Beijing focus on Taiwan’s weakness may backfire

June 19, 2017 14:34
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has warned China that “coercion and threats will not bring the two sides together. Instead, they will drive our two peoples apart." Photo: Reuters

The establishment of diplomatic relations by China and Panama marks the further international isolation of Taiwan. Panama’s defection from Taiwan leaves barely 20 countries that still maintain relations with the island, using its formal name the Republic of China.

The move itself is not surprising, since Panama had sought ties with China almost a decade ago but was rebuffed because Beijing at the time had an understanding with then Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou on a diplomatic truce. This lasted for the duration of Ma’s presidency, from 2008 to 2016, during which China rejected all overtures from third countries.

In 2007, before Ma, of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, became president, China won over Costa Rica, reportedly by buying US$300 million worth of Costa Rican bonds. As soon as Ma assumed office, however, and recognized the one-China principle reflected in the so-called “1992 Consensus,” China scrupulously adhered to the diplomatic truce.

It even agreed to expand Taiwan’s international space, arranging for the island to attend meetings of the World Health Assembly and other United Nations organizations, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization. But after Ma was succeeded as president by Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, such participation ended because of Beijing’s opposition.

China’s refusal to respond to initiatives for diplomatic relations during the eight-year Ma presidency was notable. In 2009, for example, El Salvador elected a leftist candidate, Mauricio Funes, who was quoted as saying that he would consider establishing relations with China and severing ties with Taiwan.

When China’s foreign ministry was asked to respond, the spokesman said rather pointedly that, “despite the absence of diplomatic ties, the Chinese people have friendly feelings towards the Salvador people, and we are willing to carry out friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation in various areas with Salvador.” That is to say, diplomatic relations were unnecessary. Today, Salvador is still in the Taiwan camp.

Even when Gambia broke ties with Taiwan in 2013, China did nothing for three years. It wasn’t until after Tsai’s election as president in 2016 that China announced the establishment of relations with the West African country.

Tsai had announced before the election that she would maintain the cross-strait status quo and, since becoming president, has not adopted pro-independence policies. However, she refuses to accept the “1992 consensus,” under which both Taiwan and the mainland acknowledged that each was part of “one China” but allowed each side to interpret what the term meant. Because of Tsai’s stance, from Beijing’s standpoint, the diplomatic truce was over.

Given that several countries had wanted to break ties with Taiwan during the Ma presidency, it is likely that some will resume such efforts now that there is a change in Chinese policy. The number of countries that recognize Taiwan is likely to drop before long to below 20, but the impact would be more political than practical since most– aside from the Vatican – are small and impoverished. Taiwan continues to maintain substantive ties with major countries, including the United States and Japan, with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations.

Not only is China reducing the number of countries that recognize Taiwan, it is also insisting that non-governmental relations with Taiwan be tightened.

Fiji, which doesn’t have formal relations with Taiwan, last month shut down its representative office in Taipei.

Last week, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said that five other representative offices have, under pressure from China, asked to change their names, presumably to make them sound less official. The five were Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Ecuador.

Asked for comment, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, “The Chinese government highly commends relevant countries for adhering to the one China principle while handling the Taiwan-related issues.”

Faced with such an implacable opponent, there isn’t much that Taiwan can do. In an address, President Tsai asserted that Taiwan has upheld its “responsibility for maintaining cross-strait peace and stability” but that Beijing’s actions have “challenged the cross-strait status quo”.

She also warned that China’s actions were counterproductive. “Coercion and threats,” she said, will not bring the two sides together. Instead, they will drive our two peoples apart.”

This is an important consideration for Beijing, whose long-term goal is political unification. What it needs to do is win over the hearts and minds of the Taiwan people. However, its actions are likely to increase support for Tsai within Taiwan and enhance hostility toward the mainland. People rally around their government against an external threat. That happens everywhere. It will happen in Taiwan.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.