As last year drew to a close, Taiwan lost several of its dwindling set of diplomatic allies, and China all but claimed victory in the long quest for universal recognition of the Peoples Republic of China.
While Taiwan remained marginalized from traditional international institutions, intensifying protests in Hong Kong raised the specter of military repression in the territories still coveted by Beijing. At celebrations marking 70 years of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) also reasserted China’s ultimate goal of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland.
Then COVID-19 hit. The pandemic has opened deep wounds in the increasingly confrontational relationship between the US and China, such that it should now rightly be called the “Second Cold War.” Each blames the other for starting the pandemic, and each is stumbling through sloppy diplomatic campaigns portraying itself as the responsible superpower.
However, glaring errors that worsened the pandemic and a shared retreat to nationalism have earned both the US and China their fair share of global enmity.
Amid this crisis, Taiwan organized a sophisticated diplomatic initiative that highlights its successful preventive strategies, showcases its manufacturing capacity, and promotes the virtues of democracy as the most competent political system for combating the pandemic.
Taiwan has been recognized among the world’s most rapid responders, imposing early travel restrictions and screenings that prevented outbreaks within the nation. Taiwan mobilized factories to deliver essential protective equipment to its own citizens, and won praise for sending masks and medical supplies around the world.
Meanwhile, China earned suspicion for its heavy-handed donations mandating that recipient countries avoid identifying it as the source of the virus and refuse to join efforts to investigate cover-ups.
Taiwan has never been better positioned to re-engage in the diplomatic competition with China.
Indeed, Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 constitutes the most significant reversal of momentum in its contests with China in the realm of international diplomacy.
Over the past two decades, China’s rise as a superpower corresponded with a diminution of Taiwanese diplomacy.
In the 1990s, Taiwan cultivated extensive financial relationships with its diplomatic allies, and was seen as a “listening donor” — attentive to the needs of the community and a model for small nations to rapidly develop industrial capabilities.
However, in the 2000s, China far outpaced Taiwan in economic growth, and dollar diplomacy proved untenable for Taiwan.
Chinese trade and aid quickly overshadowed Taiwanese initiatives as Beijing utilized its financial clout to lure away diplomatic allegiances that had been nurtured by Taipei, including Dominica, Grenada and Costa Rica.
Following President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) congratulatory phone call to US president-elect Donald Trump in 2016, Beijing resumed its campaign of buying Taipei’s friends, spending big to conquer the final frontier of Taiwan’s international living space.
Taiwan soon lost recognition from Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. By September last year, Taiwan was left with only 15 allied states.
Though Taiwan lost much ground on diplomatic recognition, the military alliance with Washington has maintained its security.Multiple US administrations have committed themselves to providing arms to Taiwan.
In August last year, the Trump administration agreed to arms sales totaling US$8 billion, the fourth package since Trump was elected. Likewise, the administrations of former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama pushed sales totaling US$14 billion and US$15 billion respectively.
However, Washington’s efforts to prevent diplomatic switching to Beijing have been inconsistent.
Crucially, Taiwan and the US have not coordinated a comprehensive economic strategy to compete with Chinese investment.
Although Washington donates substantial amounts of foreign aid to Central American countries, its contributions have plateaued, while China’s steadily rise.
Unwilling to offer more carrots, the Trump administration has opted for sticks.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly warned Central American countries about the consequences of abandoning Taiwan.
In late March, as the eyes of the world were turned to COVID-19, Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which is aimed at defending Taiwan’s remaining allies from Beijing’s advances by threatening punitive measures for diplomatic switching. This posture has covered Taiwan’s military flank as it launched a global public relations campaign to showcase its response to the pandemic and deliver humanitarian aid.
New crises and new power balances create paradigmatic shifts in international alignments. As Taiwan takes stock of the emerging world order, a paradigm shift in its diplomacy is needed.
First, Taiwan must stand ready to form coalitions with the “first movers” that successfully responded to COVID-19, including Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Israel and New Zealand.
These coalitions should focus on harnessing manufacturing, medical and institutional capacities.
Taiwan should resist the urge to join bodies of the old international system, such as the WHO, and be on the frontline of creating new bodies and working groups through official and unofficial links forged from the pandemic.
At this nascent stage, new coalitions can expand scientific, commercial and diplomatic exchanges. These initiatives can start a new chapter in Taiwan’s diplomacy, one where Taiwan is not merely included, but is an international leader.
Taiwan can also use this opportunity to solidify its existing alliances. It already enjoys a reputation for responsiveness, with a history of focusing on community empowerment and disaster relief efforts.
Taiwan’s leaders broadly agree on engaging in capacity-building programs that reduces smaller countries’ dependence on handouts.
Far from being a cunning realpolitik move, this shift must be inspired by Taiwan’s sober realization that it cannot match China’s expensive gifts. Simply put, it is Taiwan’s time to show that, in times of crisis, it is a far more reliable ally than China.
Finally, Taiwan’s best public relations approach is to promote vibrant democracy as a counterexample to China. Together with other first movers, Taiwan has shown that democracies are well-equipped to handle unforeseen crises. Whenever possible, Taiwan should present itself as a credible alternative, without openly condemning China.
Taiwan’s plaudits already pose a threat to Beijing’s propaganda.
Its success has contradicted the CCP’s narrative that its anti-coronavirus campaign demonstrated the advantages of one-party leadership and socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Taiwan represents a direct challenge to the Chinese model by revealing the costs of dictatorial secrecy through its free press.
Beijing’s diplomacy is increasingly characterized by incredulity verging on panic that its aid packages cannot prevent countries from questioning China’s initial strategy to conceal the outbreak.
Countries like Panama and El Salvador have reaped the benefits of abandoning Taiwan for China, though the Trump administration’s threat of punitive measures for potential switchers has redefined the calculation.
Beijing is not expected to cease making threats and sending warships into Taiwanese waters.
Taipei needs not respond to provocations. It can rely on US military aid against Chinese aggression.
the dark frost descending over Sino-American relations has redefined the world order.
Taiwan, together with Hong Kong, represent the loci of conflict between dictatorship and democracy in the “Second Cold War.”
As the fallout from the pandemic comes into sharper focus, their respective fates is to remain the barometer of the contest between the Chinese model and the US.
Still, these conditions have opened surprising opportunities for Taiwan. The nation has lost much ground over the past decades, but it has never been better positioned to regain it.
Robert Portada is an associate professor of political science at Kutztown University. Uttam Paudel is a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University. They are researching Chinese aid and investment strategies in Central America.
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