Since the Papua New Guinea (PNG) diplomatic fund scandal broke, criticism from both the ruling and opposition parties has focused on the gullibility of the people involved or their alleged corrupt practices rather than the nation’s dollar diplomacy strategy. In other words, if checkbook diplomacy could really help the nation forge diplomatic ties, many people would not oppose it.
This unscrupulous way of maintaining diplomatic relations is the result of China’s obstruction of Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts, which has caused Taipei to lose diplomatic ties with many countries and forced its envoys to maintain the remaining diplomatic relations with small countries through money and deceit.
Taiwanese have thus been under the impression that their country has won its international space by standing up to China or through checkbook diplomacy.
But is this the truth?
Amid this diplomatic struggle, people seem to have overlooked conspicuous blind spot: Given China’s wealth, why hasn’t Beijing simply bought all Taiwan’s diplomatic allies? China holds foreign currency reserves in excess of US$1 trillion while Taiwan only has about US$200 billion. If the success of diplomatic ties depended on financial aid and political bribes, then why wouldn’t China simply treat these small countries more generously than Taiwan?
Some have argued that China has so many diplomatic allies that it cannot afford to provide financial aid to all at the same time — especially if those countries were to start competing for its money. On the other hand, Taiwan can concentrate its budget on a few small countries, each of which will receive more financial assistance from Taiwan than China. This argument seems reasonable, but it doesn’t take into consideration the political realities of these small countries.
Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are small countries that are still in the early stages of political development. Furthermore, corruption isn’t news to any of them. In order to co-opt these countries, it is far more useful to bribe politicians than to provide aid. While this is the root cause of the PNG fund scandal, it is also what has restricted Taiwan’s dollar diplomacy.
As Taiwan is a democratic country, its diplomatic budget is supervised by the legislature and the public, and it cannot be used to openly bribe foreign politicians. Even if bribery were attempted, the title of the account would have to be changed and the amount would be limited. The missing US$30 million in the PNG scandal has landed the former minister of foreign affairs into hot water.
China, on the other hand, is not only far wealthier than Taiwan, but does not have anyone monitoring the way it uses its government budget. For an authoritarian one-party state with more than US$1 trillion in foreign reserves, spending several billions US dollars to bribe presidents or premiers of 20 small countries would be very simple.
Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are in general small and poor, and even if their presidents served for life, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to put away even US$10 million.
Thus it shouldn’t be too expensive to buy the political leader of such small countries. Even if we make a rough estimate — let’s say about US$100 million to buy diplomatic relations with one of these countries — it would still only take between US$2 billion and US$3 billion to buy relations with two dozen countries, and that is just small change for Beijing these days.
In other words, given China’s increasing economic strength and Taiwan’s diplomatic predicament, it would actually be very easy for China to completely isolate Taiwan in the international community.
But surprisingly, about two dozen countries cannot be bought.
A brutal conclusion would be that it is not that China cannot buy off all of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, but that it doesn’t want to. For decades, Taiwan has maintained diplomatic relations with about 20 countries, sometimes adding one, sometimes losing another. In the long run, that number has been decreasing, but at a slow pace.
A more reasonable conclusion would be to infer that this seemingly stable number of diplomatic allies does not hinge on the tactics of the foreign affairs ministries in either China or Taiwan, but rather as the result of higher strategic designs.
Simply put, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has set a strategic limit on the number of diplomatic allies it will allow Taiwan to retain. It does not allow Taiwan to join the UN, forge diplomatic ties with big countries, have more than about 20 diplomatic allies, or maintain due dignity in the international community. However, Beijing hasn’t been in a rush to buy off all Taiwan’s diplomatic allies either.
No matter how much it suppresses Taiwan’s international space, China has left those 20 diplomatic allies or so untouched. In other words, that is the number of Taiwanese allies China has decided it can tolerate.
Considering that China is always talking about “uniting” the motherland and Taiwan, Taiwanese must ask why Beijing would tolerate Taipei maintaining diplomatic ties with other countries. Wouldn’t this mean that China also tolerates de facto Taiwanese independence?
My assumption is that the reason China allows Taiwan some diplomatic space is not that it is willing to tolerate Taiwanese independence, but that it believes Taiwan in the end will not be able to declare independence. It believes Taiwan will “return” to China sooner or later and therefore feels no need to rush to show its cards.
China is universally recognized by the international community and its status is stable and secured. As its economy has been growing rapidly, the gap between China’s and Taiwan’s living standards has gradually narrowed. With increasing cross-strait trade exchanges, more Taiwanese businesspeople have moved to China. The authorities in Beijing apparently believe that if things continue this way, Taiwanese will eventually accept unification. Therefore, China does not need to rush to push Taiwan into a dead corner and thus hurt the pride of Taiwanese.
Moreover, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are all politically and economically small and insignificant countries. Although these countries are vital for Taiwan to maintain its dignity, they are not indispensable to China. It is just a matter of protocol when these countries voice support for Taiwan in UN meetings and it doesn’t hurt China at all.
However, if Beijing bought off all of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and isolated Taiwan totally, it might force a desperate Taipei to make a reckless move and officially declare independence. China would then have to resort to force to suppress the move toward independence, leading to international intervention and maybe even clashes between China and the US, striking a heavy blow to the Chinese economy.
Always choose the lesser of two evils, and to China, economic development is far more important than hasty unification. Beijing has chosen to temporarily tolerate Taiwan’s diplomatic space in the hope that China’s peaceful development and economic prosperity will eventually entice Taipei to “return” to the fold rather than force Taiwan to behave recklessly in desperation and thus ruin Beijing’s plan for a peaceful rise.
Because China believes Taipei in the end will not declare independence, it allows Taiwan to enjoy some diplomatic relations. However, because Beijing has never recognized Taiwan’s right to independence, it also cannot allow Taiwan to expand its international space. Two dozen diplomatic allies seem to be the maximum China can tolerate. Taiwan cannot establish diplomatic relations with big countries, or countries with important resources, nor is it allowed to join the UN or any other international organization under the name Republic of China or Taiwan. However, ambiguous names such as “Chinese Taipei” or “Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu” are negotiable.
If the above assumptions were true, what would that mean for Taiwan?
On one hand, so long as Taiwan can maintain proper economic and defensive capabilities, there is no immediate danger to its existence. Opposition to Taiwanese independence outweighs promotion of unification; this is China’s cross-strait policy. Taiwanese should not be too worried over the fact that China at this time does not rush to pursue unification. Not only is the Chinese economy changing rapidly, but its political concepts are slowly becoming more liberal. If we sit by and watch, the two sides are very likely to work out an even better way of coexistence.
On the other hand, until China’s political situation changes further, the prevailing political understanding between the two sides makes the possibility that China would allow Taiwan to expand its diplomatic sphere impossible to imagine. Whatever the name Taiwan uses when applying for membership in international bodies, Beijing will always block it. However, as long as Taiwan does not officially declare independence, China will not go so far as to force immediate unification, or even buy off all Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.
The diplomatic struggle that diplomats from both sides take so seriously may be just the result of manipulations from the CCP leadership in Zhongnanhai.
In short, if Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) decided to deprive Taiwan of all its diplomatic allies, there would be nothing we could do about it.
However, if Taiwan manages to maintain diplomatic relations with a few countries, it is not because Taiwan is wealthier than China or because our diplomats are better, but because China has decided not to compete with us. It is all a matter of China unilaterally deciding whether or not it will allow Taiwan to keep some international space.
So why would we want to spend a large amount of money forging futile diplomatic relations? Of course this does not mean that we should refuse to provide assistance for deprived countries.
A rich country like Taiwan should take on the responsibility of assisting poor countries. But the purpose of assistance should be to offer humanitarian assistance and build connections rather than to buy diplomatic relations, because we can never win over China.
Huang Su-jen is an associate professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology at National Taipei University.
Translated by Ted Yang
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