Written by Madhura Balasubramaniam.
On Monday 12th June 2017, Panama ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of establishing diplomatic ties with China. A joint communiqué was signed by Panama and China, which held that there was only One China represented by the People’s Republic of China and that Taiwan was an inalienable part of Chinese territory.
Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela noted that China was the second largest economy and the second-largest user of the Panama Canal. Varela argued that this decision was the correct path for the country and would create a new era of opportunities for both countries. The Panama Canal serves as a vital shipping route for Chinese products and Chinese companies have sought to develop ports and infrastructure facilities along the Canal. The diplomatic shift from Taiwan to China is therefore likely to generate significant economic benefits for Panama.
Panama was an important ally for Taiwan as Taiwan and Panama have had diplomatic relations for over 100 years. Further, Taiwan signed its first Free Trade Agreement with Panama in 2003 and following her Presidential Elections in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen made her first international visit to Panama in order to cement ties. Panama’s decision to end diplomatic relations with Taiwan is thus of symbolic significance with regard to Taiwan’s international space. Panama is the second country in the last year to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and this brings the total number of countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan to 20. This move strikes a significant blow to Taiwan’s international space and marks a trend of Taiwan’s shrinking international space under the Tsai Ing-wen administration. Further, cross-strait tensions and public opinion in Taiwan pose significant challenges to negotiating Taiwan’s international space.
Cross-Strait Relations and Markers of Taiwan’s Shrinking International Space
The shift of recognition in the United Nations from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal representative of China in 1971 and the One China together served to curtail Taiwan’s international space. In response, Taiwan has constantly sought to negotiate its international living space and to expand its participation in the international arena. In this context, the 1992 consensus, which notes there is One China but what constitutes One China is open to interpretation by both sides, becomes important. Beijing has held that the 1992 consensus would form the basis of negotiating Taiwan’s participation in international organisations.
However, in Taiwan, the 1992 consensus is contentious and the two major political parties have adopted different stances. The KMT, like Beijing, argues that the 1992 Consensus is the basis of cross-strait relations. The DPP does not explicitly acknowledge the 1992 consensus and instead makes references to the ‘1992 meeting’ or ‘1992 spirit’.
In keeping with this position, in her inaugural address in 2016, Tsai made reference to the 1992 talks but did not explicitly acknowledge the 1992 consensus. The lack of explicit adherence to the 1992 consensus was critiqued by China and as a result, institutionalised cross-strait interactions between ARATS and SEF was suspended on June 25, 2016. In this period, cross-strait relations have been at loggerheads. China has demanded explicit adherence to the 1992 consensus and has sought to place limitations on Taiwan’s participation in the international arena in order to achieve the same.
The first important blow to Taiwan’s international space was seen in September 2016 when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) did not invite Taiwan to participate in the annual conference held in Montreal on September 27, 2016. This was seen as part of a wider campaign to exclude Taiwan from the international community. The Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang argued that only sovereign states could participate in specialised agencies of the UN and as Taiwan was an inalienable part of China, it “had no right to participate in the ICAO assembly”. This move was strongly critiqued by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council that expressed regret over the use of the political framework of One China as a pretext to suppress Taiwan’s participation in international organisations.
Following this, in December 2016, Sao Tome and Principe shifted their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. This shift was said to be influenced by financial considerations as Sao Tome and Principe was said to have asked for $200 million in aid in exchange for the continuance of diplomatic relations. This was viewed by Taiwan as an example of China’s checkbook-diplomacy. The move brought down Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to 21 (prior to Panama’s shift in diplomatic recognition) and served to weaken Taiwan’s position in negotiating its international living space.
Further in May 2017, despite international support, Taiwan was not invited to the World Health Assembly’s annual meeting for the first time since 2009. In 2016, upon China’s insistence, Taiwan’s invitation included reference to the United Nations Resolution 2758 which notes that PRC is the sole legal representative of China. The Taiwan Affairs Office of China held that Taiwan was not invited to participate in the WHA in 2017 on account of its failure to acknowledge the 1992 consensus. Similarly, in June 2017, Taiwan’s request to participate in the International Labour Organization’s conference was also rejected on grounds of the One China Policy of the UN.
Panama’s decision to shift diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China can be seen as a part of this trend of Taiwan’s shrinking international space. This reflects growing cross-strait competition with regard to Taiwan’s international space. In this regard, China has been successful in ensuring the enforcement of the One-China Principle in multilateral arrangements specifically in UN Specialized Agencies such as the ICAO, WHO and the ILO. However, rather than cornering the Tsai administration into explicit adherence of the 1992 consensus, Beijing’s attempts at enforcing the 1992 consensus through restrictions placed on Taiwan’s international space have been met with defiant responses. Following Panama’s shift in diplomatic recognition, Tsai and the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly critiqued China for the manipulation of the One China Principle and placing pressure on Taiwan’s international space. Tsai, in her statement on Tuesday 13th June 2017, also argued that Taiwan was a sovereign state and that this sovereignty cannot be denied by China. This was also supported by public opinion polls that held that three-fourths of the Taiwanese population held that China and Taiwan were separate countries.
In light of already shrinking international space, Panama’s decision to shift its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China serves to further isolate Taiwan in the international arena. This adds pressure on the Tsai administration to address the concern of growing diplomatic isolation. However, on account of the hardline stances adopted by China and Taiwan and given public opinion in Taiwan, it seems unlikely that the trend of Taiwan’s shrinking international space will change over the rest of Tsai Ing-wen’s Presidential term. In this context then, there is an urgent need for constructive dialogue between authorities on either side of the Taiwan Strait rooted in dignity and respect for negotiating Taiwan’s international space.