Taiwan’s precarious existence

In the past weeks, both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, two island nations in the South-Pacific, revoked their recognition of Taiwan and swapped it for the People’s Republic of China, commonly known as Mainland China. 

At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 the Communist Party ousted the Republic of China to the island of Taiwan. In the so-called 1992 Consensus, the PRC and Taiwan agreed that there was only one China, but disagreed on what that exactly entails. Since then, countries have had to decide which body is the legitimate government of China. 

For most states, the answer is Mainland China, who is not only more populous and powerful militarily, but economically dominant over the much smaller Republic of China. However, a small number of countries around the globe recognize Taiwan as the legitimate government of China; this number is shrinking fast though. As seen in the case of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, states are switching their diplomatic relations from Taiwan to the PRC. 

With the latest switch, Taiwan is left with only 15 states recognizing it’s claim to legitimacy, putting the tiny island nation in a precarious situation. What is driving the change of recognition, how does it affect Taiwanese security, and what is the role of the US in this standoff between the two Chinas?

In simplest terms, China has been buying Taiwan’s allies for years now. The recent poaching of diplomatic partners can be traced back to the election of current Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, who firmly rejects Beijing’s notion of “One China, Two Systems” and represents a left-leaning independence movement. Her ascendance to power has motivated Chian to drain Taiwan of what few allies it has left; since her election in 2016, Taiwan has lost 5 diplomatic partners already. When Panama switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2017, the Latin-American nation received upwards of $3 billion USD in aid from the mainland. 

The lure of economic aid from China is proving to be an effective incentive to more and more countries, and Beijing shows no signs of slowing down in the future. Reports show that China could be eyeing Haiti next, so long as the Caribbean nation respects the principles of “One China”. In the face of this change, President Tsai embarked on a “democracy mission” in July to several states in the region, including Haiti but also St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Lucia. This mission was aimed to foster cooperation between Taiwan and the other states and promote democratization, but it is no secret that it came at a time when Tsai feels mounting pressure to secure what few allies she has left. 

With the number of Taiwanese allies dwindling and rhetoric from Beijing becoming increasingly aggressive in its calls for the reunification of the two Chinas, it makes sense that Taiwan’s security situation is more tense than ever. In the face of such factors, Taiwan has not acquiesced and remains committed to its independence, and in fact recently conducted military drills around the Strait of Taiwan, the narrow body of water that separates the island from the mainland. However, these drills are playing out despite the indisputable evidence that the People’s Republic of China is easily able to outspend and outgun Taiwan. One might think that the shift in tone from the PRC and the loss of allies would substantially alter the security situation for the island, but due to US involvement, this isn’t necessarily true.

The U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan, but since 1979 the Taiwan Relations Act has governed the unofficial but substantial relations between the two countries. The precursor to this agreement, the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, was designed to prevent Communist forces from retaking the island after the end of the Chinese Civil War. Certain elements of the defense treaty survive in the TRA, but the Act falls short of promising American military intervention in the event of armed conflict in Taiwan. 

However, the United States has shown its commitment to Taiwan and Tsai’s government to be strong, especially in the face of an aggressive mainland. After the Solomon Islands switched their recognition, Vice President Mike Pence canceled plans to meet with the newly-elected leader of the islands, and the White House explained that it would reevaluate its aid program to the tiny nation. After Kiribati did the same, a U.S State Department official explained that Chinese actions in the South Pacific “are harmful and undermine regional stability”. The United States sees Taiwan as a democratic ally and valuable partner in keeping the PRC in check. So long as as Taiwan has the United States and other large democratic nations supporting it, the poaching of allies by Beijing doesn’t seem to change much.

In fact, some in Tsai’s government see it as liberating for Taiwan; a situation where Taiwan lacks any official allies gives it more flexibility to chart a new course as an entirely new entity, without comparisons to the People’s Republic. 

Only time will tell if this optimism is misplaced. 

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