Taiwan's official diplomatic relations: A hard game to play in the face of China's obstruction

Screenshot from TaiwanPlus News YouTube channel showing all of official diplomatic allies of Taiwan.

The Republic of China in Taiwan was a member of the UN until 1971 , after which a growing number of countries decided to recognize the People's Republic of China instead, under the Beijing-imposed “one China” principle. Currently, 13 states have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including Paraguay, which elected a president in favor of remaining loyal to Taipei in early May. Meanwhile, a number of countries that supported the island for decades have switched to Beijing in the past seven years. To understand the evolution of Taiwan's diplomatic isolation, Global Voices spoke to James Baron, a long-term observer of Taiwan's foreign relations.

Baron is a British journalist who has lived in Taiwan and written about it for over two decades. He also worked for Taiwan's overseas development aid bureau, the ICDF.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity, and was conducted over email.

For more, read: Is Taiwan an unrecognized country?

Filip Noubel (FN): What is your assessment of the recent changes in countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan globally? What explains those shifts on all three sides: Taiwan, China, and countries that have switched?

James Baron (JB):  While not ideal, the dwindling diplomatic ally count may not be as problematic as it once was. Many observers may feel the quest for diplomatic recognition is played out: ‘What benefit are these geopolitically insignificant countries?’ But that seems a misplaced rhetorical question. Have successive governments in Taiwan been so stupid, incompetent or venal as to not have considered this? The end-game is UN accession, and the idea is to have the prerequisites in place, including recognition by sovereign states. I don’t hear these arguments being made with Somaliland or Kosovo, which — unlike Taiwan — has forced itself onto the agenda at the UN thanks to official recognition. So, there’s a logic to the effort to maintain official relations.

Foreign policy was considered among the few successes of former KMT [Kuomintang] President Ma  Ying-jeou after the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] government of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian was embroiled in ‘dollar diplomacy’ scandals. But Ma’s unofficial ‘diplomatic truce,’ was contingent on the erosion of Taiwan’s sovereignty. The 2014 Sunflower Movement [protest movement opposing rapprochement with China] was a reaction to this backsliding.

So, it’s no surprise the ally count is dropping again under [current DPP president] Tsai Ing-wen — it’s all down to Beijing. The ally-poaching resumed the moment Tsai got power, with Gambia, and has continued, most recently with Honduras. But I think Tsai’s retreat from dollar diplomacy and a cannier attitude towards alternative avenues — business and trade, culture, and civil society are making this less important. Increased resistance to China’s bully-boy tactics among ‘smaller’ states also helps.

FN: What strategies seem to work better for Taiwan? Besides official diplomatic relations, are there other ways to build strong relations?

JB: I’ve been writing about and advocating for civil society ties for years, and it’s great to see them blossoming. Cooperation on areas such as China’s soft power and malign influence ops abroad is growing through the likes of organisations such as Doublethink Lab and their counterparts worldwide. If Taiwan can build goodwill and genuine friendships among foreign publics, politicians in those countries may question the benefit of continued cosying up to China.

There are indeed a range of other options: Business and trade that can go through official Foreign direct investment (FDI), government-sponsored bodies such as TAITRA [Taiwan External Trade Development Council], representative offices, private sector investment and venture capital.

An example is Startup Terrace, which offers support for international startups. In March they invited 15 foreign startups to soft land in Taiwan at the Smart City Summit and Expo. This was cohosted by the Czech-Taiwan Chamber of Commerce and the Prague-based Startup Kitchen. Business also influences people-to-people relations, as private individuals in countries that don’t maintain relations call for normalising ties.

We’re also seeing an uptick in parliamentary delegations to Taiwan, especially from Europe, and following a visit by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China late last year, Taiwan was invited to join IPAC in January.

FN: Is Central Europe (Baltic states, Slovakia, the Czech Republic) a new hub for Taiwan in terms of recognition and strategic alliances?

JB: Definitely. In my 22 years in Taiwan, I’ve not seen this kind of groundswell of support. And this time, it feels different to some of the hot-air that has been spouted in in the past.

Obviously, Lithuania’s case made big headlines and the Baltic nations have all left the so-called [Pro-China economic alliance] 17+1, reducing it to 14+1, and there’s the possibility of others following suit, as some of the nations grow weary of empty promises from China under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Albanian PM Edi Rama summed up the prevailing mood in the Balkans when he said his country had seen zero benefits from the 17+1. China’s poor performance on projects in Montenegro, North Macedonia, and elsewhere has caused consternation; and the fact that legislation has been passed in several countries to prevent Chinese investment in 5G, telecoms, and public infrastructure is an encouraging sign.

The recent support from Czechia has felt like something special. The events I mentioned were just part of the programme for the Czech delegation to Taipei. The European Values Center for Security Policy (EVC) helped organise this and they are proving to be real friends to Taiwan — pushing for substantive cooperation even in controversial areas such as defence. Finally, Central and Eastern European countries are seen as a gateway to EU access for Taiwan, so this has helped push things along.

FN: What about Taiwan’s presence and visibility in Africa?

JB: I worked for a couple of years at the International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) — Taiwan’s Overseas Development Agency, and developed an interest in Taiwan’s relations in Africa. At the time, several of the African countries that recognised Taiwan had their embassies in the same building as our office, and I attended events that focussed on the continent.

I interviewed quite a few experts and policymakers about the Republic of China’s official relations on the continent — particularly the history, which can be traced back to the establishment of a consulate in South Africa under the Qing Dynasty. There are some fascinating, untold stories there, especially from the Cold War era when the two Chinas were jockeying for influence on the continent.

Alas, Taiwan’s few remaining allies in Africa started jumping ship around the time I began working at the ICDF. Chad broke ties just as I came onboard in summer 2006, and Malawi followed suit in early 2008. In both cases, it was simply about Beijing writing bigger cheques. Upon ending relations in 2005, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade captured the mood by paraphrasing Lord Palmerston’s comments about allies and interests. Countries have only the latter was Wade’s blunt assessment in a letter to Chen announcing the split.

After the Ma administration refused Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh’s final ludicrous demand for a handout, and the West African nation broke ties in 2013, it was noticeable that Banjul sat in limbo for a couple of years before China reestablished relations. Next to go was Sao Tome and Principe, which from a personal perspective was sad, as I worked on book for the ICDF detailing an outstanding malaria eradication project there by Taiwanese medical teams. As I also knew students and long-term Taiwan residents from Burkina Faso, it was a shame for them when they broke ties in 2018.

All of which is to say, I don’t see much prospect of renewed ties in Africa for the foreseeable future, especially with the enormous soft power influence China wields.

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