Ever since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) became the first female elected president of Taiwan in 2016, there was an almost immediate reaction from China, which did not appreciate the idea of a president who might push for independence.
After defeating the pro-Beijing Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) by a landslide, the semi-peaceful relationship that had been ongoing during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) began to fade away.
It is worth noticing that during Ma’s tenure, the aggressive stance that China had maintained toward Taiwan, and more specifically, its plans to take away as many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies as possible eased considerably.
Before Ma took office on May 20, 2008, China had managed to lure nine countries into breaking relations withTaipei.
However, once Ma took office, Taiwan only lost one ally to China, the Gambia in 2013 (which was reportedly a decision made by the Gambian government without Chinese interference) during the eight years he was in office.
This happened because his government was friendly to China and tried to strengthen its ties to Beijing.
However, that drastically changed after Tsai took office and refused to acknowledge the “1992 consensus” and the “one China” principle. The principle has different interpretations for both nations. For China, “one China” refers to the People’s Republic of China, but for Taiwan, “one China” refers to the Republic of China (ROC).
The renewed aggressive approach toward Taiwan was also fueled by US President Donald Trump, who not only held a telephone call with Tsai, but also made comments after the call that made Beijing uneasy.
Not long after that, China started luring Taiwan’s allies to sever ties. The first one to do so was Sao Tome and Principe, which switched ties at the end of 2016, thereby reducing the number of countries that had formal relations with Taiwan to 21, in a move that was considered by many as a punishment for the Trump-Tsai call.
The next country to switch was Panama, which broke ties in 2017, followed by the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso and El Salvador last year, leaving Taiwan with only 17 allies.
China has focused on taking Taiwan’s allies one by one in an effort to eliminate any international recognition for Taipei. Using money and investment projects as its main tool, it has effectively taken away a big number of allies in a short period of time.
Its pressure does not stop there. Using access to its giant market, it has also managed to pressure international airlines and companies to eliminate any reference to Taiwan on their Web sites.
However, not all has been bad news for Taiwan. Since Tsai took office there have been a series of actions taken by the US government that one could argue have leveled up the cost that Taiwan has paid through the loss of its allies.
The US government broke official ties with Taiwan in 1979; this was done in order to pursue relations with China.
However, even though the US does not have official ties, it maintains a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan, which is based on the Taiwan Relations Act that was passed in the same year that the US switched its official recognition to China.
The purpose of that act is to continue treating the ROC government as a separate entity. It contained a set of guidelines known as the “Six Assurances,” among which there are commitments to assist Taiwan with its defense capabilities to prevent an invasion from China.
Evidence of the good relationship that both countries have maintained is the American Institute in Taiwan’s new compound in Taipei.
US-Taiwan relations had not seen major shifts during the past decade, but since the election of Tsai and the aggressive stance of the Chinese government toward Taiwan, we have seen a change in the US’ attitude from a passive posture that consisted mostly of providing military support and countering the Chinese threat with the promise of a swift response in case of a Chinese invasion, into a more active role enacting laws that have angered Beijing and sent shock waves through the Chinese political structure.
One of the most significant laws that have been signed in support of Taiwan by the Trump administration is the Taiwan Travel Act, the goal of which is to “increase travel and visits at all levels, including state officials and business leaders, both on the American and the Taiwanese side.”
The signing of the law last year sparked a strong reaction from Beijing, which described it as a violation of the “one China” principle. It appears that there were reasons for it to feel uneasy at the time.
At the beginning of this month, US Senator Ted Cruz, a cosponsor of the Taiwan Travel Act, and four other senators signed a letter urging the US House of Representatives’ speaker to invite Tsai to address the US Congress, a move that would certainly not be well received by the Chinese government.
There was also the introduction of the “Taiwan allies international protection and enhancement initiative act,” which would authorize the US Department of State to re-evaluate and even downgrade the US’ relations with any country that takes an adverse action toward Taiwan.
This could include the suspension or modification of US foreign assistance, which is something that some Central American nations rely on and might not be willing to jeopardize.
Trump also signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which calls for increased engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and includes recommendations to increase arms sales to Taiwan, and conduct official military and government visits, among others.
The EU also voiced its support for Taiwan and reiterated its willingness to develop relations with the nation and to support the “shared values that underpin Taiwan’s system of governance.”
This came after a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), in which he warned that unification with China was inevitable.
Tsai responded to Xi’s speech with one of her own, in which she asked for domestic and international support of Taiwan’s independence.
Her speech was well received by the international community and Taiwanese, boosting her approval ratings by about 10 percent, after the Democratic Progressive Party performed poorly in last year’s elections.
Whether the support coming from the US and the EU can be considered influential enough to balance the loss of several of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies is something that is up for debate.
However, if the countries that still recognize Taiwan begin to fear retribution from the US government if they switch ties to Beijing, that could prove to be the biggest protection Taiwan has against China’s dollar diplomacy.
Regardless of whether one believes that the losses of six allies is too big to be compensated or that the renewed US support is valuable enough to level the playing field, there is no doubt that Tsai’s presidency has brought more support from the US and has managed to bring Taiwan’s situation to the attention of the international community in a way that it has not in a long time.
Juan Fernando Herrera Ramos is a Honduran lawyer and business development manager at XpandLatam Taiwan.
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