The just-concluded visit to four Caribbean islands by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is perhaps the most crucial by any Taiwanese leader to the Caribbean region.
It came at a time when tensions have again been raised to boiling point between the US and China over Taiwan and amid the Tsai administration’s lingering concerns about the dwindling number of Taipei’s remaining international allies.
Ups and Downs…
Ties between Beijing and Taipei have seen their ups-and-downs in the past seven decades, but in more recent years having shown just how mutually beneficial cooperation can be to both sides, vis-a-vis the tensions that coexist with confrontation.
Promises and Changes
Three years after President Tsai won the 2016 election on a ticket that promised to change the course of Taiwan’s ties with Mainland China, she has much reason to reconsider the wisdom of continuing to distant the island from the mainland.
Her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) defeated the historically more institutionalized Kuomintang (KMT) party promising to increase Taiwan’s contact with the wider world, develop stronger ties with Asian partners and build an economy less dependent on the Cross-Strait trade, tourism, communication and the other factors that strengthened Taiwan’s longtime close economic integration with the mainland.
President Tsai also promised to increase and improve Taiwan’s ties with its exciting Caribbean and Latin American allies. She did not outline a clear Caribbean strategy at the outset, but indicated nothing less than continuity of the friendly ties inherited from the Ma Ying-jieu administration.
Her first three years have seen a 180-degree turn in Beijing’s attitude to Taipei, reverting to the ‘hardball’ approach that had been put on ice during the previous eight years of KMT rule under a more cooperative Ma.
There’s been a significant reduction in the level of inherited Cross Strait ties that featured (up to 2016) upturns in direct ties and exchanges between Chinese people, companies and interests — on both sides — to the widest, deepest and closest levels since 1992, when China and Taiwan political authorities arrived at a consensus allowing both to agree there is only One China, but also allowing each to also disagree on interpretation.
Beijing and Taipei were both comfortable with the state of mutual Cross-Strait affairs between 2008 and 2016, which were hugely beneficial to people and private sectors on both sides, as part of a political approach that excluded the most contentious issue of independence for Taiwan — a ‘Red Line’ area for Beijing.
Ties across the strait of water dividing the island from the mainland had never been so good. But the new Tsai administration, from the outset, opted for a policy more in line with independence from the mainland than continuing peaceful coexistence or cooperation with shared acceptance of long-standing historical disagreements.
Taipei has for three years pursued a foreign policy approach of heightening the contradictions with Beijing instead of lessening tensions.
The DPP leader stoked tensions with Beijing in the closing stages of the 2016 election campaign during final stages of the Barack Obama administration, despite warnings by at least three ex-US Defense Secretaries (just days before the Taiwan poll) that Washington was not likely to activate an existing defense support treaty mechanism to protect Taiwan should it so rock the Cross-Strait boat as to provoke a military response from China.
President Tsai was quite emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016 and his insensitive statements before taking office contributed to a worsening of US-China ties, resulting in Beijing demanding that Washington honor its mutual treaty obligations, honored by all his predecessors since 1971.
President Trump recklessness on the Taiwan issue continued until he was made to understand he was truly playing with fire. But even while he stopped short of inviting Taiwan’s lady leader to the White House, Washington continued to engage with Taipei in ways that continuously deepened tensions with Beijing.
In the name of ‘protecting’ Taiwan, the US has, since 2017, been encouraging and engaging in military activities that widen the geopolitical confrontations between the US and China in the South China Sea. China and Taiwan have also been rattling Cross Strait sabers more regularly in the last three years with the usual mutual allegations of responding to the other’s moves.
But Taiwan’s continuing flirtation with Washington under President Trump has been at great diplomatic and political costs to the island.
In President Tsai’s first three years, the island has lost five allies, three from the Latin American and Caribbean region (Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama) and two from Africa (Burkina Faso and Sao Tome and Principe).
Taiwan has indeed lost 18 diplomatic allies in the same number of years since the turn of the century, now left with only 16, mainly from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and the Pacific Islands.
President Tsai’s second visit to the region is most likely her last before the next Taiwan presidential election, in which the KMT is seen as gearing-up to offer what is expected to be a greater challenge than in 2016. She is therefore hell-bent on trying to ensure that Taiwan’s remaining Caribbean allies – Belize, Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines – all remain on board.
But with more countries breaking ties with Taiwan under the DPP than the KMT, many in the outside world are also asking why there would have been more peace and progress in China-Taiwan ties under the party that originally established the political foundation for today’s Taiwan.
Not that the KMT abandoned all its dreams of Taiwan one day becoming a nation. But it’s also realized that, under prevailing conditions, that is a very unlikely possibility. It therefore agreed to disagree with Beijing on the fundamental related issues — and both sides offered mutual assurances of what each would not do.
On taking office, the DPP opted to ignore the 1992 Consensus and instead produced its own new list of nationalistic-oriented priorities for deceleration of Cross-Strait ties, which Beijing naturally treated as ‘dead-on-arrival’.
Nothing in the past three years has indicated that President Tsai and the DPP are likely to follow the same course as the KMT. But, the DPP also knows Beijing continues to win the costly diplomatic war on the global stage.
Following her return to Taipei, President Tsai will therefore still have to consider the two hard choices of whether and when to make the hard choice between continuing along a course that is costing the island its remaining friends at an unsustainable rate and remaining true to her election promises to decelerate ties with the mainland.
‘Playing With Fire’
Washington’s recent decision to allow two American weapons manufacturing companies to sell high-powered military equipment to Taiwan has led to Beijing again warning the US that it’s ‘playing with fire’.
Washington and Taipei both know that any such deal will be neither accepted nor ignored by Beijing. So, the natural questions arise: Why Try — and To What End?
Chinese Family Ties
Ahead of presidential elections in both Taiwan and the USA, the respective leaders have obviously decided to push the envelope in China’s direction.
But while the US president continues to use Taiwan as his Trump Card in Washington’s wider geopolitical game against China, it is the future of age-old ties between Chinese families and citizens on both sides of the Strait that’s always at stake.
In the 2020 Taiwan elections, Chinese on both sides will have had 20 years of experience of ties between Taipei and Beijing under at least three different presidents on both sides of the dividing strait. The experiences, facts and figures will always show the differences.
China has repeatedly warned that it will respond accordingly to any action Washington takes in relation to Taiwan that it considers an act of outside interference in ties between the island and the mainland, so what’s the point in heightening the related political and diplomatic contradictions?
Common Approaches and Mutual Interests
World history is pregnant with examples of arch rivals meeting on common ground in the wider interests of both or all sides — and Taiwan has had its own recent related examples and experiences.
Revisiting the recent history of ties between China and Taiwan would be more than just a rhetorical revision. Instead, it would open the way for renewal of common approaches to old common problems in new ways that would be of mutual interest and benefit to both sides, through continuation of a working model already experienced, with win-win results.
President Tsai and her DPP are faced with some very real choices, all having to do with the future of Taiwan’s ties with the mainland. They can continue along the path of confrontation or switch to one of cooperation.
Always facing uncertainty as to which of their remaining allies will be next to break ties with Taipei, the president, her administration and her party will eventually have to consider – if they haven’t — the wisdom of changing course in bad weather and engaging more with Beijing, to the mutual benefit of the Chinese on both sides of the natural divide that artificially separates the people of One China.