Can Taiwan survive an avalanche?

Debate breaks loose on whether Taiwan needs official allies

Can Taiwan survive an avalanche?

(CNA photo)

On December 21, 1471, Portuguese sailors arrived at a small island off the west coast of Central Africa which they named after the patron saint of the day, Saint Thomas, or in Portuguese, Sao Tome.

Almost precisely 545 years later to the day, there was little to celebrate for Taiwan. The country that included Sao Tome and another nearby island, Principe, broke away from Taipei, deciding to open up relations with the People's Republic of China instead.

Until December 21, most Taiwanese were probably completely unaware of the tiny country’s existence, as were most other people around the world.

That all changed because the president of Sao Tome and Principe reportedly wanted an extra US$200 million from Taiwan, and the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen refused.

The African country then did what several other nations have done before, drop Taiwan like a stone and go looking for the money in rival China.

While many commentators deplored the change as another setback for Taiwan's international presence, others questioned the relevance of maintaining allies most people, both in Taiwan or abroad, have never heard of.

Despite pictures of beaches and palm trees, Sao Tome and Principe is not a holiday destination, unlike the only African country which is smaller, the Seychelles, on the other side of the continent. Most of the benefits went in one direction, with Taiwan helping fight malaria and developing the two islands' agriculture.

Now that the misery over Sao Tome and Principe is likely to wane, the question is whether its departure was an isolated incident or only the beginning for what is coming next.

It could be a case of "one down, 21 to go," since most of Taiwan's 21 remaining diplomatic allies are relatively poor or small nations in the Pacific, the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, where only the landlocked nations of Burkina Faso and Swaziland remain.

Most of those countries are in financial situations which could easily lead to demands for more assistance, with a negative reaction likely to be followed by a turn in Beijing's direction.

The nature of those allies explains the fear of a "domino effect" turning into an "avalanche" in the near future, especially since China is unlikely to want to do the Tsai Administration any favors.

Nicaragua has already been identified as the most likely next domino, mostly because of President Daniel Ortega's record. After he led the Sandinista revolution against the United States-backed Somoza government, he broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan to recognize China in 1980.

However, on a positive note, there is also evidence to the contrary. When he returned to power in 2007, he did not tinker with the relationship with Taiwan, which had been re-established by a right-leaning Nicaraguan government.

The country's economic problems and a plan to dig a waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans similar to the Panama Canal could drive it into China's arms.

The timing of any loss of Nicaragua would likely be embarrassing as President Tsai Ing-wen is due to visit the country as part of a tour of four Central-American nations next month, which has been particularly focused on Ortega's inauguration in early January.

One of Taiwan's smallest allies might be the hardest to lose, namely the Vatican, home of the leader of the Catholic Church and the only ally located in Europe. While suspicions of rapprochement between China's communist leaders and the Pope are not new, recent comments by Catholic officials, including those in Hong Kong, seem to indicate that things are moving in the wrong direction from Taiwan's point of view.

The Sao Tome and Principe crisis has also drawn attention again to what the role of diplomatic alliances should be.

While most Taiwanese can barely name the country's allies, they come in useful mainly as a reservoir of votes at international organizations, as highlighted by the annual United Nations Assembly in New York, where the Taiwanese media count how many country representatives or heads of state spoke out on behalf of their lonely ally.

While this event can count as positive, nevertheless, with only about 20 allies, "winning" any votes at the UN is hardly likely if you have China and its diplomatic allies lined up against you.

The presence of allies help emphasize the image of Taiwan as a country willing to take up its international responsibility and provide aid in fields like health care and agricultural development, but inevitably lead to accusations of dollar diplomacy.

Considering past experiences, there will always be a moment when the ally expects too much and will seek money elsewhere, regardless of past statements emphasizing shared values of democracy, freedom, human rights etcetera.

One theory has it that the loss of Sao Tome and Principe is China's way of punishing Tsai for her unprecedented phone call to congratulate United States President-elect Donald Trump, but as she has pointed out, China's efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically did not start there.

"Losing" Gambia happened on President Ma Ying-jeou's watch, even if only in slow motion, with Gambia first rupturing relations three years ago and Beijing waiting to take the next logical step and open ties with the West African country by the end of Ma's rule.

Sao Tome and Principe is only one small step in a long process which started with the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, its admission to the United Nations in 1971 and U.S. President Jimmy Carter's switch to Beijing in 1979.

It would be wishful thinking to say that the drop in allies is going to stop, or that Taiwan will regain lost friends. On the other hand, it would be too radical to say, as former Democratic Progressive Party Chairman Hsu Hsin-liang recently did, that it really would not matter if Taiwan had not a single diplomatic ally left, because most of them were a burden anyway.

Hsu was right though in saying that Taiwan should focus on real friends, and most of those are countries that have no official diplomatic relations with Taipei, such as the U.S. and Singapore.

In this scenario, the government's "New Southbound Policy" is the right way to go, by emphasizing economically forward-looking countries in a region close by. While unlikely to generate new diplomatic allies, it will improve economic and other ties in a more realistic way than official diplomatic links to two islands in a distant continent ever could.

Updated : 2021-04-17 05:30 GMT+08:00