Mon, Oct 08, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: Taiwan and international space: What’s really important here?

Friends of Taiwan are understandably concerned by the concerted push, under mainland strongman Xi Jinping (習近平), to further throttle Taipei’s dwindling circle of “diplomatic allies.” The perhaps excessive attention given by the Government of Taiwan to China’s aggressive policy suggests that this remains a soft underbelly of insecurity.

Beijing has already pilfered five of the island’s formal diplomatic partners since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in 2016, as part of an effort to reduce Taiwan’s self-confidence. As I sit down to write this piece, the news is circulating of the recent breakthrough in Vatican-Beijing relations. Pope Francis seems ready to relent on the thorny issue of who can designate bishops in China. For decades, Rome insisted that only the Pope could appoint such prelates. But now Francis has apparently acquiesced to the existence of bishops appointed by the state-run Patriotic Catholic Church.

This move has been seen by many as opening the door to greater Vatican involvement in Catholicism on the mainland, although it is less clear whether this means Beijing alone can appoint future bishops. Another outstanding question as of late September is whether the Vatican will formally break relations with Taiwan and shift its small diplomatic mission — currently headed by a charge, rather than an Ambassador — from Taipei to Beijing.

While I understand the longstanding focus on this issue, I come at this from a slightly different perspective. Yes, it is certainly reassuring to the 23.5 million citizens of Taiwan to point to the island’s international status, and one easy method to measure this factor is by counting the number of countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei.

But let us consider two factors: first, who are the remaining countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and how important are they on the scale of international politics? Second, how have other nations around the world managed their relations with Taiwan?

I doubt many western readers could find some of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners, like Palau, on a map. It is certainly true that China is engaged in what is clearly a high-level campaign to poach Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners. This is seen as a sign of displeasure with President Tsai and her administration’s policies, following the more accommodating approach of her predecessor. Yet many Taiwan watchers in the west pay slight attention to this matter.

At the same time, US interest in Taiwan is only growing stronger. Congressional legislation, as well as statements by the current administration, all underscore the high-level support for Taiwan in Washington today. President Trump may not have realized what he was doing — a common problem with this indifferent student of foreign affairs — when he accepted President Tsai’s congratulatory phone call after his election in late 2016. But his administration has made it clear that a) Taiwan is an important friend and partner and b) the United States remains committed to Taiwan’s existence as a separate political and geographic entity until a mutually agreeable basis for closer ties across the Taiwan Strait is achieved through peaceful means.

This sentiment was very much in evidence at a recent Cross-Strait conference hosted in Washington by the Global Taiwan Institute, where both scholars and government officials reiterated their support for Taiwan and its ability to defend itself against any threats to its autonomous existence. The Trump administration has continued to approve arms sales to the island, and now has Congressional encouragement to dispatch more senior diplomatic and military visitors to Taiwan as needed to sustain our robust ties.

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