The amateur and foolish actions of two seemingly competent officials, former vice premier Chiou I-jen (邱義仁) and former minister of foreign affairs James Huang (黃志芳), in attempting to establish formal diplomatic relations with Papua New Guinea have rightly brought widespread scorn from Taiwanese and international media. What can we learn from this episode?
It should first be known that officials from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have also made the same mistake. In July 1999, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and minister of foreign affairs Jason Hu (胡志強) were prepared to spend US$2.35 billion -- almost 80 times what the current government allocated -- to gain diplomatic recognition from Papua New Guinea. That gained them less than a week of formal recognition. The problem was that Taiwan did not understand the internal politics of the country, where weak party structures and shifting alliances make it difficult to maintain stable governments.
Papua New Guinea's then-prime minister, Bill Skate, well-known as a particularly corrupt politician, was losing his hold on the government and came to Taiwan hoping to gain resources to build his coalition. Despite the promised money from Taiwan, Skate failed and fell from office. Soon thereafter, Taiwan lost diplomatic recognition.
This raises the issue of Taiwan becoming involved with just one political segment of its diplomatic allies. When a government falls, Taiwan often loses recognition. Taiwan often has recognition from one side of politics, but not from the country as a whole.
When Taiwan gets involved with a war criminal, such as former Liberian president Charles Taylor, it is not surprising that diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is overthrown along with the dictator -- as happened with Liberia in 2003.
Taiwan needs to reconsider the very foundations of its foreign relations.
First, what is more important -- the "formally informal" relations with such democratic powers as the US, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; or formal diplomatic relations with such tiny diplomatic allies as the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Haiti, St Lucia and Belize?
Clearly both are important, but if one had to choose, the "formally informal" links with the larger democratic countries are more important. And despite various artificial barriers put up by these countries, the links with these larger, democratic countries have been improving since Taiwan has democratized.
Second, Taiwan needs to broadcast much more clearly that it is willing to have joint recognition with China. At least from the outside, it appears that Taiwan still breaks relations with countries that recognize China. Foreign Ministry people explain this is for Taiwan's "national pride," but in essence the explanations sound similar to those used by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) all those years ago.
Third, Taiwan needs to re-examine the international law for "sovereignty." Most international lawyers say the key document about "sovereignty" is the Convention on Rights and Duties of States signed at Montevideo on Dec. 26, 1933.
Article 1 says: "The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states."