Flexible diplomacy is anything but

By James Baron  / 

Wed, Nov 20, 2013 - Page 8

Taiwan’s perennial quest for legitimacy has long been what Samuel Kim has described as “diplomatic Darwinism” as successive regimes have been nothing if not malleable on the issue of recognition.

In the light of the Gambia’s announcement on Thursday last week that it was severing ties, the term “flexible diplomacy” (活路外交) was scoffingly invoked by the press and in the legislature. As part of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) election campaign in 2008, this name was given to the policy of an unofficial diplomatic truce between Taiwan and China. Simply put, China would not pilfer any of Taiwan’s allies if Taiwan put the brakes on its aggressive courtship of vacillating developing countries.

It has been noted in the press that “flexible diplomacy” is not the best translation of Ma’s approach, but few have mentioned that the literal term “flexible diplomacy” (彈性外交) was not coined by the Ma administration. It was first used at the tail-end of former president Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) regime and became the mantra of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) when he took office in 1988 before it was subtly morphed into the better-known formulation of “pragmatic diplomacy.”

Denoting a loosening of the previous policy of “total diplomacy,” the new flexible approach comprised a threefold strategy of gaining access to world bodies, consolidating existing ties and, most importantly, striving to establish new ties without the insistence that potential partners embrace the “one China” position.

Ma’s policy actually better translates as “way-out diplomacy” or, perhaps, “escape-route diplomacy,” and marks a return of Taiwan’s version of the Hallstein Doctrine of exclusivity in name if not practice.

When the “flexibility” of the current policy means bending to China’s will, it is clearly a case of doublespeak.

These considerations notwithstanding, the Gambia’s departure should be put in perspective. This is the first ally that has been lost since Ma first took office.

A brief rundown of Taiwan’s relations under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is instructive.

Playing a game of diplomatic yo-yo, Nauru jumped ship in 2002 only to be welcomed back to the fold with open arms (and checkbook) three years later.

The only reason it took that long was because China had managed to trump a large bribe by Taiwan just six months after the switch. The “near-destitute” government of Nauru, the Australian daily The Age observed at the time, was milking both sides for whatever it could get — a tactic that continues to this day.

Two “success” stories in the Pacific were the agreement with Kiribati, which breathed the rarefied air of dual recognition for a week in November 2003, and Vanuatu, which signed up in November 2004, then reversed the decision the following month after its prime minister was ousted in a vote of no confidence.

The central African nation of Chad was lured away by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2006 with the promise of a hefty development aid package, and Costa Rica followed suit the year after. The defection of the Latin American nation was particularly galling as it came on the back of a vote for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO, which saw Costa Rica vote against the motion.

Asked to explain this unprecedented slap in the face, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials claimed the Costa Rican representative had misunderstood the question. This patently absurd excuse was exposed for what it was when Costa Rica broke ties three weeks later.

Eventually someone had to take the hit for these setbacks. When news of a bungled bid to win over Papua New Guinea broke, then-minister of foreign affairs James Huang (黃志芳) fell on his sword. It transpired that two intermediaries were commissioned to hand over a sweetener of nearly US$30 million to Papuan officials. Instead, the pair pocketed the funds. Needless to say, ties were not established with the Melanesian nation and the money has not been recovered.

Compared with this litany of embarrassments, the current government’s performance in terms of maintaining ties looks decidedly admirable. An end to costly and embarrassing diplomatic tit-for-tats is welcome, especially in the Pacific where, to paraphrase foreign policy analyst Graeme Dobell, Taiwan and China’s diplomatic chess game has exacerbated the institutional shortcomings of “Pacific political rugby.”

However, it is hard to see what the government’s endgame might be, particularly when part of its stated policy is a return to the anachronistic demand that its allies recognize it as the legitimate government of China. How, for example, does the vaunted “flexibility” mesh with a refusal to countenance Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s talk of dual recognition late last year?

On his influential blog, Michael Turton raises the interesting possibility that China might deliberately be allowing Taiwan to cling to a semblance of legitimacy through the retention of a couple of token allies. Turton’s reasoning is that, in recognizing the Republic of China (ROC), these countries are ipso facto recognizing a link between Taiwan and China. Should the whole stack of cards collapse, leaving Taiwan in the diplomatic wilderness, the nation would, paradoxically through its isolation, take on a greater air of independence.

This is difficult to believe for several reasons. China’s aim has always been and continues to be the delegitimization of Taiwan. Chipping away at the flimsy vestiges of recognition is the surest way to effect this.

Meanwhile, despite the reversion to the ROC nomenclature, little has changed about the manner in which Taiwan’s supporters push for inclusion of the issue on the UN agenda.

Late last year St Vincent’s UN representative Camillo Gonsalves said that the “headline-grabbing” focus on sovereignty that marked the approach under Chen has been abandoned. Yet none of the allies are being asked to realistically push for Taiwan’s recognition as the legitimate government of China.

Despite the denials of the Gambia and Chinese officials last week, there can be little doubt that the PRC was a factor in the African nation’s decision to break with Taiwan. What other motive could there have been for the Gambia to step away from a relationship which had yielded nothing but benefit?

How concerned is the government? The squawks of surprise ring hollow, especially as Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has been openly name-dropping China for some time. Given the supine nature of “flexible diplomacy,” and what this portends, the Ma administration may not be all that fussed.

James Baron is a freelance writer and journalist. He previously worked for the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund.