China is quietly winning the diplomatic war with Taiwan
China has been waging a diplomatic war with Taiwan for years, whittling away at the international standing of its neighbor by getting Taiwanese diplomatic allies to switch ties to China. Just this month, the Solomon Islands and the Pacific island of Kiribati broke relations with Taiwan.
With far more resources than Taiwan, along with an intimidating global agenda, Beijing is able to bully and buy new ties with countries that are typically small, poor, and have leaders who are willing to deal. In recent years, Taipei has seen six other states drop Taiwan from their diplomatic rolls in favor of Beijing. These are Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, and El Salvador.
Today, only 15 countries retain diplomatic relations with the Asian democracy. Of course, it is tough to expect these small countries to maintain relations when the United States and the wealthy democracies have not. The goal for China is to isolate Taiwan and convey the message to the 23 million citizens of Taiwan that their future is one of unification with China. This effort intensified after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen made it clear, upon her inauguration in 2016, that although she would not cause a crisis by a formal declaration of independence, neither would she be pushed toward unification with the mainland. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been out to punish Tsai and her government ever since.
As Tsai now seeks reelection, Beijing is turning up the heat. Xi wants to convey to the voters of Taiwan how powerless the Tsai administration is to stop China from getting its way, and that a candidate more open to closer relations with the mainland might fare better once China was convinced unification was back on the table. Chinese state media even threatens that Taiwan will lose all its remaining diplomatic allies if Tsai successfully wins reelection. Beijing hopes that voters will desert her.
The calculations in Beijing may be shaky. In poll after poll, the people of Taiwan have shown little interest in an agenda that includes unification with a China that is not a democracy. Indeed, the chances of Tsai winning reelection in January have gone up in the polls considerably as Taiwanese citizens see what is happening in Hong Kong. If Beijing cannot keep to its pledge to govern Hong Kong by the model of “one country two systems,” the people of Taiwan are certainly right to be skeptical that unification would mean anything other than an eventual subjugation to China.
What options does Taipei have in response to the loss of two more diplomatic partners? One course would be to downplay the loss. But that is easier said than done when a country is on the receiving end of the squeeze. Another course would be for Taipei to respond asymmetrically, emphasizing its strength as a liberal democracy and a technologically advanced economy. It might announce its doors are open to Hong Kongers who want to move to Taiwan, become citizens, and enjoy the liberties that Beijing is denying them. Hong Kongers are educated and industrious, and would be at home in ethnically Chinese Taiwan.
It should not be difficult for the United States to embrace such an effort since it aligns with the Trump administration envisioning a “free and open” Asia Pacific region. Nor does it require Washington to formally recognize Taiwanese independence. But if the United States is to be successful in reversing the increasing isolation of Taiwan, it will have to drop the “One China” narrative that has underpinned American policy since the 1970s. Without American leadership on this, it is impossible to imagine other democratic powers pushing back against Chinese diplomatic coercions.
The United States originally cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan as a concession to China in the hopes that it would help balance against the Soviet Union. That strategic reasoning is long gone, as is the expectation that China would evolve into a more liberal and attractive state. Indeed, given the central geographic footprint of Taiwan in the Asia Pacific region, its global role with technological manufacturing, and its democratic evolution, the strategic logic for reversing course is now well overdue.
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar in strategic studies with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where he focuses on national security policy. His latest book is “Rise of the Revisionists: Russia, China, and Iran.”
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