Sun, Nov 03, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The great scramble for allies

Seeking to capitalize on favorable international events, Taiwan ramped up its ‘checkbook diplomacy’ in the 1990s and early 2000s, including the intense struggle with China for Kiribati in 2003

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Then-minister of foreign affairs Mark Chen shakes hands with Serge Vohor, the then-prime minister of Vanuatu, when the two nations briefly established diplomatic ties in 2004.

Photo: Lin Cheng-kun, Taipei Times

Nov. 4 to Nov. 10

After what the government described as a “long, nervous, tortuous and complicated” negotiating process, Taiwan formalized diplomatic relations with the Pacific island nation of Kiribati on Nov. 7, 2003.

It was the nation’s first diplomatic addition in the 21st century. After Taiwan’s allies dropped like flies in the 1970s in favor of China, the nation still managed to make some gains over the next two decades. Prior to Kiribati, the nation added Palau, Macedonia and Papua New Guinea in 1999 — although the relationship with the latter lasted just over two weeks.

In 2004, a similar situation happened when Taiwan pried Vanuatu from China for a month. That would be Taiwan’s last new ally. It rekindled relations with Nauru and St Lucia in 2005 and 2007, upon which the diplomatic battle between China and Taiwan ended with the inauguration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008, whom China greatly preferred to his predecessor Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

Palau, Nauru and St Lucia remain allies today, while the remaining aforementioned nations have switched to China — most recently Kiribati in September.


Taiwan had been losing allies at a steady rate ever since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Pro-communist states such as Romania and Mongolia ditched the nation immediately, while major countries such as the UK, Sweden and India severed ties in 1950.

But the worst came in the 1970s, starting from Taiwan’s exit from the UN in 1971, and culminating in the US recognizing China in 1979.

After China’s international image plummeted due to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and communism fell in central and eastern Europe, Taiwan sought to take the chance and reverse its isolation through “checkbook diplomacy.”

The battle was on. In Africa alone during the 1990s, Taiwan managed to regain nine allies while adding two new ones. The Gambia, whose establishment of ties with China in 2016, signaled the resumption of the diplomatic war after the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), was on the list.

Nevertheless, many of these relations were short-lived. For example, ties with Lesotho and Niger lasted four years before they switched back to China.

Liberia’s case was even more dramatic. It recognized Taiwan in 1989, switched back to China in 1993 and returned to Taiwan again in 1997 before switching back to China for good in 2003. Eswatini, Taiwan’s last African ally, is the only country on the continent to have never recognized Beijing.

Papua New Guinea’s case in the summer of 1999 was due to local politics. According to a Radio Australia report on July 6, Papua New Guinea prime minister Bill Skate led a secret mission to Taiwan to raise the funds he needs to meet a critical budget shortfall and possibly to save his embattled government. It added that diplomatic ties would be “established shortly” for a package of over US$2 billion. Skate abruptly resigned the next day, and the new government switched back to China two weeks later.


The fall of communism in the Eastern Bloc only led to one ally for Taiwan — war-torn Macedonia in 1999. The relationship lasted two years, and Macedonia became the first nation to cut ties with Taiwan in the 21st century. Nauru would be the next to go in 2002.

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