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Taiwan lanterns

The politics of erasing Taiwan

By Huong Le Thu and Alan H. Yang

In recent years, the diplomatic pressure exerted by China over Taiwan has grown increasingly acute. Beijing not only excludes Taiwan from international organisations, but also seizes Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies using its economic clout. Even in the context of the private sector, Beijing has also begun to intensify its efforts in suppressing international companies to scrub references to Taiwan, instead using “Taiwan, China”. Most recently on July 24th 2018, China pressured the East Asian Olympic Committee (EAOC) leading to the scuppering of Taiwan’s hosting of the first East Asian Youth Games (EAYG) in 2019.

China’s moves to isolate Taiwan in the international arena has two purposes. First, Beijing is eager to convey its political concerns and distrust of Taiwan’s current Tsai administration through direct economic and diplomatic means. Second, Beijing is keen to demonstrate to the Taiwanese people that China is already in a strong position to erase Taiwan internationally.

Isolating Taiwan Internationally

Few people would remember now that the Republic of China (Taiwan) was once among the key members of the United Nations Security Council. Everything changed when UN Resolution 2758  was adopted, which led to the replacement of the Republic of China (Taiwan) by the People’s Republic of China in the UN system, and the gradual usurpation of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies by China. A process still underway today.

Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA) has been blocked by China ever since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) retook power as the ruling party of the island country in 2016. Gestures such as Taiwan’s Health and Welfare Minister, Dr. Tzou-yien Lin, handing out the olive branch to China by not mentioning “Taiwan” in his WHA speech in 2016,  could not facilitate Taiwan’s chances in taking part in the 2017 and 2018 Assembly. In response, China’s diplomatic pressure over Taiwan has caused more than 20 countries to speak for Taiwan by justifying Taipei’s participation and contribution in WHA.

It is true that Taiwan’s diplomatic space has been shrinking, not only in terms of bilateral partners, but also the ability for it to participate or observe in multilateral forums, be them in the realm of politics, trade, industry, academia or sports.

Beijing is fostering a habit of opposing Taiwanese delegates’ participation, not only in inter-governmental organisations such as INTERPOL, WHA and ICAO, where usually Taiwan has no access to, but also in the thematic forums that Taipei has been an observer. One of the most recent examples was the Kimberly Process meeting – a gathering of the diamond industry – in May 2017 in Australia, where the Chinese delegation demanded expelling the Taiwanese team. The habit, although outrageous, is increasingly becoming a norm, and more importantly, an  acquiesced norm.

Friends Bought by Beijing

Last year, Panama – a diplomatic ally of the Republic of China since 1912, a year after the establishment of the Republic, cut ties with Taiwan. As detrimental as the incident was for Taipei, it was  by no means exceptional. Since 2016, there have already been four countries cutting ties with Taiwan. San Tome in late 2016, Panama in 2017, the Dominican Republic and a recent case of Burkina Faso in 2018, all of them switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

In 1969, there were still 71 countries recognising Taiwan (Republic of China) and 48 that recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 2018, ROC has just 18 diplomatic partners left, whereas PRC has 175. Taiwan’s shrinking diplomatic space is like the Arctic – everybody can see the damage, but there is hardly any serious attempt by the international society to mitigate it.

The recent discussion about the potentiality of the Vatican joining the list draws attention back to the effectiveness of China’s strategy of isolating Taiwan. To date, the Vatican has been Taiwan’s highest profile partner and the only remaining European partner.

For a long time, Taiwan has been disappointed by Western liberal democracies that one by one ditched if for the more economically attractive People’s Republic of China (PRC). The European Union, which brands itself as a normative power and most unrelentingly including principles of human rights in its foreign policy, was up to now, the bitterest for Taiwan to swallow. If the Vatican really drops diplomatic ties with Taiwan to embrace China, it means that we have officially reached the end of an era, with the West no longer willing to defend Taiwan.

Taiwan, whose economic boom started earlier than that of China’s has been a sincere partner in providing development assistance, education scholarships and other forms of aid to its partners. But as Beijing  has already become the second largest economy in the world, the economic miracle and political posture it showcases has become increasingly harder for Taiwan to match, and so has its diplomatic attractiveness.

Money is often quoted as the most apparent tool. The story of severing diplomatic ties with São Tomé and Príncipe in 2016 showed that Taiwan was unable to satisfy its US$200 million financial request. Before the break-up with Taiwan, São Tomé and Príncipe had reportedly received a US$800 million deep-water port infrastructure project  by the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) in 2015 as well as investments in shopping malls.

Whilst Panama or other partners dropping out are not beyond the “norm”, the question re-emerges: what will happen when Taiwan losses all its diplomatic partners? With China’s active presence in Africa, it is only a matter of (not long) time that the “Gambia model” will be replicated. The Kingdom of Eswatini is the last ally of Taiwan in Africa, having been resisting China’s soft incentive and hard influence on ground for years. Taiwan has eleven more diplomatic partners in the Caribbean, Central and South America. They, of course, are facing increasing pressure to take side, between being a faithful long term friend and a nouveau riche.

Erasing Taiwan in Civilian Sectors

In April 2018, China delivered forty-four international airline companies an ultimatum, demanding them to change the reference of “Taiwan” on the official websites to “Taiwan, China” before May 25th. The deadline was extended to July 25th by which some airline companies such as Air Canada, British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa were forced to change references to Taiwan.

Nevertheless, a few airline companies responded flexibly. For example, Japan’s JAL and ANA changed “Taiwan” to “Taiwan, China” only on the simplified Chinese web page, but maintained the reference of “Taiwan” in its Japanese and English official website. Among the US airlines, such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines retained the references to Taiwan airports such as “KHH” and “TPE” on July 25th. Air India also adjusted its reference of “Taipei, Taoyaun International Airport, Taiwan” to “Taipei, Taoyuan International Airport, TPE, Chinese Taipei”.

Apart from its pressuring  of international airline companies, Beijing further  overrode the decision made by EAOC through political clout. On July 24th, East Asian Olympic Committee held an interim meeting, which decided to cancel the East Asian Youth Games to be held in Taichung in 2019. In fact, the planning of the EAYG in Taichung had been confirmed as early as October 24th, 2014.  The city government had already invested more than $20 million USD to build sport facilities and stadiums while the EAOC had paid formal visits to Taichung, affirming its remarkable efforts.

Unfortunately, according to a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council, the EAOC decided to cancel the  event, mainly because of “the political forces as well as the independence movement of Taiwan aiming at replacing the current name of the national team in the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.” China has thus expressed its position of resolute opposition. As Beijing retreated its opposition to political intervention over sports,  the politically interfered EAOC was coerced to cancel the EAYG.

Who is isolating whom?

The melting of Arctic ice has brought up a global concern over sea-level rise threatening humanity. Taiwan’s shrinking diplomatic space, just like Arctic ice,  deserves more attention  by the global public.

China is loaded, in terms of concentrated power in its party-state leadership, affluent in money and assertive political will. More recently, as authoritarian Beijing proclaims its “One China Principle” to dismantling the island’s diplomatic allies, it casts a severe challenge to prevailing democratic and liberal values. To buy or not to buy, is a matter of political decision made by Beijing. To carefully scrutinise China’s sharp power and stand for global democracy and liberty is however everybody’s business.

This kind of strong demand is actually a kind of sharp power display.Combines economic and social energy, wrapping political intentions and political intervention, such actions are aimed at eroding Taiwan’s international presence. However, China’s eradication of Taiwan’s international status will also make itself an international troublemaker. While isolating Taiwan, it also forms a self-isolated image of China.

Taiwan is especially grateful for the moral courage of international friends. With shrinking diplomatic space, Taiwan faces a challenging mission – how to maximise its international position with the resources it has? A pragmatic solution suggests focusing on its immediate circle – the neighbouring countries, as its New Southbound Policy is already giving special attention to Southeast Asia. However, a dictum of diversification remains equally prudent.

It is imperative to justify and practice Taiwan regional engagement for the Indo-Pacific framework and partnership, as a strategic and social turn of Taiwanese diplomacy that reinvigorate and focus on positing the importance and contribution of it. To create its indispensability in economic growth, sustainable development, and non-traditional security with regional stakeholders and like-minded partners is the key to seek more supports and safeguard Taiwan’s moral ground resisting China’s diplomatic dissimilating.

In the face of this transnational injustice caused by Beijing’s purposeful intervention, Taiwan should rethink the way to break through. It is imperative to unite a strong and common position among domestic political factions. Both DPP and KMT needs to condemn China’s recent conduct in a bipartisan manner. Only if there is internal consensus and solid support from  the civil society, can Taiwan defend its sovereignty and international presence abroad.

It is also of strategic importance to appeal internationally and seek partnerships in supporting and recognising Taiwan’s leading contribution to sustainable development goals. Only when Taiwan can prove itself to be is  essential to international stakeholders can this island country be spared from its  fate of being erased.

This work was originally published in Taiwan Insight