July 15th 2017

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COVER STORIES Liberal discontents take internal struggle to Shakespearean heights

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell charged: the process is the punishment

EUTHANASIA What Boudewijn Chabot can teach Victoria

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Taiwan's 'friends' make the Beijing cut

FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE NT abortion law oppressive towards health professionals

HEALTH Gardasil(R) and the man upon the stair, Part I

AFRICAN AFFAIRS Special force deals with scourge of poaching

MUSIC Andrea Keller: transpositions of death and grief

CINEMA Cars 3: On ageing without rusting

BOOK REVIEW Biggest democracy makes big strides

BOOK REVIEW A refinement of the Industrial Revolution


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Taiwan's 'friends' make the Beijing cut

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, July 15, 2017

Panama severed formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan on June 13 this year, ending over 100 years of cordial relations between the Central-American nation and the Republic of China. Beijing’s cheque book has become too fat to ignore and observers in Taiwan fear that Panama will be only the first in a cascade of Central-American nations dumping Taiwan to gain a slice of Beijing’s pie.

Beijing and Taipei had reached a de facto diplomatic truce when Ma Ying-jeou was president. Ma, who represented the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, upheld the “1992 Consensus”, which meant that there was only one China, with each side giving that phrase its own interpretation. Beijing undertook not to poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies as long as Taipei undertook to uphold the 1992 Consensus. The important thing for Beijing is that there not be “one China and one Taiwan” or “two Chinas”.

The truce held until the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. Tsai is the first female president of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s official name. She is not the first president from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – President Chen Shui-bian had preceded her – but for the first time the DPP held the presidency and also had a majority in Taiwan’s unicameral parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

Beijing was immediately suspicious of Tsai’s motives. Although she tried to fudge the issue, she refused to come out in support of the 1992 Consensus. Beijing immediately halved the number of mainland tourists visiting Taiwan, causing economic distress in central and southern Taiwan, the DPP’s heartland.

Taiwan had previously held observer status at the World Health Assembly (WHA), courtesy of Beijing, which has an effective veto over entry. This year, Taiwan was denied entry. This is important, not only for Taiwan, but because Taiwan has a great deal of expertise in areas such as tropical medicine and public health in less developed countries that it can transfer to other members. Beijing signaled that the truce was over in December last year, when Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny island off Africa’s equatorial coast, recognised Beijing and severed ties with Taiwan.

Taiwan cannot compete with Beijing when it comes to cheque-book diplomacy. It took Beijing billions of dollars to lure Panama into its network of smaller Central-American countries, and in a small country, a billion dollars will go a very long way.

Some commentators are questioning whether President Tsai is up to the job of defending Taiwan’s interests. The political elite has a sense of foreboding about Taiwan’s diplomatic future.

Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation stems from its position as “Island China”. Officially, Taiwan is known as the Republic of China. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek led his forces to Taiwan following the expulsion of the KMT government from mainland China after Mao Zedong’s Communists won the long-running civil war.

On the diplomatic front, things went relatively well until Beijing took the China seat in the United Nations in 1971. Taipei had been a permanent member of the UN Security Council and being overtaken by Beijing was a tremendous shock. China was embroiled in the mass lunacy known as the Cultural Revolution and in the short term, the leakage of allies from Taiwan was gradual. In the longer run, as China became an emerging economic colossus, “the allies” as they were known began to slip away.

Taiwan now has formal ties with 19 countries, mostly in Africa and the Pacific, and also the Holy See. The Holy See is Taiwan’s only ally in Europe.

The Church is a special case, because it is in constant dialogue with Beijing. Its concerns are different from those of the other nations that recognise Taipei. First, it is concerned with the welfare of believers in China, of which there are many millions; and second, the Vatican will not recognise bishops solely appointed by the authorities in China without its consent.

Swaziland is another unusual ally. Swaziland is ruled by a king who is one of the world’s last absolute monarchs. He has in excess of 20 wives, most of whom accompany him when he travels to Taiwan.

Australia on the whole regards Taiwan as a prosperous middle ranking power with which we have a robust economic relationship. The Australian Office in Taipei no longer even maintains the pretense that it is not an arm of the Australian government, as it did in the past.

There is also potential for political destabilisation through diplomatic competition between Beijing and Taipei among the Pacific island states. Six island states recognise Taipei: Kiribati, Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

What future is there for Taiwan’s democracy in Central America? On June 14, the BBC gave a gloomy prognosis: “For Central American countries that have become democracies, recognising China is not just about money … They also want to be seen as ‘diplomatically normal,’ instead of global outliers.”

Taiwan’s diplomatic dilemma has no easy solution. The unofficial ties that Taiwan has with dozens of countries around the world, including Australia, lack the political effectiveness of formal diplomatic relations. According to one senior Australian diplomat, Taiwan’s Representative in Canberra “sees who he needs to see”.

Even so, the “diplomatic space” Beijing had promised Taipei under President Ma is rapidly contracting. Beijing does not trust President Tsai and the communists will squeeze Taiwan harder the longer she retains power.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm