Written by James Lin.
Image credit: Civilian recognition of Taiwan by Can Pac Swire/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0
On March 26, 2020, US President Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019. Taiwan was relegated to the global margins in 1971 when Taiwan (officially the Republic of China, or ROC) lost its United Nation’s membership and was replaced with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then, most nations around the world have severed formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of the PRC, including the United States. Since the 2016 election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan lost an additional eight diplomatic allies, who formally recognised the PRC: the Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, the Solomon Islands, and Kiribati. Officials in these nations often cited economic incentives offered by the PRC in exchange for their diplomatic recognition. Only fifteen nations remain that recognise Taiwan diplomatically.
The TAIPEI Act was proposed as a US response to Taiwan’s international marginalisation. Officially, it advocates for Taiwan’s inclusion in international organisations and supports strengthening Taiwan’s ties with their diplomatic allies. It outlines a carrot-and-stick approach by calling for “increasing [US] economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan” as well as “altering its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that take serious or significant actions to undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan.” However, it lacks enforcement strength—Section 5 of the document is preceded with “It is the sense of Congress that the United States Government should…” enact the aforementioned approach. The only concrete “shall” is an annual report from the Secretary State to Congress on Taiwan, which makes the Act relatively toothless. Yet, even in a hypothetical scenario where Congress adds stronger wording to the TAIPEI Act, will it be enough to overcome the political-economic structure and the international system?
Turning a New Leaf in US-Taiwan Relations? A Historical Perspective
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the TAIPEI Act unanimously, a rare occurrence in Washington. The passing can be read as unequivocal support behind a US foreign policy issue that unites both the right and left, as Taiwan represents a democratic, progressive bastion with free elections, civil liberties and legal same-sex marriage. In a supporting statement, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board argued that the TAIPEI Act was a counter to “China’s revisionism” in the international system and its behaviour that “bullies and bribes” its way to influence. Similar to the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that was passed and signed late last year in response to Hong Kong protests, we can interpret the TAIPEI Act as a US repudiation of PRC’s revisionism of the international status quo. Indeed, with the TAIPEI Act passing, it might appear as though the US is entering a new relational phase with Taiwan.
However, US support for Taiwan needs to be examined historically, as it has not always led to positive results. Since the Cold War, the US provided unfailing support for the Republic of China regime under dictator Chiang Kai-shek, who imprisoned and executed thousands under the White Terror in Taiwan. The US State Department in the 1960s secretly funded a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs program, Operation Vanguard, that sent dozens of overseas technical missions to Africa, Asia, and Latin America to garner votes and alliances from Third World nations. State Department officials regularly briefed Taiwanese officials on expected votes and shifts, on whether allies would support or abandon Taiwan.
During the Cold War, Taiwan represented the United States’ staunch anti-communist ally and a metaphorical unsinkable aircraft carrier. The US was invested in the security and future of Taiwan as a counterweight against the Communist PRC. But these calculations can change, as they did in 1972 during Nixon’s visit to China. In part because of the desire to isolate the USSR amidst the Cold War, Nixon’s meetings with PRC Premier Zhou Enlai established the foundation for the situation Taiwan faces now. Seven years later, the US — Taiwan’s staunchest diplomatic ally — formally recognised the PRC and severed formal relations with the ROC. That historical moment should serve as a reminder of geopolitical flux.
A Different International Political Economy Today
Today, the PRC is a global power with considerable economic power to achieve its political ends. This is evident in China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI), which leverages China’s significant capital resources to offer development loans to countries in the Global South, who have few places to seek much needed foreign investment. The BRI is often misunderstood as a nefarious debt trap regime to ensnare developing nations. Though the global capitalist system that forces Global South nations to seek exploitative debt is in itself problematic, the African and Asian need for capital, plus Beijing’s willingness to answer such calls, is undeniable. This situation is different from the historical context of US support for the ROC, which was driven by concerns over the spread of global Communism. With these fears gone in a post-Cold War world, the US has mostly left international development to the IMF and World Bank, while China continues to offer capital, with far fewer strings attached, to Global South nations.
Take, for example, Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso was one of two remaining African nations that recognised the Republic of China (ROC) until it switched in 2018. It was one of Taiwan’s staunchest allies in 1961 when Burkina Faso was known as the Republic of Upper Volta. It established diplomatic relations with the ROC after its formal independence from the French Union in 1960. For a decade, it received hundreds of thousands in annual agricultural development assistance from Taiwan — with US subsidies — through Operation Vanguard. In one instance, when the Republic of Dahomey (today Benin) was considering severing ties with the ROC, in favour of the PRC, Upper Volta’s first President, Maurice Yaméogo, personally reassured then-ROC Foreign Minister, Shen Chang-huan that things “will ultimately work out in the way [Taiwan] wants.” It didn’t, of course. During 1973, Upper Volta switched recognition in a wave that preceded and followed the ROC departure from the UN. Burkina Faso also switched to recognise Taiwan again in 1994, in part due to Taiwanese development aid, before this latest switch in 2018. Its historical relationship with Taiwan is instructive. Just because the US offers incentives for countries to switch or remain with the ROC, does not mean they will.
Ultimately, Beijing’s economic packages have value for Global South nations, who otherwise have few options to seek the capital they need for their governing agendas. Few can blame them for playing Beijing and Taipei off each other. Although the TAIPEI Act instructs the US to offer the same economic incentives and disincentives that Taipei and Beijing have been engaging in — as the US did for the ROC decades ago with Operation Vanguard — it is probably not enough to sway a significant number of allies back into Taiwan’s orbit. Consequently, Beijing offers packages, which, according to one Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official in the instance of the Dominican Republic, numbers in the billions of dollars. Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials regularly state their inability to compete on dollar value alone. Taiwan’s fifteen remaining allies are predominantly small nations benefiting from Taiwan’s individualised technical assistance, which they value more than capital intensive projects. This type of comparative advantage does not scale well.
The Taiwanese Perspective: Will the TAIPEI Act make a difference?
For Taiwan, increasing international isolation has become one of the most significant threats to its foreign relations, public health and continued existence. Especially in the current COVID-19 crisis, Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization, including emergency meetings on the coronavirus, has created public health hazards. The consequences of Taiwan’s isolation endangers not just Taiwanese citizens, but also global public health, as policies and information from Taiwan’s successful handling of the COVID-19 situation were not shared with WHO member nations.
In the most recent Taiwanese presidential election, Taiwanese citizens discussed wangguogan 亡國感, a sense of impending national doom. Whether due to concerns about what the 2020 presidential election might bring concerning Taiwan’s future, the increasingly dire situation of Hong Kong across the Taiwan Strait, or the continued exclusion of Taiwan from important international organisations like the WHO, the term wangguogan captures deep-seated anxieties and fears regarding Taiwan’s marginalisation. Can the TAIPEI Act rescue Taiwan from this impending doom that pervades the country’s daily political, social and cultural makeup?
While the TAIPEI Act affirms US support, it does not change the capitalist structure of the international political economy, nor the hard economic and political advantages Beijing holds over Taipei and, to a certain degree, Washington. The United States is no longer in a position to shape the United Nations, or the Bretton Woods system, as it did in the immediate post-World War II moment. Even if Taiwan regains some of its diplomatic allies, Taiwan’s international existence is precarious without formal membership in international organizations and formal diplomatic recognition from the majority of the world’s nations. President Tsai and Taipei work to increase Taiwan’s diplomatic reach, but they are ultimately limited by economics and an international system that was handed to them by history. With an increasingly belligerent Xi Jinping leading the PRC, Taipei needs to seek to fundamentally alter its international position in accordance with its de facto nation-state status. How this can be accomplished remains to be seen. All the while, Taiwanese citizens wonder if Taiwan, as they know it, will soon become a wangguo, a lost nation.
James Lin is a historian of modern Taiwan and Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, where he also serves as the Associate Chair of the Taiwan Studies Program. His upcoming book project examines the history of Taiwan’s agrarian development, including its missions to Asia, Africa, and Latin America from the 1950s onward. He tweets @jamestwotree. The author would like to thank Ian Rowen, Shen-yi Liao, and Lev Nachman for their help with this article.
This article is part of special issue on the U.S.-Taiwan relations.