Payback time? The links between Beijing, the Dominican Republic and Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-independence appointments

Taipei could be preparing to dig in on cross-strait policy, a move that may have rattled the mainland, observers say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 10:44am

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent appointments to the island’s premiership and top officials on mainland affairs signal she could be prepared to stand firm against Beijing, analysts said.

But the choices might have also unnerved Beijing and prompted a renewed diplomatic offensive.

The assessment came after the Dominican Republic, one of Taipei’s allies in Latin America, on Tuesday became the third country to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing since Tsai’s presidential election win in May 2016.

Taiwanese news media, quoting an unnamed senior government official, said Beijing offered US$3 billion along with a wealth of infrastructure and technical aid to Santo Domingo to encourage it to cut its 77 years of ties with Taipei.

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It also comes after Tsai, from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, appointed former Tainan mayor William Lai Ching-te, known for his firm pro-independence stand, as premier in September.

In late February, Tsai also put a number of DPP heavyweights in key cabinet posts a month after Beijing’s unilateral launch of new cross-strait flight routes close to Taiwan.

Unlike her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), Tsai has refused to publicly endorse the “one-China” principle, an understanding that there is one China but both sides have their own understanding of what constitutes “China”.

Dominican Republic breaks with Taiwan, forges diplomatic ties with Beijing

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province subject to eventual union, if necessary by force, insists that the one-China principle is the political basis for cross-strait exchanges.

Chang Wu-ueh, a professor at Tamkang University’s China Study Institute in Taipei, said the recent “strengthening of US-Taiwan ties and Lai’s declaration of his ‘practical pro-independence’ stand have greatly unnerved Beijing”.

Chang said these shifts had prompted Beijing to step up efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally and intimidate it through military drills.

Ties between Taipei and Washington received a boost in March when US President Donald Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows for high-level visits between Taiwan and the United States.

Just three months earlier, Trump signed the National Defence Authorisation Act, bolstering the island’s defences as well as US-Taiwan military exchanges.

Chang said Taipei must not misjudge the situation and become hostile to Beijing. He said Taipei must avoid prompting “Beijing from unilaterally changing the cross-strait situation”, which could lead to military conflict.

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Analysts said Taiwan could either accept the one-China principle or stand firm against the mainland.

Wang Kung-yi, professor of political science at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said: “Tsai’s appointment of Lai and replacement of the KMT-related heads of the foreign ministry and the Mainland Affairs Council may be an indication of her decision to play tough with the mainland.”

Wang also said the United States would be key to Taipei’s strategy.

The American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy, said Beijing’s move to establish ties with the Dominican Republic was “unhelpful” to regional stability.

“The United States urges all concerned parties to engage in productive dialogue and to avoid escalatory or destabilising moves,” Central News Agency cited AIT spokeswoman Sonia Urbom as saying.

Ross Feingold, a Taiwan-based specialist with DC International Advisory, said Beijing’s courting of the Dominican Republic showed it was eager to ramp up pressure on Taipei ahead of the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva this month, an event that could give Taipei the chance to rally international support and sympathy.

“[The move was] inevitable. The timing is completely in [mainland] China’s hands. [Having Taiwan’s allies to cut ties] one at a time, one or twice a year is a way that China can maximise the embarrassment to President Tsai’s government and maximise the news coverage,” Feingold said.

He said Taiwan was gearing up its international media and political outreach in the hope of taking part in the assembly, a World Health Organisation body.

At Beijing’s insistence, Taiwan is excluded from the United Nations and other multinational bodies that require official governmental recognition.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong