Taiwan needs other ways to make friends

opinion June 16, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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Caught In a tightening diplomatic clamp, Taipei should be moving southward in earnest

Panama’s decision this week to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan represented a major coup for China. The Central American nation had been a strong supporter of the “democratic little China” but, in another instance of realpolitik altering the world’s trade and diplomatic landscapes, it had little choice but to shift alliances to Da Zhongguo – Great China. 

The number of countries maintaining ties with Taiwan will continue dwindling as China grows richer and more globally powerful. Only 20 nations still have embassies in Taipei. Their loyalty is based largely on the island-territory’s firm roots in democracy and its independently minded citizens. Taiwan’s reputation is admired around the world. Its citizens, with their green passports, can freely visit more than 154 countries without applying for a visa beforehand. 

Taiwan is a recognised “brand”, and even the world’s second-biggest economy must be envious. And yet Taiwan simply cannot compete with the immense gravitational force emanating from Beijing.

Against all the evident odds, though, Taiwan must hold to the democratic path, even if the day comes when there are no countries backing it in its resistance to Beijing’s rule. To do so, it must find fresh ways to engage China and the international community. Beijing is becoming more assertive about its long-standing “One China” policy, by which its island neighbour is viewed as a rogue province of the motherland that will inevitably be brought back into the fold, as was Tibet. 

With Singapore in a legal quagmire after nine armoured personnel carriers from there were seized in Hong Kong last November, other Southeast Asian countries are treading carefully in their dealings with China. Any nations in the region 

considering closer ties with Taipei must now think twice, since Beijing is no longer tolerant of such overtures. A casual if cagey phone call between the presidents of Taiwan and the United States in January left China bristling.

All but abandoned by long-time supporters and with limited 

diplomatic clout, Taiwan is going to have to promote people-to-people relations more. One worthwhile measure might be sending a volunteer “peace corps” to each Southeast Asian country, tapping the energy of its youth to spread the message that the territory is worth keeping and nurturing as a friend, regardless of any dealings with China, the Asian Goliath. 

This sort of “outside the box” thinking ought to produce innovative means of survival, whereas 

fretting over the lack of official recognition would be unhelpful. President Tsai Ing-wen’s tougher line on China has only strengthened Beijing’s hand, but she has yet to utilise her “Southbound” policy, by which connections with South and Southeast Asia would be strengthened.

Taiwan is almost certain to lose the rest of its diplomatic partners, including 11 other Latin American nations, but it can maintain and even shore up trade and economic relations with any willing country, offering advanced technology and a highly skilled workforce. It has much to contribute to the world, and it is surely only a matter of time before more countries come to recognise the benefits of striking deals with Taipei.

In the meantime Taiwan should remain steadfast and make sure democracy continues to flourish, improving the wellbeing of its citizens and setting an example for neighbouring countries.