In aftermath of China scaling up pressure on countries whom it has relations with, Taiwan has started to be isolated as these nations have started to scale down diplomatic ties with it.

China Chronicles, Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, PRC, graduates

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen with new military graduates

This is the twenty second part in the series The China Chronicles.

Read all the articles here.


The establishment of diplomatic relations between Panama and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 12 June was a big setback for Taiwan in its efforts to maintain its international space. The dissolution of ties with Taiwan worsened when Panama officially failed to inform Taipei before the announcement. Reports suggest that the Taiwanese Government learnt about it first from the media. The Panamanian President said, in a televised interview, that Panama was upgrading its commercial ties with China to full diplomatic relations and added that “I am convinced that this is the correct path for our country.” Earlier, the foreign ministers of the two countries signed a Joint Communique. Predictably, the reaction from Taipei was swift and strong. Its Foreign Minister said: “Our government expresses serious objections and strong condemnation in response to China enticing Panama to cut ties with us confining our international space and offending the people of Taiwan.” The official spokesman said that Taiwan would not compete with China in what it described as a “diplomatic money game.”

The PRC and Panama have substantial commercial relations. China is the second most important customer of the Panama Canal. But the decision to cut ties with Taiwan goes far beyond mere commercial interests. The root cause is China’s growing suspicion of the intentions of the current Taiwan President, Tsai Ing-wen. Ever since she came to power last year, China has been increasing pressure on the island. She and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have always been a thorn in China’s side because of their preference for an independent Taiwan.

China’s decision to cut ties with Taiwan goes far beyond mere commercial interests.

Earlier, in December 2016, Sao Tome’ and Principe switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to PRC. Now there are only 20 countries in the world which recognise Taiwan  two from Africa, the Vatican and the rest from Latin America and the South Pacific Island nations.

China’s attitude towards Tsai’s government hardened after the US President-elect Donald Trump’s phone conversation with her. Aggravating the situation was Trump’s subsequent comments questioning the rationale of US’s one-China policy, which is sacrosanct for the PRC. It was a red rag to the bull and China reacted angrily implying tough retaliatory actions. Trump, after taking over as President, did retract his statements and even compensated by the Mar-a-Lago summit. But, as far as China’s increasing suspicion of Taiwan is concerned, the damage was done.

The 1992 Consensus

Compare this to the situation a few years back when Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuo-min Tang (KMT) Party was is power in Taipei. He and his party had always believed in one China even though the interpretations of which differed between PRC and the island. During that period, the two sides had an informal agreement that they would not poach into each other’s diplomatic ties. But Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP are a different kettle of fish. They have not endorsed the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’ which, according to PRC is the fundamental pillar of China-Taiwan relations. The crux of the consensus is: “Both sides agree that Taiwan belonged to China, while continuing to disagree on which China.” This was signed when a KMT government was in power in Taipei. However, the DPP’s position is very clear. It maintains that Taiwan does not belong to any China and should be independent. This position is also a logical corollary of the fact that DPP supporters are mostly native Taiwanese with hardly any connections with the mainland. The PRC, on its part, has not given up the option of using force to unify China. They have, from time to time, reiterated the three conditions for use of force — declaration of independence by Taiwan, indefinite postponement of unification talks and stationing of bases by foreign countries in Taiwan.

Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP are a different kettle of fish. They have not endorsed the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’ which, according to PRC is the fundamental pillar of China-Taiwan relations.

Other pressure tactics

Forcing countries to cut diplomatic ties is not the only instrument that China is using. In the last few months, China has used its clout to keep Taiwan out of several international fora where it has participated in the past. Here are a few examples:

  • In September 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a UN agency declined to issue an invitation to Taiwan to participate as an observer, even though they had done so the previous year.
  • In November 2016, InterPol rejected Taiwanese participation in its general assembly.
  • In May this year, in Perth, Australia, the Chinese delegation to a Kimberly Process Conference on diamond trade blocked Taiwanese participation as an observer, though they had received a formal invitation from the organisers. The Chinese delegation disrupted the proceedings of the inaugural session until the Taiwan delegation was asked to leave.
  • In May 2017, at the World Health Assembly’s annual meeting, China tried to block Taiwan’s participation which had been an observer since 2009.
  • A few months ago, China put pressure on Nigeria to shift the Taiwan trade office from the capital Abuja to the commercial city of Lagos.

There has also been cartographic pressure on Taiwan. Until now, the PRC’s official maps used to show Taiwan as ‘Zhonghua Taiwan’. Recently, they have changed it to ‘Zhongguo Taiwan’. It is not mere semantics. Though both terms mean “China” in a generic sense, “Zhongguo” is normally associated with the PRC. The nomenclature is very dear to China. For example, the PRC objects to the term “Mainland China” because it could imply existence of another China. The politically correct term for the PRC is “Chinese Mainland”.

It is unlikely that China will ease the pressure as long as Tsai is in power. Their hope is that in the next elections in Taiwan, which is a long way away, the KMT will come to power and defuse tensions. As of now, the important question is whether some other countries will follow the example of Sao Tome’ and Principe and Panama. This thought must be giving Taiwanese policy makers sleepless nights.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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