Taiwan’s perennial quest for legitimacy has long been what Samuel Kim has described as “diplomatic Darwinism” as successive regimes have been nothing if not malleable on the issue of recognition.
In the light of the Gambia’s announcement on Thursday last week that it was severing ties, the term “flexible diplomacy” (活路外交) was scoffingly invoked by the press and in the legislature. As part of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) election campaign in 2008, this name was given to the policy of an unofficial diplomatic truce between Taiwan and China. Simply put, China would not pilfer any of Taiwan’s allies if Taiwan put the brakes on its aggressive courtship of vacillating developing countries.
It has been noted in the press that “flexible diplomacy” is not the best translation of Ma’s approach, but few have mentioned that the literal term “flexible diplomacy” (彈性外交) was not coined by the Ma administration. It was first used at the tail-end of former president Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) regime and became the mantra of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) when he took office in 1988 before it was subtly morphed into the better-known formulation of “pragmatic diplomacy.”
Denoting a loosening of the previous policy of “total diplomacy,” the new flexible approach comprised a threefold strategy of gaining access to world bodies, consolidating existing ties and, most importantly, striving to establish new ties without the insistence that potential partners embrace the “one China” position.
Ma’s policy actually better translates as “way-out diplomacy” or, perhaps, “escape-route diplomacy,” and marks a return of Taiwan’s version of the Hallstein Doctrine of exclusivity in name if not practice.
When the “flexibility” of the current policy means bending to China’s will, it is clearly a case of doublespeak.
These considerations notwithstanding, the Gambia’s departure should be put in perspective. This is the first ally that has been lost since Ma first took office.
A brief rundown of Taiwan’s relations under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is instructive.
Playing a game of diplomatic yo-yo, Nauru jumped ship in 2002 only to be welcomed back to the fold with open arms (and checkbook) three years later.
The only reason it took that long was because China had managed to trump a large bribe by Taiwan just six months after the switch. The “near-destitute” government of Nauru, the Australian daily The Age observed at the time, was milking both sides for whatever it could get — a tactic that continues to this day.
Two “success” stories in the Pacific were the agreement with Kiribati, which breathed the rarefied air of dual recognition for a week in November 2003, and Vanuatu, which signed up in November 2004, then reversed the decision the following month after its prime minister was ousted in a vote of no confidence.
The central African nation of Chad was lured away by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2006 with the promise of a hefty development aid package, and Costa Rica followed suit the year after. The defection of the Latin American nation was particularly galling as it came on the back of a vote for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO, which saw Costa Rica vote against the motion.
Asked to explain this unprecedented slap in the face, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials claimed the Costa Rican representative had misunderstood the question. This patently absurd excuse was exposed for what it was when Costa Rica broke ties three weeks later.