Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to Central America from 7-15 January 2017 came amidst the tensions set off by US President-elect Donald Trump publicly tweeting about his phone conversation with her soon after his election. Over time, Trump’s tweets on China have gotten ever more provocative, and questions are now being raised about his administration’s willingness to adhere to the one-China policy, which the Chinese have called the fundamental basis of US-China relations, never mind the fact that in reality China has also never supported the one-China policy as the Americans themselves interpret it which is of Taiwan joining the PRC only with the free will of the people of Taiwan themselves. China insists on maintaining the threat of the use of force if the decision of the Taiwanese does not go its way.
Against this backdrop, Tsai’s visit to four of the dwindling flock of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies came under more than the usual international scrutiny. The visits to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador were part of Tsai’s only second overseas trip after taking office in May 2016; her visits to Panama and Paraguay in June last year went comparatively unremarked by the international press.
The other significant detail of Tsai’s Central Amercian sojourn were her stopovers in Houston and San Francisco in the US both of which were again well covered by the international media and equally significantly included well-publicized meetings with local politicians in both cities. This certainly appears to indicate a greater American commitment to Taiwan in the Trump era.
Rubbing Up Against Reality
And yet, there are limits to interpreting this turn of events too positively in Taiwan’s favour. The Tsai visits and the events surrounding them were certainly a plus point for the pro-independence camp in Taiwan who see this as a case of Taiwan’s international space and rights being acknowledged. However, Tsai’s visits so far have been to countries that are somewhat more beholden to the US and under no little influence of American foreign economic and security policies and so possibly less likely to swing towards China than those in Africa. The reality in the case of the latter is already biting Taipei hard. Apart from Sao Tome and Principe, which switched recognition to the PRC in December 2016, even the Nigerians who already recognize Beijing are giving the Taiwanese representation in their country a tough time asking it to shift from Abuja the capital, to Lagos.
Even some of the Central Americans, are constantly under pressure from the Chinese (Honduras) or threatening to switch recognition (Nicaragua). This is in addition to problems in bilateral ties that are a consequence of Taiwan’s own actions as in Guatemala whose former president was jailed for taking US$2.5 million worth of alleged bribes from Taiwan.
Tsai herself appears cognizant of the realities of both China’s increasing diplomatic and economic weight and pressure against Taiwan as well as her country’s increasingly limited means to pursue and maintain its diplomatic allies by force of sheer economic largesse alone. Thus, during her visit she sought to underline the shift away from one-way assistance to Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to a more balanced two-way model of bilateral cooperation towards achieving economic and social development goals.
These goals it must be noted relate in the main to infrastructure, education and public health – a combination of both hard and soft infrastructure projects, which also sells Taiwan as a country willing to look at development from a more holistic perspective. And while Tsai talked about such bilateral cooperation supporting greater bilateral trade and expanding market presence, the Taiwan model is certainly unlike the Chinese one where aid and development assistance can often come with strings attached involving the use of both Chinese state-owned enterprises and labour to execute many of these projects. Taiwan due to its smaller size and means, more transparent systems and greater reliance on private enterprise is less likely to be accused of engaging in this kind of economic coercion – an advantage that India too enjoys or could potentially enjoy.
Ready to Play Hardball
Tsai has also not been shy of directly accusing China of being a threat to Taiwan or of Beijing not helping the cause of cross-Straits good relations by trying to steal away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies or restricting its international space. She is also realist and practical enough to see that as long as Taiwan has the US on its side the loss of diplomatic allies does not in any material way change Taiwan’s international space for the worse any more than it already is.
This is a card that Tsai has to play carefully however, for Trump’s style of politics might not necessarily be amenable to taking on board Taiwanese views through quiet consultation and in a manner that will not eventually end up harming Taiwan’s interests. No doubt, Beijing will aim to inflict pain on the US where possible for any attempts to support Taiwan, but it is more likely the case that it is Taiwan that will be at the receiving end of the pain from Beijing consistently and over the longer term.
Just as significantly, Tsai has displayed a determination to chart a course for Taiwan that stays true to its democratic values but well within the limits of realpolitik. Her response to a question about Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega modifying the country’s constitution to clear the path for re-election to a third consecutive term is telling. While stating that she would not comment on the internal affairs of other countries, Tsai nevertheless expressed the hope that trade cooperation with Taiwan would help its diplomatic allies in their economic and social development, and thus, also to improve their democracy. This statement coming from the leader of a small country one whose own democracy is relatively young and which remains under constant threat from a larger neighbour is a sign of the vision Tsai has for Taiwan’s role in the international community. With such ambitions are little countries able to shape the course of global events.