China revs up efforts to isolate Taiwan on global stage

September 23, 2019 11:55
Tsai Ing-wen has suffered another setback as two pacific island nations have switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Photo: Reuters

In the run-up to Taiwan's January presidential election, China is taking economic, political, military and diplomatic steps in an effort to prevent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from winning a second term.

To put economic pressure on Taiwan, China in the summer ended individual tourist travel and cut group tours. On the cultural side, it banned mainland and Hong Kong film studios from participating in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards ceremony.

China is also manipulating the Taiwan media. The Financial Times reported in July that editors of China Times, one of Taiwan's largest newspapers, hold daily discussions with mainland officials on reporting themes. Reuters reported that Beijing was paying top dollar to Taiwan journalists for favorable stories.

On the military side, China has halted military exercises around Taiwan so as not to give President Tsai an excuse to stir up anti-China sentiment during the campaign.

But the most obvious – and widely publicized – pressure on Taiwan is in the diplomatic realm, where last week two of the dwindling number of countries that still recognize Taiwan – the Solomon Islands and Kiribati – switched to establish ties with the mainland.

This means Taiwan has lost seven diplomatic partners since 2016, when Tsai became president. Taiwan now only has formal relations with 15 countries, mostly small states in the Pacific, the Caribbean and Central America.

China is reducing Taiwan’s international space one country at a time. Further defections are planned before the election to create an anti-Tsai momentum and to improve the chances of the Kuomintang candidate, Han Kuo-yu.

Such continued erosion could be devastating for Taiwan, as it would seriously challenge the island’s claim to be a sovereign state. Under the 1933 Montevideo Convention, a state should possess a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

While Taiwan unquestionably meets the first three criteria, its capacity to enter into relations could be seriously questioned.

Taiwan’s diplomatic allies play an important role. They help argue Taiwan’s case for a role in United Nations agencies, such as the World Health Organization. They also provide occasion for Taiwan officials, especially the president, to travel overseas. Of special importance is the ability to use trips as excuses for stopovers in the United States.

The chances of Han, the KMT candidate, improved last week with the withdrawal of billionaire Terry Gou, founder of Foxconn Technology Group, from the race. Gou, after his defeat in the KMT primary, quit the party, leading many to expect a run as an independent, splitting the pro-KMT vote. Surprisingly, he decided not to run, resulting in a single-candidate blue camp.

On the DPP side, however, a surprising last-minute independent candidate emerged in the person of Annette Lu, former vice president. While still a DPP member, she announced that she would represent the pro-independence Formosa Alliance. She has been relatively low-profile for the last decade and it is unclear how strong her electoral support remains.

China certainly doesn’t want Lu to win, with her pro-independence stance. But it must welcome Lu’s candidacy if she can draw votes away from Tsai. So, if the race between Tsai and Han is tight, Lu may turn out to be a determining factor in the outcome.

Meanwhile, China will push ahead with its efforts to punish Tsai for not accepting the “one China” principle. It clearly expects the KMT candidate to be more cooperative. Han has criticized Tsai for leading Taiwan on an “increasingly narrow and dangerous path” and said that he would promote a foreign policy that focuses on trade and brings substantial improvements to the nation. This is consistent with China’s position, which is that improved cross-strait relations will lead to greater prosperity in Taiwan.

However, even a KMT triumph at the polls won’t solve the key problem in cross-strait relations. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made it clear that he wants to see Taiwan reunified with mainland China while he is still in charge. A “final resolution” to the cross-straits issue “cannot be passed from generation to generation,” Xi said in 2013 to a Taiwan representative, Vincent Siew.

While Xi is no longer bound by term limits, it still means that he is looking at a relatively short time frame since he is already 66 years old.

The KMT may be willing to go back to its old position of “one China,” with Taiwan and the mainland free to have own understanding of what that means. However, no Taiwan leader, including Han Kuo-yu, can possibly agree to a timetable for unification.

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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.