Taiwan’s international space is shrinking at an alarming rate. Regarded as a wayward province in the eyes of Beijing, a concerted effort by the Chinese government aims to deny the nation any means to operate as a separate sovereign entity.
Whether international space is measured in terms of the number of diplomatic allies, membership in international organizations or simply presence on the world stage, Taiwan is under siege from all directions.
Most recently, Chinese maneuvering has resulted in the loss of another of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, with Burkina Faso switching recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in May. This has brought the total number down to just 16 following a difficult month for Taiwan, in which the Dominican Republic also established diplomatic relations with China.
Renewed pressure to prevent private corporations from treating Taiwan as a nation has been apparent as of late. In April, the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration issued a statement to 36 airlines requiring that they conform to the “one China” principle and list Taiwan as “Taiwan, China” on their Web sites. This was met with a harsh rebuke from the White House, which denounced efforts to control how US airlines referred to Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau as “Orwellian nonsense.”
Despite Washington’s protestations, with the exception of major US airlines, which have asked for extensions, most carriers have opted to comply, fearing the potential repercussions. A similar event occurred in January, when Delta Airlines was forced to apologize for listing Taiwan and Tibet as separate nations on its Web site.
Outside of the aviation industry, this year alone Gap, Marriot, Zara and medical equipment maker Medtronic have all made public apologies for infringements of the “one China” principle.
Taiwan needs to take a radically new approach to diplomacy to counteract China’s attempts to isolate it. Central to this must be recognition of the fact that maintaining the “status quo” is not a viable policy. Not only does China have no long-term interest in maintaining the “status quo,” but also the idea that a “status quo” ever existed is a complete myth.
Even during the supposed diplomatic truce under former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, Beijing continued its efforts to erode Taiwan’s economic independence. While the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was hailed as significant progress in cross-strait relations by members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) strongly objected to what it saw as creeping unification and placed its support behind the Sunflower movement.
China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for almost 30 percent of exports and more than 50 percent of imports, while Taiwan is only China’s seventh-largest trading partner. About 2 million Taiwanese live and work permanently in China and many Taiwanese companies conduct business across the Taiwan Strait.
One of the most crucial turning points in cross-strait relations has been the election of Xi Jinping (習近平) as the seventh president of the PRC. Having adopted a more hawkish stance compared with his predecessor, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), Xi has stated that the issue of Taiwan cannot be continually deferred to future generations and re-emphasized the PRC’s commitment to reunification.
Since the start of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration, Beijing has intensified its diplomatic assault. Over the past two-and-a-half years, four countries have switched recognition from Taiwan to China — Sao Tome and Principe in 2016, Panama last year and, this year alone, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso, both in May.
In addition, a deal between Beijing and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops continues to edge closer to completion and is seen as the last obstacle to establishing diplomatic relations.
Beijing has also reverted to blocking Taiwan’s participation in international governmental organizations such as the World Health Assembly, the International Criminal Police Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.
In general, Tsai’s approach to cross-strait relations has been marked by a strong sense of pragmatism. However, she has faced difficultly balancing opposing forces within her own party. The more radical elements of the DPP tend to advocate strongly for Taiwanese independence and are concerned that Tsai is not doing enough to support this goal.
For the presidential elections in 2020, it has been rumored that Premier William Lai (賴清德), who has openly called for independence on several occasions, is now the favored candidate for the party’s hardline members.
On the other hand, to attract more moderate voters during the 2016 election, Tsai promised to work to maintain the “status quo.” Upon election, Tsai even made the unprecedented move of being the first DPP president to acknowledge the “historical fact” of the so-called “1992 consensus,” albeit without accepting its validity. However, this did not stop Beijing from suspending diplomatic contact with Taiwan.
Cross-strait relations are probably at their worst since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995, when China conducted a series of missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan. However, the difference now is that the relative balance of power across the Taiwan Strait has tipped dramatically in China’s favor, and China’s clout in the international community continues to grow.
Cognizant of this fact, it is understandable why Tsai is keen not to provoke Beijing. However, the idea that there exists a “status quo” to be maintained is a myth. China has been slowly chipping away at Taiwan’s international standing since 1971, when the Republic of China was expelled from the UN and the PRC was recognized as China’s sole legal representative.
Following the announcement that Burkina Faso had established diplomatic ties with the PRC, Tsai called a rare news conference and delivered a short, but strongly worded speech in which she criticized China for engaging in “checkbook diplomacy” and declared that Beijing had “crossed a bottom line for Taiwanese society.”
In her address given at an exchange program in Taipei this week, Tsai vowed to expand Taiwan’s international space and pointed to the “great support from many like-minded countries” Taiwan has received in the face of “political interference and suppression by China.”
It remains to be seen whether Tsai will follow through with her remarks. Having just passed the halfway mark of her presidency, Tsai’s domestic approval ratings have continued to decline. Major newspapers such as the United Daily News, the China Times and the Liberty Times (sister newspaper of the Taipei Times) place dissatisfaction rates at between 56 percent and 69.9 percent.
Yet, the Taiwanese public’s increasing anger toward China might act as a rallying point to unite Taiwan’s disparate political scene. Furthermore, it might provide Tsai with the mandate she needs to pursue a more determined policy of resistance against Chinese aggression.
Jack Broome is a political analyst specializing in East Asian and Southeast Asian regional politics, with experience working in the political risk and corporate intelligence sectors in China and Taiwan. He is studying for a master’s degree in conflict studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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