Written by John F. Copper.
On May 1st 2018, the Dominican Republic established diplomatic relations with China and broke ties with Taiwan. It was one of the twenty nations with whom Taipei still had such contacts and one of the most important.
It was the third such setback for the Tsai government after Panama in 2017 and Sao Tome and Principe in 2016. It would be the fourth if Gambia, which severed ties in March 2016 before president-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration, were also to be counted. China decision to cement ties with Gambia, which the latter had wanted for some time, was a signal to candidate Tsai before she was inaugurated president that she had to accept the One-China Policy. During the 2016 election, she had campaigned on maintaining the status quo on this question but had not accepted the 1992 Consensus where by both sides accepted one China with different interpretations.
The Dominican Republic’s decision has thus left Taiwan with diplomatic links to just 18 UN member states, 19 including Vatican City. Notably there are no Asian states among them, only one European country (the Vatican) and just one one South American country (Paraguay). Most of its diplomatic partners are in in Oceania (six) and the Caribbean (four). Taipei has no foreign embassy in any of the major cities of the world. The largest city to host a Taiwanese diplomatic presence is Asunción the capital of Paraguay.
It is highly likely others will follow the Dominican Republic. It is said the Solomon Islands wants China to invest there and may indeed be the next. The Dominican Republic’s decision may influence other Caribbean countries. Haiti is mentioned; its trade volume with China is four times that with Taiwan. The Vatican has recently engaged in talks with Beijing.
Is this a bad omen for Taiwan? Some of Taiwan’s leaders have lamented that Taiwan’s diplomatic partners may fall to single digits before long. The question is: How many top-level diplomatic ties does Taiwan need? There is no rule. It is one of the requirements for being considered a nation-state and Taiwan’s qualifications in this realm are weak but not disqualifying. Spain and the Soviet Union at one time had but low single digit ambassadorial ties and unlike them Taiwan has no overriding tensions with the others over land, population and government save for with the mainland.
The loss of the Dominican Republic is a blow to the Tsai administration since her predecessor lost none, if Gambia is indeed put in the Tsai column. It also hurts much as candidate Tsai campaigned on improving Taiwan’s “international space” and Taiwan has not made any notable progress in attaining a presence in any important international organization, while Beijing has coerced a number of businesses not to use terms online or elsewhere that suggest Taiwan is a country or has sovereignty.
Taipei blames Beijing’s dollar diplomacy for the Dominican Republic’s decision. That was certainly a factor. China is the richest country in the world by foreign exchange. It is providing more foreign aid and foreign investment than other countries. Taiwan’s diplomatic friends are generally not rich. But many nations see formal ties with China as important because China is a rising power and with growing influence to possibly soon be the world’s preeminent country.
Under the only other DPP government, that of President Chen Shui-bian (2000 to 2008), the strategy was to win and keep diplomatic relations by doing so as Taiwan and dropping the term Republic of China. The move sought to reduce suggested links with China, and tried promote Taiwan as a democracy. This did not work. Chen lost six countries.
Taiwan can justifiably boast it is a democracy. But other countries are not impressed, at least in the sense they are unwilling to improve relations or establish meaningful formal ties with Taiwan. Furthermore, democracies are not doing well in the West while developing countries are looking elsewhere for models and China via the Beijing consensus and its state capitalist model carries increasing influence in the developing world.
The Tsai administration’s dilemma is that it might prevent further losses by improving cross-Strait relations. That would likely entail abandoning its opposition to the 1992 Consensus. But President Tsai would risk sacrificing her voter base which she needs to help her party in the coming local elections in November.
President Tsai and her party would also need to revise its progressive ideology and its narrative that China is an evil authoritarian country that threatens the liberal world order. Castigating China and talking about independence prompts Chinese leaders to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and they have the tools at hand to do this.
China has also been displeased with Taiwan overstating the importance of friendly gestures by the United States, such as the Taiwan Travel Act, port calls by US warships and interpreting these as support of Taiwan’s independence.
The fact is America does not support Taiwan’s independence and this is not likely to change. Sino-American relations are too important, as demonstrated by recent developments with North Korea. Others see this too. A stable global financial system, stopping nuclear non-proliferation, controlling climate change and protecting the global environment, and curtailing terrorism all depend on high level U.S.-China cooperation.
Some of President Tsai’s advisors and top DPP leaders also warn that President Donald Trump is a negotiator president and may be play the “Taiwan card.”
After taking a telephone call from President Tsai soon after his election and saying he was not bound by the One-China Policy, he quickly changed his position. In addition, some note that the Tsai administration and her party are leftist progressives and many write and say things to suggest they are part of the anti-Trump haters in the U.S. liberal media, academe and Hollywood. President Trump has obviously noticed and should be displeased.
Some also note President Trump regularly praises President Xi Jinping and Chinese culture. He does not praise President Tsai or Taiwanese culture.
The issue of diplomatic ties presents a serious problem cum dilemma for Taiwan’s government. Taiwan has long been known for coping with adversity. Perhaps it can again though this one is of a different order.
John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor (emeritus) of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty-five books including more than twenty on Taiwan. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.