Despite the challenges and diplomatic reversals, Taiwan is in many ways more connected to the international community today than it was during the ‘diplomatic truce’ with China, and its existence as a sovereign state remains secure.
Given the highly publicized loss of two of Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies in December last year and June this year, and the possibility that a few more countries could jump ship in the coming months, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Beijing’s renewed pressure on the international community following Tsai Ing-wen’s election has sparked an irreversible domino-effect of abandonment of the democratic nation-state. But as official allies switch recognition, Taiwan is actively but quietly strengthening unofficial ties with a number of key states.
Undoubtedly the “diplomatic truce” that prevailed during the years of accommodation under President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) has come to an end, with Beijing unilaterally deciding to punish Taiwan by intensifying its efforts to lure countries that have retained official diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan). Besides Sao Tomé and Principe in December 2016 and Panama in June this year, China has also increased the pressure on various states worldwide to force Taiwan’s representative offices to change their official designation so as to downgrade symbols of de facto statehood. In recent weeks, the UAE, Bahrain, Ecuador, Jordan, and Nigeria have all requested Taiwan rename its representative offices to “Taipei Trade Office” following Chinese demands. And Beijing has actively blocked efforts by Taiwan to participate in multilateral forums such as the World Health Assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and Interpol, among others.
The “loss” of Panama, one of the ROC’s longstanding diplomatic allies, was seen as a particular blow to Taiwan, which now counts only 20 states, mostly small ones, with which it has official ties. Soon after the announcement, various headlines in global media suggested that the international community was abandoning Taiwan, with the implication that diplomatic isolation would compel the proud democracy of 23.5 million people to give in to Beijing’s demands and agree, however begrudgingly, to be annexed.
Whether a domino effect is in the making remains uncertain. While the Xi Jinping government no doubt intends to inflict pain on President Tsai for her refusal — supported by the Taiwanese public — to acknowledge the so-called “1992 consensus” and “one China,” its primary consideration for establishing diplomatic relations with Panama (and perhaps Nicaragua next) may well have been financial and geo-strategic amid a perceived lack of U.S. leadership in the Americas and China’s increasingly global economic reach. Whatever the motive, and as states seek to further their national interests, it will be difficult for Taiwan to compete, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, with China, which has embarked on a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure spending spree worldwide. Therefore, for reasons political or purely related to economics, Taiwan will likely lose a few more allies in the lead-up to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th party congress in late October or early November, and perhaps a few more after that.
The impact of de-recognition, however, should not be overstated. As Taiwan’s pragmatic reaction to such developments has demonstrated, the loss of mostly small and oftentimes parasitical official diplomatic allies is entirely survivable and does not have a significant impact on Taiwan’s ability to function as a sovereign state. In cases where Taiwan has been forced to close its embassy, follow-up bilateral negotiations have led to the opening of reciprocal representative offices that will continue to process visas, foster exchanges and promote trade. And although an ambassadorial post may have more career value to Taiwan’s diplomatic corps, in reality none of the official allies or combination thereof — UN vote notwithstanding — holds enough clout to provide substantial assistance to Taiwan at the diplomatic level.
Taiwanese, who have lived with the specter of such losses for decades, appear to have internalized this reality, which helps explain the absence of panic following de-recognition.
With this in mind, it could be argued that Taiwan could lose all of its remaining 20 official diplomatic allies and wake up the next morning seeing its sovereignty still sound and safe. While official recognition carries symbolic (and perhaps psychological) weight, it does not confer meaningful protection, let alone assurances, in the face of Chinese annexationism. Taiwanese, who have lived with the specter of such losses for decades, appear to have internalized this reality, which helps explain the absence of panic following de-recognition. This pragmatic approach has served Taiwan well by diminishing the political returns for Beijing, which could very well conclude at some point that the strategy is yet another iteration of its failed cross-Strait policy. It could also eventually conclude that bringing the number of Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies to zero would forever close this specific kind of leverage, such as it is, against Taiwan. (Although this is unlikely to transpire due to foreign perceptions and an institutional attachment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to official relations, Taipei could expedite that process by stating explicitly that it does not care about official ties and welcomes Beijing to take the remainder.) It is also conceivable that China’s sweeping up several of Taiwan’s official allies would compel Taipei’s partners, who for various reasons have a stake in Taiwan remaining sovereign, to strengthen unofficial ties with Taiwan.
The theoretical framework for a country’s existence as a sovereign state without official recognition was already established under the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States of Dec. 26, 1933, which stipulates that “the political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states” as long as it possesses a permanent population; a defined territory; government; and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. Clearly under the definition put forth by what is known as the declarative theory of statehood, Taiwan meets all those conditions. Its unique position within the international community would only require an updated version of the Convention’s theoretical framework.
Misreading the tea leaves
Still, the idea itself that the international community is “deserting” Taiwan relies on a misreading of Taiwan’s role within the international community and of the actions it has taken behind the scenes to counteract Beijing’s efforts. While China has successfully won over a handful of small states, Taiwan has been actively engaging democratic allies — several of them in the G20 category — unofficially, expanding trade, government-to-government exchanges, security cooperation and interactions at various levels. The New Southbound Policy, launched by the Tsai administration last year, has been part of that process, and could eventually secure closer ties with major economies (and China competitors) such as India. Meanwhile, relations with Japan, the U.S., Singapore, Australia, the U.K., Canada and several other countries have also expanded in recent years and will continue to do so as leading democracies (or agencies in those countries) re-evaluate their relationship with authoritarian China. Exchanges at the non-governmental, foundation and municipal levels, as well as reciprocal parliamentary visits, have been growing steadily, and Taiwan recorded its largest-ever number of foreign tourist arrivals last year despite a marked drop in Chinese arrivals. As a natural ideological ally, a responsible stakeholder and a major trade partner to many countries, Taiwan is a natural partner for a fledging democratic counteroffensive, and after eight years of sagged global public diplomacy under President Ma (largely due to his focus on China), its outreach efforts have grown and should continue to grow (issues such as the legalization of same-sex marriage are the kind of “soft power” items that have boosted Taiwan’s international visibility).
Taiwan is an idiosyncratic phenomenon in the history of nations, and its ability to survive — and to prosper — as a sovereign entity cannot solely be judged through the lens of conventional theories of statehood.
Already since Tsai’s inauguration, Japan has sent its senior-most diplomat to Taiwan since establishing of official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China — Senior Vice Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama in March — and a handful of states, the U.S. among them, have been evaluating the possibility of allowing visits by higher-ranking officials. Moreover, for every representative office that has been forced to change its name due to Chinese pressure, a number of reciprocal offices (Japan’s among them) have altered their designations in recent years to better reflect the full-fledged nature of bilateral exchanges with Taiwan. And finally, continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, such as the US$1.363 billion package announced on Thursday, key statements such as those made by U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, steady mil-mil relations, and the approval this week of a bill by a U.S. Senate committee calling for the resumption of port visits by U.S. Navy vessels to Taiwan — for the first time since 1979 — constitute in the aggregate a firm restating of Washington’s longstanding commitments to Taiwan.
Arguably, much of the positive developments that have occurred at the unofficial level in the past year have not caught the attention of the media, in large part due to the careful approach taken by the Tsai administration, which is aware that too much publicity would only attract Beijing’s attention and cause it to add pressure on Taiwan’s important unofficial partners, which could very well pull out as a result.
Taiwan is an idiosyncratic phenomenon in the history of nations, and its ability to survive — and to prosper — as a sovereign entity cannot solely be judged through the lens of conventional theories of statehood. When approached from the right perspective, it becomes clear that challenges and reversals notwithstanding, Taiwan is not facing the kind of international isolation that would threaten its survival.