By Tung Chen-yuan µ£®¶·½
Following Gambian President Yahya Jammeh¡¦s announcement on Nov. 14 that his
country was unilaterally terminating its diplomatic relations with Taiwan,
President Ma Ying-jeou¡¦s (°¨^¤E) government made strenuous efforts to mend ties.
If these efforts had succeeded, it would have allowed Ma to maintain an
achievement of losing no diplomatic partners since he became president in 2008.
The government was also at pains to say that the Gambia¡¦s decision to cut off
ties with Taiwan had nothing to do with China. The point of this was to prove
that Ma¡¦s policy of ¡§flexible diplomacy¡¨ had not failed. China¡¦s foreign
ministry also played innocent, saying that it had known nothing about the
Gambia¡¦s impending break-off with Taiwan and had no hand in it. Nonetheless, the
Ma government¡¦s handling of this incident highlights the difficulty of
maintaining its policy of ¡§flexible diplomacy,¡¨ and the debacle has once more
damaged the nation¡¦s dignity.
The reality we must face is that Jammeh has openly terminated diplomatic ties
with Taiwan. It is a done deed, unless it turns out that the Gambian president
does not have the power to do such a thing. The special emissaries Taiwan sent
to the Gambia immediately following Jammeh¡¦s announcement probably tried hard to
reason with him, as well as appealing to his better nature. They may have
suggested that China might not want to establish ties with the Gambia or give it
any more aid than Taiwan was giving. Perhaps, in the hope of getting him to
change his mind, they asked Jammeh to think about the many years of friendship
between the Gambia and Taiwan and the aid that Taiwan would continue to provide
in the future. All the things Taiwan¡¦s emissaries may have suggested could well
come to pass, but this kind of pleading puts Taiwan¡¦s national dignity at stake.
The most it could have achieved was a dubious achievement for Ma¡¦s ¡§flexible
diplomacy.¡¨ As it turned out, Jammeh was not willing to change his mind, and the
result has been a big loss of face for Taiwan.
The root cause behind the Gambia¡¦s termination of diplomatic relations with
Taiwan is the ¡§one China¡¨ principle advocated by China. Even if China did not
ask the Gambia to cut off ties with Taiwan, it is still China¡¦s ¡§one China¡¨
principle that forces the Gambia and other diplomatic partners of Taiwan to
choose between one side of the Taiwan Strait or the other. Only if they break
off ties with Taiwan can they establish diplomatic relations with China. It also
means that the Gambia can, if it wishes, use the ¡§one China¡¨ principle to coerce
Taiwan to give it more aid. China¡¦s claim that it had no hand in the Gambia¡¦s
severance of ties with Taiwan is just feigned innocence intended to win
Of course Taiwan still has to face up to international realities and adjust its
strategy and tactics accordingly. People in Taiwan do not like using checkbook
diplomacy to compete with China for diplomatic recognition. They do not want
Taiwan to behave like a sugar daddy. Apart from the moral and legal questions
associated with checkbook diplomacy, Taiwan¡¦s economic power these days is no
match for China, so it is not possible for it to go on using this approach to
compete with China for diplomatic recognition. In view of Taiwan¡¦s weakening
position vis-a-vis its opponent in the international community, this country
will have to get away from its obsession with the number of diplomatic allies it
has. Only such a change of emphasis can offer a real solution.
Even if Taiwan were to drop its ¡§one China¡¨ principle and pursue dual
recognition, China¡¦s diplomatic clout and its insistence on upholding the ¡§one
China¡¨ principle would put this goal out of Taiwan¡¦s reach. Whenever Taiwan
establishes diplomatic relations with any country, China will break off ties
with that country straightaway, because China demands that its diplomatic
partners cannot have official ties with Taiwan. Given this reality, Taiwan
should not get bogged down in ideological confrontation in the domestic sphere,
with some people thinking that Taiwan¡¦s ¡§one China¡¨ principle is the root cause
of all its diplomatic setbacks. The real cause is China and its ¡§one China¡¨
principle, as well as its fast-growing diplomatic influence.
The ¡§flexible diplomacy¡¨ that Ma advocates relies on China¡¦s goodwill. It still
stresses the number of Taiwan¡¦s diplomatic partners, and this is the Achilles¡¦
heel of Taiwan¡¦s foreign relations. If Taiwan cannot get away from this
obsession with numbers, it will never gain confidence about its place in the
international community. Taiwanese will go on thinking that the global community
is isolating us.
The truth is that Taiwan has de facto diplomatic relations with more than 100
other countries, including the US, Japan, EU members and every nation in
Southeast Asia. The number of countries with which Taiwan maintains official
diplomatic relations does not reflect this reality at all.
As things stand, at least three of Taiwan¡¦s diplomatic partner countries want to
set up relations with China. The only obstacle in their way is China¡¦s restraint
and its unwillingness to establish official diplomatic ties with them. As
China¡¦s economic influence and international influence grow ever stronger,
Taiwan¡¦s continued obsession with the number of its diplomatic partners, which
lies at the heart of Ma¡¦s ¡§flexible diplomacy,¡¨ amounts to handing China a
lethal weapon that it can use to inflict punishment on Taiwan whenever it is
displeased with Taiwan¡¦s behavior. Ma¡¦s current political stance suits China¡¦s
needs very well. If China decides that it wants to put more pressure on Ma, or
if a future Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government shifts to a different
political stance, China will be able to twist Taiwan¡¦s arm even harder then it
Ma¡¦s ¡§flexible diplomacy¡¨ is like a reservoir. The more his ¡§diplomatic truce¡¨
succeeds, the more water gets stored up in the reservoir. Should the dam break,
the resulting floodwater will cause a major disaster. To make matters worse, the
flexible diplomacy reservoir is quickly filling up with political silt. The next
presidential election is scheduled for 2016. The result of that election could
break the dam and send the accumulated silt pouring down in a political mudslide
that sweeps Taiwanese confidence away.
The Gambian incident makes this prospect very clear. Because Ma¡¦s ¡§flexible
diplomacy¡¨ depends on China¡¦s goodwill, his government needs to prove that China
has shown no ill will in the affair. The government assures us that China did
not intervene in relations between the Gambia and Taiwan before the Gambia broke
off ties, and even suggests that China will not establish diplomatic relations
with the Gambia. These assurances are needed to demonstrate that ¡§flexible
diplomacy¡¨ has not failed.
Is it really such a good idea to make Taiwan¡¦s foreign relations dependent on
China¡¦s goodwill? Even if China does not establish diplomatic ties with the
Gambia and had no idea about what Jammeh was planning to do, is that any
guarantee that Taiwan can maintain diplomatic relations with its existing
partners for the foreseeable future? Herein lie the difficulties and limits of
¡§flexible diplomacy¡¨ as it exists today.
If we are not clear about the difficulties and limits of ¡§flexible diplomacy,¡¨
Taiwan will not be able to get out of its foreign-relations predicament. While
Ma¡¦s government concentrates on maintaining the number of Taiwan¡¦s diplomatic
partner countries, it has not been able to significantly cut the monetary price
that Taiwan pays to keep up the numbers, nor has it widened Taiwan¡¦s space on
the international stage to any great extent. Given these realities, Taiwan
should prioritize and cherish the de facto diplomatic relations it maintains
with nearly 100 countries. If Taiwan fulfills its obligations as a member of the
international community, it will enjoy other countries¡¦ respect. That would be
much more productive than just pursuing nominal diplomatic relations ¡X an
approach that could breach the dam of Taiwan¡¦s foreign relations in the end.
Tung Chen-yuan is a professor in National Chengchi University¡¦s Graduate
Institute of Development Studies.
Translated by Julian Clegg