Taipei contemplates friendless future as Beijing woos remaining allies

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen waves to assembled guests from the deck of the ‘Ming Chuan’ frigate during a ceremony to commission two Perry-class guided missile frigates from the U.S. into the Taiwan Navy, in the southern port of Kaohsiung on November 8, 2018. Chris Stowers | AFP | Getty Images. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

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TAIPEI, Sep 29, 2019, SCMP. Taiwan is wondering how many diplomatic allies it can afford to lose as Beijing’s persistent poaching brings the self-ruled island’s number of official friends to 15. Taipei has watched seven of its allies switch recognition to Beijing since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party became president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle, reported the South China Morning Post.

A report by Taiwan’s National Security Council released on Wednesday said the mainland was expected to try to poach one or two more allies before the end of the year in an effort to influence the island’s presidential election in January, at which Tsai will be seeking a second term.

Beijing’s growing military threats and acts of suppression against the island were evidence that it “will resort to any means to interfere in the 2020 elections and to further pressure Taiwan internationally”, the report said.

The loss this month of two of Taiwan’s six friends in the Pacific – the Solomon Islands and Kiribati – and the growing prospect of losing all of its remaining allies, has prompted a discussion among Taiwanese media and politicians about whether the island could survive if the number of countries officially recognising it fell to zero.

While most of the Taiwanese public has accepted the switch, analysts warn Taipei is at risk of losing its sovereign status if cross-strait relations continue to deteriorate.

When the Solomon Islands and Kiribati ditched Taipei for Beijing within days of each other, an enraged Tsai hit out at what she viewed as a Beijing gimmick to discourage the locals from re-electing her.
“China has chosen this time to strike a series of blows against Taiwan because only slightly more than 100 days remain until our presidential election,” Tsai said soon after Kiribati’s switch on September 20.

She also reiterated that Taiwan would never accept the “one country, two systems” formula proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in January as a model for cross-strait unification talks with the one-China principle as the foundation.

Beijing, which considers the island a wayward province to be returned to the mainland fold by force if necessary, has warned other countries against forging ties with Taipei. It has also insisted, when establishing diplomatic ties around the world, that countries acknowledge its one-China policy, which places Taiwan as part of the mainland.

Analysts suggest the support of big powers like the United States should ensure the island’s survival, although its participation in international affairs would be limited if it no longer enjoyed the status necessary for major global exchanges.

“When the Republic of China has no more diplomatic allies, it means the ROC no longer exists and Taiwan would technically be considered a mainland province under Beijing’s one-China policy,” said former foreign minister Francisco Ou Hung-lien, using Taiwan’s official name.

Ou said that under international law maintenance of diplomatic allies and recognition was one way to prove statehood. Without recognition it would be difficult for Taiwan to demonstrate the necessary statehood to take part in major international events, like the World Health Assembly.

The longer Taiwan was shut out from international events, the more isolated the island would become and consequently more ignorant of global changes, he said.

But Fan Shih-ping, a professor of political science at National Taiwan Normal University, said that as long as Taiwan was not controlled by Beijing, it would still be a “sovereign entity independent from the People’s Republic of China”.

“Being a sovereign independent entity, even if Taiwan lost all its allies, it would still have its people, land and government system which all provide the conditions necessary for the constitution of a sovereign state,” he said, adding that Taiwan had been able to adjust itself well enough since it was ousted by the United Nations in 1970 in favour of Beijing as the sole representative of China.

Fan said that poaching all of Taiwan’s allies would prove only that the “ROC title” had no value in the world and prompt the island to become totally independent.

As Taiwan has lost its diplomatic allies so questions have been raised about the future validity of its passports.

However, Yen Chen-shen, a senior researcher at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, said it was unlikely to be much of a problem as the island had already established visa-waiver programmes with several countries.

“Taiwan has visa-free arrangements with 146 countries, more than twice the 70 that allow such easy passage for [Chinese] mainland visitors,” he said.

It was unlikely that any of those 146 would renege on their deals even if Taiwan lost all of its diplomatic allies, as travel and diplomacy were two separate things, Yen said.

“Take Hong Kong for example. It is not a state, but its people are given visa-free treatment by 168 countries.”

What was more important was for Taiwan to maintain a strong economy as that would allow it to sign economic pacts with other countries and gain their support in terms of joining global organisations, Yen said.

“But pressure from mainland China will push more countries and organisations to see Taiwan as a province of China just as many private companies have already done,” he said.

Scholar-turned DPP lawmaker Lo Chih-cheng said that as long as Taiwan maintained amicable relations with major powers like the US, Australia and the European Union, these countries would continue to support Taiwan’s participation in international events.

“Take the Pacific island nations for example, the US has a certain influence within countries like the Marshall Islands in the region,” Lo said, adding this would affect their decisions on what to do with Taiwan.

The Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu, four of Taiwan’s remaining allies in the Pacific, on Thursday joined major countries like the United States, Canada, France, Germany and Britain – which do not maintain official ties with Taiwan – in voicing their support for Taiwan’s participation in the International Civil Aviation Organisation meeting in Montreal.

Meanwhile, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Wednesday passed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act to support Taiwan’s global presence.

The bill authorises the US secretary of state to consider modification of US diplomatic presence in nations that take action to downgrade official or unofficial ties with Taiwan.

It further directs the US government to advocate Taiwan’s membership in international organisations in which statehood is not required and to speak for Taiwan’s observer status in other international organisations.

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