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Taiwan’s international space: A tale of two speeches

At the recent Xiangshan Forum (香山論壇) in Beijing held from October 20 to 22, Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) had harsh words for the people of Taiwan and those that support them in their desire to live freely:

“The Taiwan question concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and is a matter of China’s core interests. It is extremely dangerous to repeatedly challenge China’s bottom line on this question. If anyone ever tries to secede Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will take resolute actions and pay whatever price that has to be paid.”

This language echoed his remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, which were arguably more inflammatory, with Wei issuing a warning directed not only at Taiwan, but specifically at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP): “Firstly, no attempts to split China would succeed. Secondly, any foreign intervention is doomed to failure […]. Thirdly, any underestimation of the [People’s Liberation Army’s] resolve and will is extremely dangerous.” The warning to the DPP marked an unambiguous effort to influence the presidential election campaigns in Taiwan. The unstated, but implicit message to the island’s voters: the DPP is leading you towards disaster.

The Xiangshang Forum language is not, in and of itself, remarkable. But the nature of the deliveryman adds a menacing edge, while the delivery at prominent security forums—especially Shangri-La—means the intended audiences are not only domestic and in Taiwan, but international as well. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) aims to instill fear into other nations regarding their own relationships with Taiwan. Beijing wants to disabuse foreigners of the notion that they should have any interest in Taiwan’s fate or have any capacity to affect that fate. Put simply, these speeches are part and parcel of a broader PRC effort to isolate Taiwan on the international stage and instill a sense of resignation among Taiwan’s people.

But in his speech last week at a Wilson Center event, American Vice President Mike Pence sought to counter Wei’s message. After noting Washington’s continuing commitment to the “One-China” policy, describing the United States’ steadfast support for Taiwan, and taking aim at the PRC’s recent efforts to poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, the vice president stated the case for broad international engagement with Taiwan. “The international community must never forget,” he asserted, “that its engagement with Taiwan does not threaten the peace; it protects peace on Taiwan and throughout the region.”

The two speeches could not be more different on this point. Wei offers the prospect of military action and horrid violence; Pence offers the prospect of preserving the peace. Despite the Solomon Islands and Kiribati’s decisions last month to sever formal diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan), evidence from recent years suggests that many countries find the Pence argument persuasive. At the very least, many have not been scared off by the PRC’s threatening language.

Taiwan’s Expanding International Space?

Conventional wisdom has it that the PRC has succeeded in constraining Taiwan’s “international space”—its ability to pursue robust engagement on a bilateral basis and in multilateral forums. In many ways, this is true. Overt threats like those from Defense Minister Wei at the Shangri-La and Xiangshan forums in addition to quieter Chinese diplomacy have been successful in convincing capitals and institutions to keep their distance from Taipei.

Beijing, for example, has kept Taiwan from sending delegates, even as observers, to a variety of international gatherings, including the World Health Assembly, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) General Assembly, and the triennial International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly. Despite being a full member of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping, Taiwan’s president is not welcome at the annual meeting and must send a non-governmental envoy in her stead.

Taiwan’s formal diplomatic ties have suffered as well. The last time Taiwan (as the Republic of China) gained a new diplomatic ally was in 2007 (Saint Lucia). Meanwhile, it has seen seven diplomatic allies sever ties during the last six years (i.e., Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Panama, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Solomon Islands, and Kiribati). Moreover, Taiwan has not concluded a free trade agreement with a non-diplomatic partner since 2013, when it concluded agreements with New Zealand and Singapore.

Beijing’s efforts to symbolically erase Taiwan from the map, at least in the minds of global consumers, have proceeded apace as well. PRC aviation authorities successfully applied pressure on 36 international airlines, including the major American carriers, to force them to remove Taiwan from lists of country destinations. Now, if one flies United, for example, one books travel to Taipei rather than “Taipei, Taiwan.” Zara and Medtronic apologized when PRC regulators noticed their websites listed Taiwan as a separate country from China. Gap, the clothing retailer, was made to apologize and withdraw from store shelves a t-shirt featuring a map of China that did not include Taiwan, the nine-dash line, and Arunachel Pradesh (an Indian state claimed by the PRC). Gap was not selling the shirt in the PRC, but in Canada.

Despite these unambiguous setbacks, however, there is a case to be made that Taiwan’s international space has expanded in some areas even as it has been circumscribed in others. Consider its relationships with its two most important unofficial diplomatic partners. As I have argued in the Global Taiwan Brief previously, US-Taiwan relations are the best they have been in years, if not decades. Importantly, the United States has sought to use the bilateral relationship to expand Taiwan’s international space. Through the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, the United States and Taiwan have expanded Taiwan’s organizational and person-to-person networks throughout the Asia-Pacific in recent years. Japan and Sweden have now joined the United States and Taiwan as formal co-sponsors on some of the GCTF workshops. These decisions from Tokyo and Stockholm suggest Taiwan is not as isolated as the PRC might like—or might like Taiwan’s citizens to believe.

Indeed, the Taiwan-Japan relationship is quite healthy as well. President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan have engaged in direct communication, albeit via Twitter. And although tweeting at one another is a poor substitute for telephone calls and in-person summitry, no other world leader (save those of countries with whom Taiwan enjoys formal diplomatic ties) has been willing to communicate with President Tsai in this way. (President-elect Donald Trump took a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai, but they have not spoken—or exchanged tweets—since his swearing-in).

In January 2017, Japan’s unofficial ambassador to Taiwan described bilateral relations as “at their best” at a ceremony to change the name of Japan’s representative office in Taipei. Previously called the “Interchange Association, Japan,” the office is now known as the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association. A few months later, the semi-official body in Taipei responsible for relations with Tokyo changed its name from the Association of East Asian Relations to the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association—a change made with Japanese acquiescence.

Perhaps more importantly, Taiwan voters’ approval last November of a measure continuing the ban of food imports from Japan’s Fukushima prefecture and surrounding areas did not set back bilateral ties in the manner many had feared. The ban has proven to be a nagging nuisance, but it has not slowed down forward progress. Indeed, just days after the referendum vote, Taipei and Tokyo signed a new agreement and four memoranda of understanding designed to lower trade barriers and deepen economic relations.

Notably, Japan has not been alone in seeking to expand economic ties with Taiwan. It was reported in January that Taiwan was eager to start negotiating a bilateral investment agreement with the European Union and that the EU was still considering the possibility after first raising its intention to do so in 2015. Formal negotiations with the EU are not yet underway, but Taiwan and the United Kingdom (a major trade partner) did just hold the 22nd round of their near-annual trade talks in early October. With London eager to secure markets for its goods and services in the post-Brexit world, the time may be right for progress towards a deal.

Closer to home, the countries of Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Oceania have largely greeted Tsai’s New Southbound Policy with open arms. That policy has sought to expand trade and investment relationships, societal links, and people-to-people ties. Thus far, it has been a success. Many of these countries are sure to remain cautious when it comes to direct engagement with Taiwan’s government, especially with regard to areas touching on security issues, but their willingness to strengthen informal engagement is a bolster to Taiwan’s place in the world.

Explaining Taiwan’s Successes

In part, these developments are driven by personalities. Many of the Trump administration’s senior appointees, especially on the national security side, are strong supporters of a robust bilateral US-Taiwan relationship. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe is, himself, inclined to advance bilateral ties. But it is likely also the case that Chinese assertiveness, which has most Asian states worried, is driving an interest in Taiwan. There are three potential reasons for this.

First, countries inside and outside the Indo-Pacific may agree with Vice President Pence’s argument that engagement with Taiwan “protects peace on Taiwan and throughout the region.” They may recognize that Taiwan’s continuing de facto independence is necessary for the continuation of a relatively stable regional order and for the region’s economic wellbeing. Some may see strengthening informal ties with Taiwan as a way to shore up that order.

Second, it may be the case that Xi Jinping’s dark turn domestically has served to highlight just what Taiwan has to offer others—from its educational institutions, to its high-tech economy, to its social liberalism. For example, as Beijing has further restricted freedoms at home and adopted a high-tech Orwellian approach to social control, students interested in learning Chinese may be starting to see Taiwan as a more attractive place to study.

Third, it is also true that some of China’s malign activities have directly led others to pursue a closer relationship with Taiwan. For example, victims of CCP political warfare efforts have recognized that Taiwan has more experience dealing with those tactics than perhaps any other polity the world over—experience that Taiwan has been happy to share.

China’s aggressiveness in the cyber domain has similarly led its victims to Taiwan’s doorstep. Taiwan, of course, is the number-one target for Chinese hackers and sits on the figurative “front line” of the ongoing cyber conflict between China and much of the rest of the world. Others have recognized this and sought out Taiwan’s know-how as they tackle their own cyber security challenges.

It may be “extremely dangerous,” as Defense Minister Wei put it, “to repeatedly challenge China’s bottom line” on the matter of Taiwan. But countries in Asia and further afield, apparently, also increasingly believe it is dangerous to exclude Taiwan from what Richard Nixon called the “family of nations.” It turns out that Taiwan’s international space is not nearly as limited as Beijing might hope.

The main point: China has succeeded in constraining Taiwan’s international space in some ways in recent years, but its regional assertiveness has also created opportunities for Taiwan to deepen ties with traditional partners and forge ties with new ones.