Eventually someone had to take the hit for these setbacks. When news of a bungled bid to win over Papua New Guinea broke, then-minister of foreign affairs James Huang (黃志芳) fell on his sword. It transpired that two intermediaries were commissioned to hand over a sweetener of nearly US$30 million to Papuan officials. Instead, the pair pocketed the funds. Needless to say, ties were not established with the Melanesian nation and the money has not been recovered.
Compared with this litany of embarrassments, the current government’s performance in terms of maintaining ties looks decidedly admirable. An end to costly and embarrassing diplomatic tit-for-tats is welcome, especially in the Pacific where, to paraphrase foreign policy analyst Graeme Dobell, Taiwan and China’s diplomatic chess game has exacerbated the institutional shortcomings of “Pacific political rugby.”
However, it is hard to see what the government’s endgame might be, particularly when part of its stated policy is a return to the anachronistic demand that its allies recognize it as the legitimate government of China. How, for example, does the vaunted “flexibility” mesh with a refusal to countenance Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s talk of dual recognition late last year?
On his influential blog, Michael Turton raises the interesting possibility that China might deliberately be allowing Taiwan to cling to a semblance of legitimacy through the retention of a couple of token allies. Turton’s reasoning is that, in recognizing the Republic of China (ROC), these countries are ipso facto recognizing a link between Taiwan and China. Should the whole stack of cards collapse, leaving Taiwan in the diplomatic wilderness, the nation would, paradoxically through its isolation, take on a greater air of independence.
This is difficult to believe for several reasons. China’s aim has always been and continues to be the delegitimization of Taiwan. Chipping away at the flimsy vestiges of recognition is the surest way to effect this.
Meanwhile, despite the reversion to the ROC nomenclature, little has changed about the manner in which Taiwan’s supporters push for inclusion of the issue on the UN agenda.
Late last year St Vincent’s UN representative Camillo Gonsalves said that the “headline-grabbing” focus on sovereignty that marked the approach under Chen has been abandoned. Yet none of the allies are being asked to realistically push for Taiwan’s recognition as the legitimate government of China.
Despite the denials of the Gambia and Chinese officials last week, there can be little doubt that the PRC was a factor in the African nation’s decision to break with Taiwan. What other motive could there have been for the Gambia to step away from a relationship which had yielded nothing but benefit?
How concerned is the government? The squawks of surprise ring hollow, especially as Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has been openly name-dropping China for some time. Given the supine nature of “flexible diplomacy,” and what this portends, the Ma administration may not be all that fussed.
James Baron is a freelance writer and journalist. He previously worked for the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund.