Tsai Ing-wen has painted Taiwan into a diplomatic corner
One country after another – the latest being Panama – has switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing, all because the island’s president refuses to accept the 1992 consensus
Panama’s switching of diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei is another nail in the coffin of Taiwan’s international ambitions. Just 20 countries, all small and apart from Vatican City, under-developed, still support the island and it is only a matter of time before another peels away. China’s growing might makes that inevitable but the process would be different were Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen politically realistic. Her refusal to acknowledge the 1992 consensus, on which cross-strait relations have long been based, is only furthering isolation.
There was no such threat when Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang Party, was president. The independence leanings of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party anger Beijing, but the KMT understands the benefits of smooth relations. Under Ma, the push for better cross-strait links was coupled with a truce by Beijing towards wooing Taiwan’s allies. Tsai’s inability to acknowledge that there is only one China prompted Beijing to suspend relations and resume efforts to pull away supporters.
Beijing’s diplomatic manoeuvrings should have been obvious to Tsai. Within months of her winning the presidency, Gambia recognised that there was only one China and in December, another African country, Sao Tome and Principe, followed. Taiwan’s inability to compete financially with the scale of China’s chequebook diplomacy and the wide reach of Chinese companies made for a losing position.
China is important to Panama for trade and investment and its ships are the second most frequent users of its main source of income, the Panama Canal. As a sovereign nation, Panama has opted for the most sensible direction for development and others in the region presently allied to Taiwan – El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua among them – are now under pressure to follow. The position of such nations is understandable, even though Tsai claims Beijing is undermining Taiwanese international standing and some Taiwanese question the wisdom of the island’s use of millions of dollars in foreign aid.
Beijing is best placed to serve the development needs of such nations. But the biggest prize in the battle is the Vatican, which has no need for economic largesse, although it is sensitive to the religious desires of the mainland’s Catholics. An end to the thaw in Sino-Vatican relations and a diplomatic shift to Beijing would likely further undermine Taiwan’s alliances in traditionally Catholic Latin America.
China’s deep pockets and growing global clout all but ensure Taiwan’s eventual diplomatic isolation. Continued strained ties with the mainland are also affecting cross-strait trade and tourism, hurting the island’s economy. Matters would be different if Tsai accepted the 1992 consensus.