Wed, Mar 30, 2016 - Page 8 News List


Diplomatic ties

May 20, the day on which Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is to take office as president, is Independence Day in Timor-Leste, a Southeast Asian nation that once had close ties with Taiwan. In what was then Portuguese Timor, there was a consulate of the Republic of China in the capital, Dili, and a Chinese school used textbooks from Taiwan.

Sadly, following an Indonesian invasion, the ties were ended as many Sino-East Timorese fled to escape an occupation in which they were often targeted for mass killings. Despite their allegiance to Taipei, the government of then-Indonesian president Suharto saw these people as potential fellow travelers with the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, the left-wing independence movement that received verbal support from Beijing.

Following the end of Indonesian rule in 1999, there was talk of establishing a Taiwanese office or center in Dili, but China established what is now its embassy and Timor-Leste’s leaders adhere to a “one China” policy, issuing predictable joint communiques about the status of Taiwan. Even an unofficial Taiwanese delegation seeking to visit Dili was denied entry.

Recently there has been concern in Taiwan that Sao Tome and Principe, another former Portuguese colony, might restore ties with Beijing, given that not only has its president recently visited China, but a Chinese company is building a US$800 million deep-sea port in the nation.

This investment alone dwarfs the total amount of aid Taiwan has given to Sao Tome since 1997.

In addition, Sao Tome might seek to join the Macau Forum, which promotes economic cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking nations, from which it is excluded.

However, if these nations truly matter to Taiwan, the benefits from forging actual economic and cultural ties with all of them should outweigh the loss of political ties with one of them; but how much do they matter?

Apart from Sao Tome, the only such nation represented in Taiwan is Brazil. Portugal has no office in Taipei, although there is a Taiwan representative office in Lisbon and while it could probably establish one in the guise of its Portugal Global trade agency, money, as always, is an issue. It is likely to handle Taiwanese affairs from Macau, as do Angola and Mozambique, which also have consulates there.

Instead of an embassy in Sao Tome, there could be Taipei offices or centers in Timor Leste, as well as Angola and Mozambique. Although the days of these institutions having cryptic names with references to “Free China,” “the Far East” and “Sun Yat-sen” are largely a thing of the past, perhaps Taipei’s offices in Dili, Luanda or Maputo could use that historic name of Portuguese origin: “Formosa.”

Ken Westmoreland

Taunton, UK

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