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Cross-strait tit-for-tat

Emanuele Scimia December 7, 2016 2:14 AM (UTC+8)
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Tension is running high across the Strait of Taiwan amid a diplomatic tit-for-tat between China and Taipei’s government. Beijing appears determined to downgrade the international projection of the island nation, now led by Tsai Ing-wen – who took over as president in May – and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. The Taiwanese leadership, for its part, is trying to break the Chinese siege while launching an across-the-board political offensive in Asia and beyond.

Taiwan’s dynamism

On top of Taiwan’s recent efforts to ward off risks of China-guided international isolation, there is Tsai’s phone talk with United States President-elect Donald Trump on December 2. Initiated by the Taiwanese side, the call was the first public interaction between an American president or president-elect and a Taiwanese leader since 1979, when Washington severed formal diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing; it amounted to a rupture in the traditional US-Taiwanese diplomatic protocol and triggered China’s “solemn” protests.

Taiwan is also pushing ahead with its “New Southbound Policy”, which is intended to boost trade and economic relations in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Oceania. In a latest development, on November 30, a delegation of Taiwanese entrepreneurs met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who called for more investments from the island nation.

Taiwan’s courting of Japan is not new, but it is moving in high gear at a time when China’s foreign conduct is increasingly assertive and Trump’s future Pacific policy is still unintelligible. However, despite the signing of two cooperation memorandums on November 30, during their annual trade and economic talks, Taipei and Tokyo did not reach a consensus on the conclusion of a an economic partnership agreement, as hoped for by Tsai.

Then, at a recent annual bilateral economic and trade meeting in Brussels, Taiwan called on the European Union to ink a bilateral investment agreement. This is a high priority for the Taiwanese government, because the EU is Taipei’s fourth-largest trading partner, with a commercial turnover totaling some US$46.5 billion in 2015, and its most important foreign investor.

Chinese moves

The Chinese ruling nomenklatura is wary of Tsai’s tenure in power, as she has so far refrained from accepting the 1992 Consensus between Beijing and the Kuomintang (KMT) on the “one-China” principle. China has viewed Taipei as a renegade province since 1949, when the KMT lost the Chinese civil war to the communists and fled to the island, establishing a de facto state entity there, and has often threatened to take it back, with force if needed. China’s President Xi Jinping seems intent on narrowing the foreign policy potential of Tsai’s government, along with any manifest expression of Taipei’s independence.

In this sense, much hype has surrounded Hong Kong customs’ seizure, on November 23, of nine Singapore’s armored carrier vehicles aboard a ship in transit from Taiwan to the city-state. The military equipment impounded by Hong Kong’s authorities was reportedly used during a recent overseas training in Taiwan by Singaporean troops, even though neither Taipei nor Singapore have confirmed that account.

In the framework of the decades-long “Project Starlight,” Singapore’s military personnel is engaged in annual training mission on the island nation’s soil. Beijing has always blasted the city-state for its military cooperation with Taiwan in an attempt, according to many observers, to put an end to it and dissuade other countries in the region from collaborating with Taipei in these terms.

China is also trying to hinder Taiwan’s Southbound Policy. Evidence that Beijing is maneuvering to trouble Taiwanese relations with Southeast Asian nations is seen in Malaysia’s decision to hand to the Chinese authorities 21 Taiwanese nationals on November 29. They were all suspected of a telecom fraud in the mainland, but Taipei protested at Kuala Lumpur’s move, underlining that it was going to damage the long-running friendship between the two countries.

In another blow to Taiwan, it looks like China is completing its rapprochement with the Holy See. In late November, two Chinese bishops were ordained under the auspices of Beijing’s state-run Catholic organization and with the papal approval. A Sino-Vatican deal on episcopal ordinations – the real bone of contention between the two parties – appears now in the offing, and with it the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the Roman Church and Communist China, which were cut in 1951.

The Vatican formal recognition of China would spell an end to official diplomatic links between Taipei and the Holy See, given that Beijing does not accept state-to-state relationships with countries that have diplomatic connections with Taiwan. The Holy See is the cornerstone of Taipei’s formal diplomacy. Its loss would further weaken the Taiwanese web of diplomatic partners, namely a handful of countries – largely small in size and importance – in Latin America, Africa and Oceania. As early as March, China shattered a praxis that it had stuck to during the pro-reunification presidency of Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, and “stole” Gambia’s diplomatic recognition from Taipei.

Still, China is seeking to further isolate the self-ruled island by blocking its participation in international organizations and forums. The brief conversation between Taiwan’s representative to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), James Soong, and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the trans-Pacific organization summit in Peru last November was noted with satisfaction in Taipei, but it is hard to read much into it.

The American role

As usual, it is up to America to set the pace for the cross-strait relations. If the US Congress manages to include a section on senior military-to-military exchanges with Taiwan in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Washington will lean toward a more muscular presence across the Strait. Now to see if this would mark a dramatic shift from the outgoing US administration’s view that closer economic ties between Taipei and Beijing could be more advantageous than simple military deterrence, or will result in a balanced blend of soft and hard power. In the first case, expect a gloomy scenario with more “undiplomatic” cross-strait tit-for-tat.

Emanuele Scimia
Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributing writer to the South China Morning Post and the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. In the past, his articles have also appeared in The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review, The Jerusalem Post and the EUobserver, among others. He has written for Asia Times since 2011.
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