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Historic low number of Taiwan's allies begs new diplomatic approach

2018/05/02 18:43:59

Image taken from Pixabay

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

The Republic of China, a country that constantly faces Beijing's threats on the international stage, lost another diplomatic ally Tuesday, the Dominican Republic.

The Caribbean nation has been an ROC ally since 1941 when the latter was still based in mainland China.

According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs source, China has promised the Dominican Republic more than US$3 billion in loans to support its infrastructure projects, leading the Caribbean country to cut its 77-year ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan).

The promised money is an astronomical sum for Taiwan, which has only around NT$26 billion (US$89 million) for its diplomatic budget each year.

Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) formally severed ties Tuesday, an hour after the Dominican Republic foreign minister shook hands with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing.

Aside from condemning both China and Taiwan's former ally, Wu also reminded the international community of Beijing's notorious record of not following through on promises it has made to Taiwan's former allies who have shifted their allegiance.

The Dominican Republic's decision leaves Taiwan with only 19 diplomatic allies in the world, a historic low.

At one time, The Republic of China (Taiwan) used to have more than 30 diplomatic allies even after it lost its seat in the United Nations, when most countries around the world decided to recognize Beijing.

Over the past 18 years, however, Taiwan has lost a total of 13 allies to China. Among them, many have twice or three times changed allegiance between Taipei and Beijing for money.

Diplomatic allies are useless?

Very few Taiwanese feel regret for the loss of the Caribbean ally. Netizens applauded the news, saying that it means Taiwan no longer needs to spend money to maintain such a fake friendship based on money.

This opinion is shared by some academics and senior members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who have been arguing that "diplomatic allies are useless" to Taiwan.

Instead of spending millions in diplomatic funds to retain official recognition from these countries - most of them underdeveloped and impoverished - they argue that losing diplomatic allies is tolerable.

Some even argue that it would not be the end of the world for Taiwan if its diplomatic allies dropped to zero, as long as it has the support of world powers such as the United States and Japan.

Former DPP Chairman Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良) said that having small nations as diplomatic allies is "not a good thing," as they impose too much of a burden, adding that losing them "is not really important."

National Chengchi University Institute of International Relations Director Arthur Ding (丁樹範) told CNA that Taiwan still needs its allies so that they can help voice support during United Nations General Assemblies and other similar organizations to remind people of the existence and importance of the ROC.

For instance, most recently, Taiwan is rallying support from its allies and friendly countries to participate in the annual World Health Assembly (WHA), as this year's meeting draws near without an invitation for Taiwan to attend.

Echoing Ting's view, National Taiwan Normal University political science professor Fan Shih-ping (范世平) said it is understandable that so many nationals, politicians and even scholars think that these allies are of little use to Taiwan.

Many of these allies need Taiwan's financial assistance and aid instead of the other way around. They are also located far away and are places that very few Taiwanese will ever visit, he said.

However, Taiwan still needs these countries, no matter how small they are, to define itself as a sovereign state, he added.

Allies are important

One diplomatic source told CNA that the reason Taiwanese think Taiwan is spending too much on its allies is because the country used to engage in checkbook diplomacy in order to maintain diplomatic ties with its allies.

This is no longer the case, according to the diplomat, as all cooperation projects are open to public scrutiny, although he admitted that some of the budget is still used secretly.

The source echoed Ting's and Fan's comments, saying that Taiwan needs allies so that they can voice their support for the country in important international organizations such as the WHA, amid Beijing's continuous suppression to make the world recognize Taiwan as part of its territory.

Once Taiwan has lost all of its allies, it will mean that no countries will officially recognize the existence of the ROC.

That will make it even easier for China to pressure other countries into recognizing its claim that Taiwan is part of its territory, the source said.

He said the government needs to come up with a new strategy in the face of China's ongoing luring away of Taiwan's diplomatic allies, as Beijing is apparently increasing its efforts to pressure Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) administration, which has adopted a less conciliatory attitude toward China than its predecessor, took office May 20, 2016.

It might seem that all hope is lost for Taiwan in the face of a mighty China that is already the second-largest economy in the world, seemingly powerful both economically and militarily, in terms of competing for diplomatic allies, the source said.

However, he proposed that Taiwan might consider taking an initiative on the diplomatic ally issue instead of passively waiting for allies to change allegiance.

"We should cut ties with one diplomatic ally that has been courting China for years to let it know that we won't play China's game," the source said.

In doing so, the move might be supported by people who think the government has been constantly taking a beating from Beijing in the international arena, he said.

It can also send a message to other allies that Taiwan will not return to the old way of pursuing checkbook diplomacy, he added.

Moreover, it is unlikely that Beijing will establish ties with the ally in question, as it will only do so if the move hurts Taipei.

That might sound like a new tactic worth trying, but Ding said he believes no political leader in Taiwan would ever do that, as it would be a form of "political suicide."

"No one gives up allies voluntarily. That would send a wrong message to its allies and its people that Taiwan's leadership is losing credibility," he said.

Taiwan's edge?

Instead of making such a "reckless" move, Ding suggested that Taiwan could remind the world with examples of its former allies that the Beijing's investments in the African and Caribbean regions are actually a form of "neo-colonialism."

Infrastructure programs funded by the Chinese government in foreign lands are often carried out by Chinese workers. Instead of giving local companies and citizens a vital opportunity to grow experience and capital, these contracts overwhelmingly favor Chinese corporations which make massive profits, he noted.

Many countries around the world are aware of the double-edged sword of China's aid, Ding said, and Taiwan should take advantage of such rhetoric to warn its allies.

Meanwhile, Fan suggested that Taiwan still has an edge over China in helping its allies.

For instance, Taiwan has one of the world's best national health insurance systems. The nation has gained a good international reputation for its state-of-the-art medical facilities and low-cost treatment.

"There must be some countries that would appreciate that and be friends with Taiwan because of that," he said.

If that doesn't work, Fan proposed that Taiwan can always find some former allies who feel neglected or ignored by China and its failure to realize its promises.

Asked to comment, a diplomatic source said it is not difficult for Taiwan to have new allies, as many of its former allies are more than happy to return.

"But is this something Taiwanese people want?" the source questioned.

(By Joseph Yeh)
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