Even if Taiwan were to drop its “one China” principle and pursue dual recognition, China’s diplomatic clout and its insistence on upholding the “one China” principle would put this goal out of Taiwan’s reach. Whenever Taiwan establishes diplomatic relations with any country, China will break off ties with that country straightaway, because China demands that its diplomatic partners cannot have official ties with Taiwan. Given this reality, Taiwan should not get bogged down in ideological confrontation in the domestic sphere, with some people thinking that Taiwan’s “one China” principle is the root cause of all its diplomatic setbacks. The real cause is China and its “one China” principle, as well as its fast-growing diplomatic influence.
The “flexible diplomacy” that Ma advocates relies on China’s goodwill. It still stresses the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, and this is the Achilles’ heel of Taiwan’s foreign relations. If Taiwan cannot get away from this obsession with numbers, it will never gain confidence about its place in the international community. Taiwanese will go on thinking that the global community is isolating us.
The truth is that Taiwan has de facto diplomatic relations with more than 100 other countries, including the US, Japan, EU members and every nation in Southeast Asia. The number of countries with which Taiwan maintains official diplomatic relations does not reflect this reality at all.
As things stand, at least three of Taiwan’s diplomatic partner countries want to set up relations with China. The only obstacle in their way is China’s restraint and its unwillingness to establish official diplomatic ties with them. As China’s economic influence and international influence grow ever stronger, Taiwan’s continued obsession with the number of its diplomatic partners, which lies at the heart of Ma’s “flexible diplomacy,” amounts to handing China a lethal weapon that it can use to inflict punishment on Taiwan whenever it is displeased with Taiwan’s behavior. Ma’s current political stance suits China’s needs very well. If China decides that it wants to put more pressure on Ma, or if a future Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government shifts to a different political stance, China will be able to twist Taiwan’s arm even harder then it already does.
Ma’s “flexible diplomacy” is like a reservoir. The more his “diplomatic truce” succeeds, the more water gets stored up in the reservoir. Should the dam break, the resulting floodwater will cause a major disaster. To make matters worse, the flexible diplomacy reservoir is quickly filling up with political silt. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2016. The result of that election could break the dam and send the accumulated silt pouring down in a political mudslide that sweeps Taiwanese confidence away.
The Gambian incident makes this prospect very clear. Because Ma’s “flexible diplomacy” depends on China’s goodwill, his government needs to prove that China has shown no ill will in the affair. The government assures us that China did not intervene in relations between the Gambia and Taiwan before the Gambia broke off ties, and even suggests that China will not establish diplomatic relations with the Gambia. These assurances are needed to demonstrate that “flexible diplomacy” has not failed.