The Republic of China (ROC) on Thursday severed ties with Burkina Faso. Since President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) inauguration in May 2016, Taiwan has lost three other diplomatic allies: Sao Tome and Principe in December 2016, Panama in June last year and the Dominican Republic on April 30.
For the second year running, Taiwanese representatives were blocked from attending the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, following pressure from China, which also allegedly sent letters to all of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies warning them not to speak up on Taiwan’s behalf.
The events came in the context of China sending an ultimatum to airlines around the world demanding that they change the nomenclature on their booking Web sites to identify Taiwan as a part of China, many of which shamefully caved in to pressure, incurring mockery and wrath on social media in the process.
In Taiwan, media have dedicated huge amounts of their news cycles to poring over Burkina Faso’s cold-shouldering of Taiwan and Taiwan’s decision to “proactively” sever ties, which now appears to be little more than a thinly veiled face-saving exercise in bolting the stable door sans equine.
As usual, much of the commentary surrounding the ROC’s diplomatic woes internalizes an anguished hand-wrought assumption that Taiwan has been somehow economically and political damaged by the loss of an “ally,” despite many of these allies being net beneficiaries of official relations with Taiwan, rather than the other way around.
What exactly has Taiwan lost, materially, from severing ties with Burkina Faso? This is a nation whose liberation from colonial subjugation was tragically cut short by a Western-backed coup that toppled and murdered the popular and democratically elected socialist leader Thomas Sankara.
It was then ruled for 27 years by a French client dictatorship, which collapsed in 2014 when the public objected to it amending the Burkinabe constitution to extend its rule.
There have been two failed attempts at a coup d’etat in 2015 and 2016 against Burkinabe President Roch Kabore, the first non-interim majority-elected president in 49 years without any past ties to the military.
In 2014 it was described as one of the least-developed nations in the world, featuring just one railway line.
The people of Burkina Faso might have benefited a little from diplomatic relations with the ROC, in expanded trade or technology and skills transfer, but the benefits for Taiwan have been ephemeral.
Burkina Faso, along with the other three nations to cut ties with Taiwan, have provided little to no substantive “ally-ship” for Taiwan, outside of symbolic words of support, on the international stage since the ROC walked out of the UN in 1971.
At last count, the ROC on Taiwan has 18 diplomatic allies: one in Africa, one in Europe, six in Oceania, four in the Caribbean, five in Central America and one in South America.
However, Taiwan has non-diplomatic relations with the EU and 47 other states. The ROC lost the largest tranche of its allies between 1971 and 1973, conceding 37, then losing another 10 within five years. It then regained seven allies between 1978 and 1990, before the end of the Cold War and the normalization of the West’s relations with China saw Beijing turn its attention to eliminating the ROC’s international presence and visibility, a policy that went into a higher gear as soon as Taiwan elected a non-Chinese nationalist as president.
Of the net five allies lost between 1990 and 2012, eight were ceded between 2000 and 2012, and another five since then, at least two of which occurred during the pro-China presidency of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), despite his unilaterally declared policy of a diplomatic truce with China.
Ma’s recognition of the fabricated “1992 consensus” did not change China’s policy in regards to Taiwan’s international space and representation.
Many of those surprised by Beijing’s intransigence and obstinacy on this issue are the same people who failed to note that China had never publicly agreed to the “separate interpretations” component of the “consensus” that was supposedly built upon it.
Finally, those who blast Tsai for losing allies because of causing “tension” in cross-strait relations are either seeking to gain political capital from a process largely out of her control or who have so internalized the Zhongnanhai policy that they are unable to see the several thousand missiles pointing at Taiwan, now under control of the most powerful Chinese president since Mao Zedong (毛澤東).
It is clear that China has been neither quietly nor subtly advancing its hegemonic goals in the region. Taiwan has been watching Beijing build and militarize islands in the South China Sea for the past five years.
The UN has noticed this too, but it can only do so much. With China on the UN Security Council as a permanent member, there is little chance that the UN General Assembly will ever muster the courage to demand Taiwan’s accession to the body as a full member.
If it can do little to sanction or restrain Israel’s occupation of Palestine, in direct contravention of UN resolutions, it will do nothing for a nation like Taiwan, which only suffers the indignity of being a fully formed nation, but not recognized as such because it has the wrong name codified into an anachronistic Constitution imported onto its people by force in 1949.
Despite the limitations of the UN model of international relations, seeking membership in the UN remains a worthy goal, and every democratic Taiwanese government should continue efforts to maximize and extend international participation.
At the same time, Taiwan has shown that it can and does maintain healthy unofficial government and deep trade relations with a large number of key developed nations.
To what extent, for example, do its 18 allies contribute to Taiwan being, according to the IMF this year, the 23rd-largest economy in the world?
Instead of wailing about losing allies and watching passively as China bullies, bribes, cajoles and blackmails more of its allies to switch recognition, Taiwan should take a more proactive approach to distinguish itself.
First, it should rename the Mainland Affairs Council as the China Affairs Office and subsume it within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Second, all National Immigration Agency offices and customs stations should direct all Chinese visitors and residents to use the counters and lines for foreign visitors and residents rather than have their own special “not quite foreigner” section.
Third, Taiwan should follow the UK’s example and rename all of its unofficial representative offices as “Taiwan Office.”
It should put “Republic of China” in parentheses on all official documents, Web sites, and embassies and consulate nameplates rather than “Taiwan” as is currently the case.
Fourth, it should hire security for all events where it has a presence internationally, such as trade fairs, school exchanges and sports events. Anyone or government-paid agitators seeking to bully Taiwanese participating peacefully should know that Taiwan will not let itself be a victim so easily any more.
Finally, it should demand that no Taiwanese organization that participates on the international stage and that formally represents Taiwan can use the name “Chinese Taipei” or any other self-depreciating variant thereof. This should start with the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
There is no more time for Taiwan to walk with its head down and hope that China will let it quietly exist or thrive on the international stage. China wants to destroy the very concept of Taiwan as a nation or a people, and erase them from history.
There is no danger of offending a nation that regards your existence as an offense. While it must maintain a sufficient military deterrent to deter Chinese adventurism, Taiwan should hold its head up high and declare itself proudly, regardless of how many allies it has. It might find that that attracts more true allies in the long run.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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