On the surface, the Dominican Republic’s decision to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing appears to be a political victory for Beijing and a setback for Taipei.
But in fact, there is no real winner in this diplomatic war. This was an empty victory bought with cold hard cash and one that will be paid for by taxpayers on both sides of the strait.
The cross-strait diplomatic war began in 1971 when Taipei lost its permanent seat at the UN Security Council to Beijing. Soon after, and following US president Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking trip to China in 1972, many nations scrambled to switch their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
But since the 1990s, both have been trying to hold or gain the good graces of a few dozen developing nations that still recognise Taipei, by dangling generous economic carrots.
In this war, Taipei is the clear underdog, given mainland China’s phenomenal economic growth. This raises fears of a “domino effect” for Taiwan, as many small nations may find it difficult to resist Beijing’s lucrative offers of financial and technological assistance.
The Dominican Republic is just the latest of dozens of nations to have switched to Beijing’s side. In this case the move is seemingly related to a US$3.1 billion package of investments and loans, despite Beijing’s denial of any economic preconditions.
Out of almost 200 countries, there are now only 18, most of them small Latin American and Caribbean nations, that remain in Taipei’s camp; that number was 71 in 1971. By contrast, there are 176 countries that recognise Beijing as the sole representative of Chinese sovereignty. Even more countries would probably follow suit if Beijing pushed hard enough. However, at this point any changes in diplomatic loyalties are mainly symbolic.
And anyway, in practical terms, such diplomatic switches do not represent any significant decline in international acceptance of Taiwan; it remains a successful emerging economy and one of Asia’s most vibrant free democracies.
Taiwanese passport holders have visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 134 countries and territories, including all of the most developed regions such as the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe.
China’s passport holders have visa-free access to only 26 countries, and visa-on-arrival for 39, all of them developing countries.
More importantly for Taiwan, official diplomatic recognition is beside the point; its diplomacy and national security is more dependent on unofficial ties with regional and global players. On this front, US President Donald Trump has already signalled an enthusiasm for warmer ties with Taiwan amid what he sees as a growing threat from Beijing.
From the Chinese perspective, there really is no winner in this long-lasting and meaningless war between the people across the strait. And Beijing’s actions serve against its own long-term goal of luring Taiwan into an eventual national reunion. Such persistent diplomatic bullying will only hurt Taiwanese feelings and drive the two sides further apart. ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s