Taiwan Takes “pragmatic” Approach to Retaining Its Formal Allies Despite Pressure from China - Latest Global News

Taiwan Takes “pragmatic” Approach to Retaining Its Formal Allies Despite Pressure from China

Taipei, Taiwan – Hundreds of foreign delegates were in Taipei last month to attend the swearing-in of William Lai Ching-te as Taiwan’s fifth elected president.

Beijing, which claims the democratic island as its own, branded Lai a “separatist” and “troublemaker.” But that did not stop no fewer than 508 foreign delegates from attending the ceremony and having a front-row seat for the colorful parade and flypast.

But although some of them came from countries such as Japan, Britain and the United States, few were actual heads of state or high-ranking officials.

They came from Taiwan’s 12 remaining official diplomatic allies, including the King of Eswatini, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu and the President of Paraguay. Their countries’ flags were displayed throughout the inauguration site alongside the Taiwanese flag, and there was a special round of applause for each head of state during the ceremony.

The day before the inauguration, future President Lai and Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim also took the foreign heads of state shrimp fishing.

“The Taiwanese government values ​​its diplomatic allies,” Assistant Professor Fang-Yu Chen of the Department of Political Science at Soochow University in Taipei told Al Jazeera.

The flags of the diplomatic delegations displayed in front of the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry on the eve of Lai’s inauguration ceremony [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Since 2016, when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by Tsai Ing-wen took over the presidency, Beijing has increased pressure on the island, which then had 22 formal allies. Beijing’s officials rejected all offers of talks and stepped up efforts to court the island’s then 22 diplomatic allies.

Lai’s victory in January had similar consequences: just a few days later, the Pacific island of Nauru switched sides and Beijing criticized countries like the Philippines, which had congratulated Lai on his victory.

Facing continued pressure from China, Taiwan is trying to hold on to its former allies by emphasizing shared values ​​and principles of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. But according to Brian Hioe, a political commentator and founder of Taiwanese magazine New Bloom, the reality is more complicated.

“It’s about geopolitics,” Hioe told Al Jazeera.

Geopolitics at play

This geopolitics was on full display last April, when Tsai stopped off in the United States on her way to and from Central America, where she visited her diplomatic allies Belize and Guatemala.

During her trip through the United States, she met several US officials, including then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy.

A few months later, Lai, then vice president, also stopped in the United States to meet with American officials during a trip to Paraguay in South America.

Although the United States has formal relations with China, it is Taiwan’s most important political and military partner and is legally obligated to provide the island with the means to defend itself, pursuing what it calls a policy of “strategic ambiguity.”

Meetings between Taiwanese and US politicians have often caused anger in Beijing, which has not shied away from using force to take control of Taiwan.

When then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui officially visited Cornell University in the United States to give a speech in 1995, Beijing responded by firing missiles into the waters around Taiwan. This later became known as the Third Taiwan Crisis.

A similar situation occurred when then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022 and Beijing responded with military exercises of unprecedented proportions around the island.

William Lai and King Mswati III of Eswatini fish for shrimps at a shrimp farm in Taiwan. Lai has just caught a shrimp and it dangles from the line. The king claps. They look happy and relaxed.
Lai took King Mswati III of Eswatini (left) and other dignitaries who were in Taipei for the inauguration on a fishing expedition to the Zhishan shrimp farm. [Aden Hsu/Pool via AFP]

For Taiwan, “transit diplomacy” is an important and discreet way to maintain relations with the United States without triggering an angry reaction from China, Chen said.

“That’s one of the reasons why Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are very important, even though they are all quite small economically and demographically,” he said.

Another reason is the voice of these countries in various international forums.

Taiwan’s seat at the United Nations was transferred to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, and in the following years the island also lost its membership in other international organizations to Beijing.

“But Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have a seat at the table in these organizations that they can use to speak on Taiwan’s behalf and propose resolutions in support of Taiwan,” Chen said.

In May, for example, at the opening of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Switzerland, which is part of the United Nations World Health Organization, several formal allies spoke out in favor of Taiwan’s admission.

Despite Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, Taiwanese politicians often refer to Taiwan as the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) to emphasize their position that the island is a separate territory from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which was established in 1949 at the end of the civil war.

Hioe of New Bloom says the island’s official allies are helping to push this story forward.

“One of the definitions of statehood is diplomatic recognition by other states,” he said. “As long as Taiwan has diplomatic allies, it can meet the definition of statehood to a certain extent.”

Pragmatism instead of ideology

Such a pragmatic approach could lead to so-called common values, such as human rights, falling by the wayside, says Hioe.

Taiwan has maintained formal diplomatic relations with Haiti since 1956.

The Caribbean nation has been rocked by gang violence and civil unrest since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021, and the human rights situation has deteriorated sharply, according to a UN report in March.

“Despite all this talk about diplomatic allies, little attention is paid to the human rights situation in many of these countries,” Hioe said.

Taiwan condemned Moise’s murder as “cruel and barbaric,” but the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry focused primarily on the security of its diplomatic staff – after the murder, a group of armed men broke into the island’s embassy building.

A Taiwanese diplomat expressed confidence in March that diplomatic relations between Haiti and Taiwan would remain stable “given the cordial relations between the Taiwanese embassy and Haitian groups across the political spectrum.”

Taipei also attaches great importance to stable relations with Eswatini, its only official partner in Africa, and provides the country with considerable development aid despite human rights violations and the lack of legitimate democratic institutions.

Eswatini is one of the last absolute monarchies on the continent.

In 2021, the government cracked down on pro-democracy protesters, resulting in the deaths of 46 people.

Last year, a prominent opposition politician and human rights lawyer was killed in his home by unknown assailants.

His widow later said that Taiwan’s aid had supported a dictator and that “if Taiwan claims to be a democracy, if Taiwan supports and values ​​the rule of law, then Taiwan will help the people of Swaziland,” referring to the country’s official name until 2018.

Following their criticism, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that bilateral cooperation with the government and people of Eswatini would continue.

According to Yao-Yuan Yeh, an associate professor who teaches Chinese studies at St. Thomas University in the United States, Taipei is aware of the democratic shortcomings of some of its diplomatic allies.

“But Taiwan’s relations with its allies are driven by pragmatism rather than ideology,” he told Al Jazeera. “Taiwan has few allies left, so the view is that it cannot afford to push any of them away and risk losing them to China.”

“Dollar diplomacy”

However, the DPP’s pragmatic approach has so far failed to prevent countries from switching sides.

São Tomé and Príncipe was the first country to switch allegiance to Beijing after Tsai’s election in 2016.

Over the years, more and more went over to Beijing. In January, just days after Lai’s election victory, it was Nauru’s turn.

Mao Ning, spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, referred to the “one China principle” when asked about the decision at a regular press conference.

“There is only one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legal government representing all of China,” she said.

Analysts are more prosaic in their comments.

“Money,” said Yeh. “The price has to be right.”

Taiwan calls this “dollar diplomacy,” a characterization that Beijing rejects.

Last year, the government of Honduras reportedly turned to the Taiwanese government for $2.5 billion in aid.

At the time, the Honduran government compared the aid programs offered by Taipei and Beijing, according to then-Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. Taipei did not respond to the request for aid, and a few weeks later the Honduran government changed its relationship with Beijing.

“China is much bigger than Taiwan, and Taiwan cannot give a country a blank check the way China does,” Yeh noted.

With Lai seeking to continue his predecessor’s policies – and senior DPP members arguing that the Taiwanese people should decide their own future – the pressure is likely to continue.

“Poaching diplomatic allies was a way to punish the Taiwanese government for pursuing a China policy that is opposed to China,” said Chen, the assistant professor.

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