Costa Rican President Oscar Arias' decision to end his country's 63-year-old official relationship with Taiwan in favor of ties with China was a huge diplomatic setback for Taipei. It's a sign that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government and even the pan-blue opposition need to seriously reexamine Taiwan's foreign policy strategy in the diplomatic battle with Beijing.
Three diplomatic myths need to be debunked. The first is: Do numbers really matter?
During the period of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule, Taiwan placed an emphasis on maintaining the greatest possible number of allies. Diplomatic performance was judged according to the number of allies the country could secure. As a result, both sides of the Taiwan Strait engaged in "dollar diplomacy."
This zero-sum approach resulted in Taiwan maintaining between 21 and 31 allies in the 1990s. When the DPP came to power in 2000, the situation remained largely unchanged — although the party did introduce some creative ideas, such as the incorporation of humanitarian assistance and increased support from non-governmental organizations.
The inconvenient truth is, Taiwan needs 20-odd allies to speak for it in international organizations. Taipei also needs its allies to reinforce its claims on independent statehood and to widen its scope for international interaction.
But the way Taiwan maintains its relationships with these allies needs to be transformed. Taiwan should focus on "small state diplomacy," which means reallocating and redistributing its resources and manpower to suit. Taipei must focus on areas in which it has an advantage over Beijing; such as humanitarian assistance, high-tech industry and democracy.
The second myth relates to the need for domestic consensus.
The opposition has no legitimate right to criticize the DPP government over its diplomatic setbacks. After all, the KMT is the source of "number diplomacy" and "dollar diplomacy." Criticizing the DPP's efforts to save the relationship with Costa Rica does nothing to improve the country's image on the world stage. Instead, it gives China an opportunity to further divide Taiwan.
The third myth is that improved relations across the Taiwan Strait would automatically improve Taiwan's ability to participate in international affairs.
KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has called for a return to the so-called "1992 consensus" as a starting point for resuming dialogue. He argues that both sides should stop talking about "mutual recognition" and focus on ending "mutual denial."
Ma's idea is wishful thinking and fails to address the question of the different definitions of "one China" held by the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Although there is no such thing as a "1992 consensus," the KMT believes the Republic of China (ROC) is the "one China," while the CCP insists the People's Republic of China (PRC) is the only China and that Taiwan is part of the PRC. Beijing does not accept the existence of the ROC and has prevented it from participating in the international arena whenever possible, even under KMT rule.
Therefore, the assumption that China would give Taiwan more international respect if the cross-Strait relationship improved is manifestly incorrect.
If Ma is elected next March, will Beijing support Taiwan's bid for observer status at the World Health Assembly in May? Would the newly elected president of Taiwan be permitted to transit in Washington en route to Taiwan's diplomatic allies in Central America for his first state visits? And, with his new electoral mandate, would Beijing accept Ma's attendance at the economic leadership summit of the APEC in November?
If, as I suspect, the answers to all of these questions is "no," how long will Ma wait patiently for Beijing to accept the so-called "1992 consensus"?
Liu Kuan-teh is a Taipei-based political commentator.
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