Following Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s announcement on Nov. 14 that his country was unilaterally terminating its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government made strenuous efforts to mend ties. If these efforts had succeeded, it would have allowed Ma to maintain an achievement of losing no diplomatic partners since he became president in 2008. The government was also at pains to say that the Gambia’s decision to cut off ties with Taiwan had nothing to do with China. The point of this was to prove that Ma’s policy of “flexible diplomacy” had not failed. China’s foreign ministry also played innocent, saying that it had known nothing about the Gambia’s impending break-off with Taiwan and had no hand in it. Nonetheless, the Ma government’s handling of this incident highlights the difficulty of maintaining its policy of “flexible diplomacy,” and the debacle has once more damaged the nation’s dignity.
The reality we must face is that Jammeh has openly terminated diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It is a done deed, unless it turns out that the Gambian president does not have the power to do such a thing. The special emissaries Taiwan sent to the Gambia immediately following Jammeh’s announcement probably tried hard to reason with him, as well as appealing to his better nature. They may have suggested that China might not want to establish ties with the Gambia or give it any more aid than Taiwan was giving. Perhaps, in the hope of getting him to change his mind, they asked Jammeh to think about the many years of friendship between the Gambia and Taiwan and the aid that Taiwan would continue to provide in the future. All the things Taiwan’s emissaries may have suggested could well come to pass, but this kind of pleading puts Taiwan’s national dignity at stake. The most it could have achieved was a dubious achievement for Ma’s “flexible diplomacy.” As it turned out, Jammeh was not willing to change his mind, and the result has been a big loss of face for Taiwan.
The root cause behind the Gambia’s termination of diplomatic relations with Taiwan is the “one China” principle advocated by China. Even if China did not ask the Gambia to cut off ties with Taiwan, it is still China’s “one China” principle that forces the Gambia and other diplomatic partners of Taiwan to choose between one side of the Taiwan Strait or the other. Only if they break off ties with Taiwan can they establish diplomatic relations with China. It also means that the Gambia can, if it wishes, use the “one China” principle to coerce Taiwan to give it more aid. China’s claim that it had no hand in the Gambia’s severance of ties with Taiwan is just feigned innocence intended to win Taiwanese sympathy.
Of course Taiwan still has to face up to international realities and adjust its strategy and tactics accordingly. People in Taiwan do not like using checkbook diplomacy to compete with China for diplomatic recognition. They do not want Taiwan to behave like a sugar daddy. Apart from the moral and legal questions associated with checkbook diplomacy, Taiwan’s economic power these days is no match for China, so it is not possible for it to go on using this approach to compete with China for diplomatic recognition. In view of Taiwan’s weakening position vis-a-vis its opponent in the international community, this country will have to get away from its obsession with the number of diplomatic allies it has. Only such a change of emphasis can offer a real solution.
Even if Taiwan were to drop its “one China” principle and pursue dual recognition, China’s diplomatic clout and its insistence on upholding the “one China” principle would put this goal out of Taiwan’s reach. Whenever Taiwan establishes diplomatic relations with any country, China will break off ties with that country straightaway, because China demands that its diplomatic partners cannot have official ties with Taiwan. Given this reality, Taiwan should not get bogged down in ideological confrontation in the domestic sphere, with some people thinking that Taiwan’s “one China” principle is the root cause of all its diplomatic setbacks. The real cause is China and its “one China” principle, as well as its fast-growing diplomatic influence.
The “flexible diplomacy” that Ma advocates relies on China’s goodwill. It still stresses the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, and this is the Achilles’ heel of Taiwan’s foreign relations. If Taiwan cannot get away from this obsession with numbers, it will never gain confidence about its place in the international community. Taiwanese will go on thinking that the global community is isolating us.
The truth is that Taiwan has de facto diplomatic relations with more than 100 other countries, including the US, Japan, EU members and every nation in Southeast Asia. The number of countries with which Taiwan maintains official diplomatic relations does not reflect this reality at all.
As things stand, at least three of Taiwan’s diplomatic partner countries want to set up relations with China. The only obstacle in their way is China’s restraint and its unwillingness to establish official diplomatic ties with them. As China’s economic influence and international influence grow ever stronger, Taiwan’s continued obsession with the number of its diplomatic partners, which lies at the heart of Ma’s “flexible diplomacy,” amounts to handing China a lethal weapon that it can use to inflict punishment on Taiwan whenever it is displeased with Taiwan’s behavior. Ma’s current political stance suits China’s needs very well. If China decides that it wants to put more pressure on Ma, or if a future Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government shifts to a different political stance, China will be able to twist Taiwan’s arm even harder then it already does.
Ma’s “flexible diplomacy” is like a reservoir. The more his “diplomatic truce” succeeds, the more water gets stored up in the reservoir. Should the dam break, the resulting floodwater will cause a major disaster. To make matters worse, the flexible diplomacy reservoir is quickly filling up with political silt. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2016. The result of that election could break the dam and send the accumulated silt pouring down in a political mudslide that sweeps Taiwanese confidence away.
The Gambian incident makes this prospect very clear. Because Ma’s “flexible diplomacy” depends on China’s goodwill, his government needs to prove that China has shown no ill will in the affair. The government assures us that China did not intervene in relations between the Gambia and Taiwan before the Gambia broke off ties, and even suggests that China will not establish diplomatic relations with the Gambia. These assurances are needed to demonstrate that “flexible diplomacy” has not failed.
Is it really such a good idea to make Taiwan’s foreign relations dependent on China’s goodwill? Even if China does not establish diplomatic ties with the Gambia and had no idea about what Jammeh was planning to do, is that any guarantee that Taiwan can maintain diplomatic relations with its existing partners for the foreseeable future? Herein lie the difficulties and limits of “flexible diplomacy” as it exists today.
If we are not clear about the difficulties and limits of “flexible diplomacy,” Taiwan will not be able to get out of its foreign-relations predicament. While Ma’s government concentrates on maintaining the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic partner countries, it has not been able to significantly cut the monetary price that Taiwan pays to keep up the numbers, nor has it widened Taiwan’s space on the international stage to any great extent. Given these realities, Taiwan should prioritize and cherish the de facto diplomatic relations it maintains with nearly 100 countries. If Taiwan fulfills its obligations as a member of the international community, it will enjoy other countries’ respect. That would be much more productive than just pursuing nominal diplomatic relations — an approach that could breach the dam of Taiwan’s foreign relations in the end.
Tung Chen-yuan is a professor in National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of Development Studies.
Translated by Julian Clegg