With its June 13 coup de foudre in switching Panama’s diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing, China has set Taiwan firmly on the course toward internationally isolated pariahdom, a sudden burst of diplomatic pressure that appears to have been generated by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party government’s refusal to knuckle under to the so-called “1992 consensus,” a cryptic version of the One China Principle.
That was followed up on June 14, when Taiwan’s foreign ministry confirmed that Nigeria had kicked out Taiwan’s diplomatic envoy and that Dubai, Jordan, Ecuador and Bahrain had forced Taiwanese trade missions to change names, so that the terms “Taiwan” and “Republic of China” were replaced with “Taipei.”
Also on the long list of what the DPP calls China’s “meanness” against the island, the World Health Organization canceled Taiwan’s cherished observer status at the World Health Assembly summit in April. Sao Tome and Principe severed diplomatic ties in December last year.
And, since early June, the UN Human Rights office in Geneva has been barring Taiwanese professors and students from visiting its public gallery with staffers shouting out that “Taiwan is not a country.”
Panama’s decision leaves Taiwan with 20 diplomatic allies, all of which are relative economic pygmies.
Although Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, responded to China’s latest moves with a vow of Taiwan “continuing its due role in the international community,” observers are pessimistic.
“Beijing will keep at this, likely snatch Taiwan’s remaining allies one at a time in order to maximize the pain and political cost on the Tsai Administration,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS University of London China Institute, in an interview with Asia Sentinel.
“There is something in what some DPP people say about the irrelevance of the remaining diplomatic allies, but they can only become irrelevant if the general public in Taiwan think they are irrelevant, and the general public in Taiwan does not as yet see them as irrelevant.”
The China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), which was defeated and left power in January 2016, acknowledged the “1992 consensus” and the "three noes" policy as defined by Ma Ying-jeou – no unification, no independence and no use of force.
The DPP government’s unwavering refusal to adopt that has also resulted in China suspending official cross-Strait communications since it took office in May last year.
According to John F Copper, a US-based political scientist and the author of more than 30 books on China, Taiwan and Asian Affairs, the timing of China ending the so-called “diplomatic truce” that had been in place when the KMT ruled in Taiwan (2008-16) is not surprising.
Copper pointed out that the relationship between Panama and China was an important one and looked to become more important in the future, given that China has become the second largest user of the Panama Canal.
In May last year China’s Landbridge Group purchased Panama’s largest port, Margarita Island Port, for US$900 million, with China having in mind further investments in Panama including building a deep\-water port capable of docking large ships. In addition, China’s COSCO Shipping Corp. has been looking at investing in land around the Panama Canal.
“Given the scope of economic deals and mutual economic interests between China and Panama it was natural that they have formal diplomatic ties,” Copper said.
“Other drivers include President Tsai in recent months engaging in criticism of China and promoting Taiwan’s democracy, noting China is not a democracy, and Chinese leaders were doubtless sick and tired of hearing this.”
Copper argued that China’s relations with the US are now closer, with President Donald Trump – after a precedent-breaking pre-inaugural call to Tsai – developing a highly-publicized friendship with Xi Jinping. That makes it unlikely that Taiwan can count on Washington to offset pressure from China or expect any actions that will help it deal with China’s “meanness.”
“Finally, China is going to convene its 18th Chinese Communist Party congress this fall,” Copper pointed out. “As it is making preparations for that meeting, its leaders do not want to convey the image it is soft on Taiwan and that reunification is not seriously on the agenda.”
According to an analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a private UK-based research consultancy, as Tsai had conducted a state tour to the island’s Latin American allies in June 2016 with the aim of shoring up Taiwan’s dwindling international support, the loss of Panama will make her foreign policy efforts appear impotent at a time when her popularity is already sinking at home.
During her first year in office Tsai rode high on macroeconomic data benefitting from very low comparison bases as well as from the launch cycles of new smartphone models by global brands, most of which have Taiwanese contract manufacturers in the supply chain.
But Tsai’s approval rating nonetheless fell to 39.4 percent in May, down from almost 70 percent a year before, largely by her own making: her administration implemented a “one fixed day off and one flexible day off’ labor policy that with its extreme rigidity hurts employers and employees alike.
Obviously the main pillar of the Tsai administration’s stability is the weakness of the opposition KMT, which has been taking far too long to get rid of their chairwoman, Hung Hsiu-chu, who went totally out of touch with mainstream opinion by openly endorsing the idea of unification with China.
Hung will be replaced on June 30 by Wu Den-yih, a former vice-president, premier and mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city. But Wu’s apparent ambitions to run as the KMT’s contender in the presidential election in 2020 will be undermined by his age – 72 years old by then – which will curtail his appeal to the younger segment of the electorate.
“In response to China snatching Panama and its other moves to further isolate Taiwan, the KMT will promote a more pragmatic, accommodating approach to China as a solution,” said John Marrett, the EIU’s Hong Kong-based lead analyst for Taiwan.
“However, the electorate’s focus remains predominantly on domestic issues, and there is still widespread apprehension of China, so Wu Den-yih will leverage few gains from the event,” he added.
In a scenario where the DPP is losing and the KMT is not winning, there is still some probability for a Chinese win in the all-out diplomatic war.
Copper, for his part, pointed out that some members of Tsai’s party have suggested that the president accept the 1992 Consensus, while others have supported removing the independence clause from the DPP’s party charter, with Tsai’s low popularity making her vulnerable to such pressure.
“This suggests President Tsai should reassess her policies toward China,” Copper said.