, considering that some have been quite eager to initiate the change. The Dominican Republic mulled such a move as early as 2013, for example. 

Though “diplomatic ally” is a misnomer, it is a term rooted in the struggle between Beijing and Taipei. 

Since Taiwan’s democratisation in the 1990s and China’s rise to the status of global power, the old dispute over the legitimacy to rule all of China has been substantially transformed. Nowadays, Taiwan has neither the means nor the political will to continue the so-called “chequebook diplomacy” to prevent its allies switching to Beijing’s side. And it no longer claims to be the legitimate government of what constitutes the People’s Republic of China. 

In the past, losing allies was a sensitive topic in Taiwan, and had a considerable psychological impact. However, as diplomatic recognition for Taiwan has gradually been reduced to a handful of smaller countries, the relative importance of those relationships has decreased. The Taiwanese public has also grown increasingly cynical and started to question whether the funds set aside to ensure this recognition was money well spent.  

Beijing’s purpose in poaching Taipei’s allies is not a mystery. Post 2016, it is both a punishment for the refusal of Tsai Ing-wen’s administration to state that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, and a form of psychological pressure aimed at Taiwanese and the international audience, including international media. 

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Beijing’s endgame is well known: absorption of what is considered a “lost territory” into the People’s Republic, no matter how forcefully Taiwan’s populace is opposed to it. Going after Taipei’s diplomatic recognition seems logical. The example of the Dominican Republic shows that Beijing does not even have to try too hard. 

The Dominican Republic will not be the last “diplomatic ally” to be poached. The Vatican’s possible switch had been considered a done deal earlier this year, and still might materialise in 2018. Even if negotiations prove too complicated, other countries that still recognises the Republic of China might need considerably less convincing. 

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Psychological pressure is without doubt a factor in Beijing’s actions, but as Taiwanese grow accustomed to decreasing recognition for Taipei, they have also become more resilient. The loss of recognition by South Korea and Singapore in the early 1990s was a blow; the same move by the Dominican Republic in 2018 is little more than a nuisance. 

Granted, Beijing may see value in removing diplomatic recognition for Taipei even without achieving any concessions from Taiwan. The continuous existence of the Republic of China is an obstacle to achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. However, what would happen if, one by one, all of Taipei’s “diplomatic allies” move over to Beijing’s side? What does Beijing think it could achieve? 

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The idea that such a move would restrict Taipei’s freedom of action internationally rests on the faulty assumption that its “diplomatic allies” are the lifeline connecting the island to the outside world. Instead, Taiwan maintains extensive global engagement, including significant relationships with the United States, Europe and Japan. Its relationship with Japan is especially important, if underappreciated, and Tokyo understands that Taiwan’s security is of the utmost importance to Japan. 

Tokyo understands that Taiwan’s security is of the utmost importance to Japan

Taking away Panama or the Dominican Republic has only a marginal impact on the nature of Taiwan’s unofficial relationships. Forcing Japan to turn against Taiwan is something that would hurt Taipei. However, for all the power that Beijing has accumulated and the energy it commits to the task of Taiwan’s international marginalisation, Japan is firmly out of its reach. 

Objectively speaking, with no “diplomatic allies” left, the Republic of China would have lost any semblance of external recognition. However, that would not necessarily undermine its claim to statehood: external recognition is not a prerequisite for statehood, as defined by the Montevideo Convention of 1933. Having a territory, a population, and a political authority is. 

The Republic of China would still be a sovereign state even with no diplomatic recognition. However, Beijing understands that the symbolism of stripping Taipei of diplomatic recognition matters more than the objective reality of international law. 

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The trouble with such an approach is that, by the time it happens, there will be no one in Taiwan who would care. Taiwan has been dealing with disappearing diplomatic support long enough to be able to secure other ways and means of external engagement. Countries that maintain close unofficial relations with Taiwan are not going to change their course based on the recent and future derecognitions. 

Moreover, the resources that Taipei allocated to preserve ties with Panama or the Dominican Republic could and should be used to boost public diplomacy outreach that would bypass old-fashioned diplomatic ways. 

Beijing may think that, by removing Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition, it is killing Taipei’s will to resist its demands. Instead, its attempt to gradually eliminate Taipei from the international arena will only fuel indifference in Taiwan and prompt unofficial allies to find other ways to secure Taiwan’s standing.

Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Association for International Affairs (Czech Republic) and a fellow of the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs (US)