Losing friends fast: What does the future hold for Taiwan?

Losing friends fast: What does the future hold for Taiwan?

China has been gradually but successfully cutting the diplomatic ties Taiwan has worldwide, especially since the pro-independence party’s returned to power in 2016. This year alone has seen 3 states switch their allegiances from Taipei to Beijing, marking a drastic decrease in the amount of recognition and legitimacy Taiwan commands internationally as an independent state. China is now seen to have more influence over the Island’s affairs than ever before and has taken a step closer politically to national reunification.

The pattern during Tsai’s tenure as President

On 21st August El Salvador severed ties with Taiwan which meant it no longer recognised the Republic of China (ROC) government in Taipei as the legitimate representation of China. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén expressed that the decision was made in light of the extraordinary opportunities that having a relationship with Beijing offers. This severance came after the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso did the same earlier this year.

Since Tsai Ing-Wen came into office in 2016 a total of 5 countries have chosen to switch diplomatic allegiances and align with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The continuing loss of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan has come about because of the increasing political and economic power and influence the PRC has globally. Direct diplomatic and military pressure from China has also been a challenge President Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party have had to tackle.

Source: Stratfor

The ‘one china principle’ is a policy that has been a central feature of cross-strait relations for decades and has become essential for President Xi’s agenda of reining the ‘wayward province’ into line. Despite refusing to acknowledge the ‘one china principle’, the Tsai administration has had difficulty in resisting this policy, and the control and intimidation from China that comes along with it. As a consequence of this struggle, Taiwan is now left with only 17 diplomatic allies.

China is taking a political stronghold over the Island nation

Politically, recognition by other states allows a country to have political legitimacy when conducting international relations. This has great impact on Taiwan’s ability to contribute to global governance through official bodies such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. So as China continues to squeeze the island’s diplomatic presence on the world stage, Taiwan’s ability to function as an independent state is considerably reduced.

Taiwan has experienced diplomatic isolation since losing the Chinese seat for the United Nations in 1971. Despite this Taiwan has been determined to remain an active member of international society. Since mid-1990s this has been done through taking advantage of the islands dynamic self governing democracy to forge a new identity and presence internationally. Yet, Beijing is keen to quash Taiwanese presence globally and has therefore tried to strip Taiwan of all allies through an intense programme of lobbying. This has seen a constant flow of countries who are slowly but surely switching to the PRC.

Economically, interconnectivity between the two economies has increased vastly since the turn of the century, with China now being Taiwan’s biggest trading partner. Taiwanese labour and business have increasingly been able to move across the strait onto the mainland where wages and business opportunities are now greater, especially in China’s southern coastal provinces. Due to the growing dependence Taiwan now has on the Chinese economy, Beijing is able to exert economic pressure onto both Taiwanese and international companies, even if it is to change the way businesses refer to ‘Taiwan’ itself. Taiwanese businesses are even feeling the increasing pressure from Beijing when conducting business abroad. This has been evident in East Africa where Beijing has interfered with Taiwanese trade missions and pressured authorities not to issue visas to Taiwanese businesspeople.

Militarily, the relationship between the two actors is rather tense, despite both Beijing and Taipei expressing that direct conflict is undesirable. China has undergone a large military modernisation programme which has significantly raised its military capabilities. This has informed a more confident Chinese military. A series of military exercises around Taiwan have taken place, including regular bomber patrols and naval training exercises around the island.

Whilst Beijing maintains that the exercises are protecting peace and stability in the Taiwan strait, Taipei expresses its concern over the actions of China and uphold that they will not accept Chinese military pressure and threats. Accordingly, on 10th October, President Tsai announced that the defence budget would increase every year so that Taiwan can effectively safeguard its sovereignty.

What to keep an eye on

The El Salvadoran decision to switch allegiances to Beijing is of concern to Taipei as it may impact on neighbouring Central American countries, like Guatemala and Honduras, causing them to re-evaluate their political allegiances as well. The Vatican is also of importance due to it being Taiwan’s last formal relation in Europe. China will be keen to target it, but issues remain over the control of the Roman Catholic church within China. Meanwhile, China will continue to apply diplomatic pressure and flaunt trade and economic opportunities in the attempt to convince the remaining 17 countries in the medium to long term, depending on the political situation within Taiwan.

If this were to occur Taiwan’s identity as a self-governing independent state will be questioned, as in terms of international law there will be no proof for Taiwan’s “capacity to enter into relations with other states” that evidences its independence. Additionally, Taiwan’s membership to key organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the International Olympic Committee and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council are all called into question. To counter this Taiwan is trying to forge economic ties, most recently with India, commonly deemed a strategic rival to China. It is also trying to develop deeper ties with European states that are also sympathetic to causes Taiwan champions, such as human rights.

There is a chance that Taiwan may seek to rejuvenate the relations it has with the United States. As the China-US trade war and the US’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy looks to continue there has been serious consideration within Washington over how the US should conduct relations with Taiwan. The Trump administration has sought to increase its support for Taipei, recently authorising another arms deal package. Therefore, as the US attempts to counter the growing influence that China is gaining throughout the Asia Pacific region, its relations with Taiwan could become more strategic.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Charles Williams

Charles Williams is from the UK and graduated from Loughborough University with a BA in International Relations and has just completed his MA in International Political Economy from King’s College London. He is a keen traveller and having studied and travelled in China and Taiwan specialises in China’s international relations with a particular focus on the Belt and Road Initiative.