Taiwan President Tsai Yingwen shakes hands with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Taiwan faced two consecutive diplomatic blows in the past month when the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, two Pacific island nations, broke diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing. Kiribati was the seventh diplomatic ally to cut ties with Taipei during President Tsai Yingwen’s administration, leaving Taiwan with only 15 remaining allies.[i] According to President Tsai, Beijing’s purpose in turning Taiwan’s allies is to “diminish Taiwan’s international presence, hurt the Taiwanese people, and gradually suppress and eliminate Taiwan’s sovereignty.”[ii] In response to increased efforts by Beijing to isolate Taiwan and force unification, Taiwan must do everything in its power to retain its remaining allies while continuing to pursue and strengthen its unofficial relations with developed and stable countries, such as the U.S., Japan, or Australia.
As part of China’s national rejuvenation under President Xi Jinping, Beijing identified unification of Taiwan as a “core interest” and, in last few years, engaged in coercive tactics to achieve this goal. China’s aggressive behaviors toward Taiwan include economic means, such as interest transformation where Chinese trade policies seek to influence Taiwanese public interests regarding cross-strait trade; political means, such as interference in Taiwan’s 2018 elections; diplomatic means, such as isolating Taiwan from its current allies by economically coercing other countries to recognize the One China principle; and military means, such as the military demonstrations including increasing “island encirclement patrols” over the past few years and, on April 2019, flying aircraft over Taiwan while conducting live-fire drills near the island.[iii] Therefore, the U.S. must continue supporting Taiwan and its participation on the world stage to help Taiwan resist China’s poaching of its diplomatic allies under a coercive unification scheme and to counter China’s strategic spread of influence in the Pacific.
Taiwan must take all possible and reasonable steps to retain its remaining diplomatic partners and remain integrated within the international community. Currently, Taiwan is a member of more than 150 international organizations, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, the International Olympic Committee, and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council. Twelve of these organizations still permit Taiwan to use “ROC” or “Taiwan” for its official title, but an increasing number of them have changed its title to “Taiwan-China” or “Taipei-China.”[iv]
These connections are crucial to Taiwan’s success and its ability to resist China’s coercive unification efforts, which include military intimidation, political interference, economic pressure, and diplomatic isolation.[v] Huang Kwei-bo, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies at National Chengchi University, emphasized that if Taiwan loses all of its allies or is blocked from attending international events, it could create serious issues for the society’s viability.[vi] For example, if the World Health Assembly holds an international conference regarding the appropriate responses to the outbreak of a dangerous virus, Taiwan could be shut out and deprived of life-saving, first-hand information and resources. Moreover, if Taiwan is no longer a member of the WTO, it could significantly impact Taiwan’s economic health and its ability to operate as an international trading economy.
Although Taiwan may not be interested in joining every international organization, Taiwan’s sustained involvement in these groups provides “invaluable insight into the setting and content of the international agenda.”[vii] Huang also stated, “If we were left out from international organizations, not only would our decision makers be unable to learn new concepts, [but] our overall decision-making system might go wrong too.”[viii] He recommended Taiwan take all necessary steps to secure its status in more international groups. Alliances and relations through international involvement, both formal and informal, help Taipei retain legitimacy with its democratic domestic audience and preserve international support, both essential elements for deterring China’s forced unification.
China’s recent poaching of Taiwan’s allies is attributed to China’s attempts to influence Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections in favor of the pro-Beijing Kuomintang (KMT) candidate, Han Kuo-yu. The Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it is “absolutely evident that China, through this case, deliberately seeks to influence Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and legislative elections.”[ix] Mr. Han may attempt to use these recent diplomatic breaks to criticize President Tsai’s ability to maintain diplomatic ties and Taiwan’s international status. These diplomatic losses and subsequent criticisms by the KMT could severely impact President Tsai’s reelection chances, especially if the Taiwanese electorate is concerned about the potential economic impacts that could stem from growing tensions with Beijing. Similar attempts at influencing and interfering with Taiwanese elections by Beijing has been seen before, like in the 2018 elections and recent economic transformation attempts by Beijing in Taiwanese constituencies to encourage Taiwan’s public to support trade with China.[x]
Beijing’s Self-Defeating Strategy
However, not all hope is lost for President Tsai because China’s actions may end up working in the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) favor. First, President Tsai succeeded in strengthening unofficial relations with more powerful nations, namely with the U.S., and Southeast Asian countries through the New Southbound Policy, mitigating the negative impacts of China’s wooing of smaller diplomatic partners. Moreover, China’s interference with Taiwan’s international standing could backfire similarly to the 2000 Taiwan presidential elections, when China’s coercion and interference provoked the election of the first DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian.[xi] Furthermore, in light of the recent Hong Kong protests and China’s continued intimidation of Taiwan, domestic audiences in Taiwan may resist a more China-friendly strategy that a KMT candidate would bring into office.[xii] While the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections is still far from certain, these recent actions by China could end up benefiting President Tsai by demonstrating both the lack of respect China gives to Taiwan’s people and their democratic values as well as the infeasibility of China’s “one country, two systems” offer.[xiii]
In response, the U.S. must continue supporting Taiwan and encouraging its relations with like-minded countries such as Japan, Australia, and European Union members. The U.S. still possesses a vested interest in Taiwan’s security against Chinese aggression. US interests include the defense of a fellow democratic society, the importance of Taiwan’s geostrategic position in East Asia, and the broader implications of US legitimacy and credibility with security commitments.[xiv]
Furthermore, as the U.S. and China compete for influence in the Pacific, China’s latest moves are gaining momentum. Both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati lie in vital waters in the Pacific, an arena of increasing U.S.-China strategic competition.[xv] Consequently, the U.S. must strive to deepen engagement with Taiwan through economic and security means while also encouraging its allies to do the same. The goal of this engagement is to achieve a Taiwan strengthened against Chinese coercion and maintain regional stability characterized by a China that focuses on peaceful unification with Taiwan.
The American Role
One way to achieve increased economic engagement is through the creation of a bilateral free trade agreement with Taiwan that promotes trade growth and increases the attractiveness and competitiveness of Taiwan as a thriving, vibrant, innovative economy. This approach could also encourage like-minded countries to pursue increased trade engagement with Taiwan. A second important step is to build on the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that called for increased senior-level military-to-military exchanges, including an invitation to observe, and potentially participate in, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) in 2020.[xvi] An invitation to observe RIMPAC exercises would establish an opening through which Taiwan can integrate itself into multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises, and it would further propel Taiwan onto the world stage. Both levels of engagement risk provoking retaliation by China, but this is a tolerable price for the U.S. to pay to prepare a security partner for realistic contingencies and to enhance deterrence against a growing superpower.[xvii]
Ultimately, Taiwan must pursue all possible avenues to advance international integration by maintaining its remaining alliances while continuing its unofficial relations with other nations. Although China’s aggressive tactics allowed Beijing to successfully pilfer several diplomatic allies from Taiwan in an attempt to influence Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections, there is a possibility it proves futile in achieving China’s objectives. Nonetheless, China will continue its intimidation efforts to force Taiwan into unification. Therefore, the U.S. must cultivate resilience against China’s potential retaliation while buffering against China’s continued pressure towards Taiwan. This will ensure the United States stays true to its interests and commitments.
[i] Philip Wen, “Taiwan Loses Another Diplomatic Tie, as China Continues Isolation Campaign,” Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/taiwan-loses-another-diplomatic-tie-as-china-continues-isolation-campaign-11568985580.
[ii] Chris Horton, “In Blow to Taiwan, Solomon Islands Is Said to Switch Relations to China,” New York Times, September 16, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/16/world/asia/solomon-islands-taiwan-china.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FChina.
[iii] William Norris, Chinese Economic Statecraft: Commercial Actors, Grand Strategy, and State Control, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.; Josh Rogin, “China’s interference in the 2018 elections succeeded — in Taiwan,” Washington Post, Dec. 18, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2018/12/18/chinas-interference-elections-succeeded-taiwan/?utm_term=.e91eb5a5dc22.; Michael Mazza, “The National Defense Authorization Act and U.S. Policy toward Taiwan,” in Strengthening U.S.-Taiwan Defense Relations Roundtable, (The National Bureau of Asian Research: Political and Security Affairs, May 2018). https://www.nbr.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/us-taiwan_defense_relations_roundtable_may2018.pdf.; Yimou Lee, “Taiwan president says Chinese drills a threat but not intimidated,” Reuters, April 15, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-taiwan/taiwan-president-says-chinese-drills-a-threat-but-not-intimidated-idUSKCN1RS03B.
[iv] Lawrence Chung, “Should Taiwan be worried if it loses all its allies?” South China Morning Post, September 1, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2162316/can-defiant-taiwan-hang-its-allies-and-sovereignty-beijing-puts.
[v] Josh Rogin, “The United States must help Taiwan resist Chinese dominance.”
[vi] Lawrence Chung, “Should Taiwan be worried if it loses all its allies?”
[ix] Chris Horton, “In Blow to Taiwan, Solomon Islands Is Said to Switch Relations to China.”
[x] William Norris, Chinese Economic Statecraft: Commercial Actors, Grand Strategy, and State Control.; Josh Rogin, “China’s interference in the 2018 elections succeeded — in Taiwan.”
[xi] Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
[xii] Yimou Lee, “Activists urge Taiwan to join fight for Hong Kong democracy,” Reuters, Sept. 3, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-protests-taiwan/activists-urge-taiwan-to-join-fight-for-hong-kong-democracy-idUSKCN1VO123.
[xiii] Steven Lee Myers and Chris Horton, “As Taiwan Loses Influence, China Gains Ground in Race With U.S.,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/world/asia/taiwan-kiribati-china.html.
[xiv] Michael Mazza, “The National Defense Authorization Act and U.S. Policy toward Taiwan.”; Robert Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, New York: Random House, 2014.; Shelly Rigger, Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2011.
[xv] Steven Lee Myers and Chris Horton, “As Taiwan Loses Influence, China Gains Ground in Race With U.S.”
[xvi] KG Chan, “After F-16 deal, Taiwan aims to join RIMPAC 2020,” Asia Times, September 16, 2019, https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/09/article/after-f-16-deal-taiwan-aims-to-join-rimpac-2020/; Michael Mazza, “The National Defense Authorization Act and U.S. Policy toward Taiwan.”
[xvii] Michael Mazza, “The National Defense Authorization Act and U.S. Policy toward Taiwan.”