Three days after President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) again touted his “flexible diplomacy” policy, Sao Tomean President Manuel Pinto da Costa began a visit to China on Friday to seek investors in a deep-water port project in the country, which, according to an unnamed diplomatic source, would cost US$500 million.
As China has been using its economic clout vigorously to engage with Africa on all fronts over the past decade, wielding great influence over Africa’s development, it is getting harder to make a case that Taiwan matters much in Africa, and thus Taiwan stands to lose the diplomatic struggle in the continent.
This view is also held by the Ma administration. It is always quick to attribute undesired twists and turns in the development of relations with the country’s diplomatic allies to a single cause — its unwillingness to compromise on the underlying principles of Ma’s “diplomatic truce” approach, in which Taiwan and China should refrain from luring away each other’s allies by offering large amounts of aid.
In November last year, when the Gambia cut ties with Taiwan, the first ally Taiwan has lost since Ma became president in 2008, the explanation the administration offered was that it declined to satisfy Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s request that Taiwan provide the country with more than US$10 million in cash with no strings attached.
The battle for allies between Taiwan and China is often characterized as “checkbook diplomacy,” in which both sides bribe countries for diplomatic recognition. This approach is unjustifiable and immoral because such hostile competition not only fuels corruption and interferes with domestic politics in the countries concerned, but sometimes props up dictatorships. Therefore, it would be commendable if the Ma administration were to stop playing tug-of-war with China.
However, putting the moves by Taiwan’s diplomatic allies toward China down to the Ma administration being both unable and unwilling to compete with Beijing in terms of checkbook diplomacy glosses over the real challenges and diminishes the actual problems related to the nation’s diplomatic policy.
It may be true that China has dissuaded a number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Central and South America and the Caribbean from switching recognition to China, in an unprecedented gesture of goodwill, as some Chinese academics have said. That China has not accepted the Gambia’s offer to resume ties after the latter broke off relations with Taiwan was pretty much in the same vein.
One problem is that China’s policy regarding Taiwan on the diplomatic front cannot be calculated to arrive at a modus vivendi at all, as evidenced by recent incident in which Minister of Defense Yen Ming (嚴明) was denied a transit stop in South Africa en route from Swaziland to Burkina Faso, the latest in a long series of cases during Ma’s presidency showing China is never lenient regarding Taiwan’s diplomatic situation.
More seriously, because the Ma administration regards China as the key to its external relations, it never senses that bilateral relations between Taipei and each of its current 22 diplomatic allies are important in its overall foreign policy. The Ma administration’s external relations are centered mostly on relations with China, to the detriment of relations with other countries. The ever-decreasing budget allocated for foreign aid has fallen to a record low — less than 0.09 percent of GDP, together with the ongoing plan to downsize the country’s technical missions, suggests a lack of diplomatic vision. Furthermore, the government and the public are apparently indifferent to African issues.