Taiwan Rattled by Prospect Of Losing Allies to China

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These are difficult days for Taiwan—a democratic and prosperous nation of 23 million that, despite its astonishing economic success, just can’t seem to get any respect. Early last month, Costa Rica announced it would recognize the People’s Republic of China, sending panic waves throughout Taipei.

In response, Taiwan severed relations with its old Central American ally—ending a 63-year-old friendship that had appeared to be unshakable.

The tit-for-tat diplomacy wasn’t entirely unexpected, however. “In late May, we got word that Costa Rica’s foreign minister was in China, negotiating to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. So we knew there might be some sort of crisis coming,” says Jaushieh Joseph Wu, representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington.

The timing of the announcement by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias was particularly inappropriate, says Wu, because Arias won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize in June, which falls around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“We tried to talk reason and see if there was anything we could do to reverse the decision, telling him it would be very bad for his international image to establish relations with China at that time. But after a few days of intense negotiations, we realized it was impossible,” Wu told The Washington Diplomat with some bitterness.

In San José, Arias called his decision to recognize the People’s Republic of China “an act of elemental realism” based on China’s economic might, and he criticized Taiwan as being stingy with its foreign aid programs.

“I always told the Taiwanese that if you want to have friends in the world, you should be more generous,” the Costa Rican president said in comments picked up by local media. “Considering the few friends they have, they don’t treat them very well. Without a doubt, we’ll get more help from China.”

Indeed, cold hard cash and the promise of enormous new trading opportunities with China seem to have won out over Costa Rica’s long-cherished embrace of freedom and democracy. According to Wu, China offered Costa Rica 0 million if Arias agreed to switch allegiance from Taipei to Beijing—an amount that works out to 8 for every man, woman and child in Costa Rica.

“This feels like a betrayal because even while we’ve been helping the Costa Ricans, they’ve been trying to hide their true intentions from us,” says Wu, noting that Taiwan’s embassy in San José is already in the process of being closed.

Costa Rica’s decision leaves only 24 governments around the world that recognize Taiwan as the sole legitimate representative of the Chinese nation. Together, these two dozen countries have a combined population of only 88 million.

The largest of them is Guatemala, with 14.2 million inhabitants, while six of them—Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau, St. Kitts and Nevis, Marshall Islands and the Vatican—are among the 10 least-populated countries in the world.

That makes Wu’s job as representative of TECRO’s Washington office infinitely harder. “This is a fact of life for Taiwanese diplomats,” he says with a sigh. “China is getting bigger, wealthier and more influential, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing is more willing than ever to spend a large amount of money to influence other countries’ foreign policies.”

Wu, 53, has been Taiwan’s man in Washington since mid-April. Before coming to the United States, he chaired his country’s Mainland Affairs Council and prior to that, served as deputy secretary-general to the president.

“I’m called a representative of Taipei, but people understand this is a government institution,” he explains. “Even though we are not formally recognized, we function like a real embassy and issue visas. Everything we do is exactly like other embassies, and I can be considered one of the most active diplomats in Washington.

“Usually, I’m very eager to talk to journalists. I have monthly meetings with journalists here in town, and I also pick up the phone and call them up. I don’t know whether there are any other diplomats in D.C. who do it the same way I do,” he says. “I also engage with members of Congress. I go to Capitol Hill all the time and try to bring them up to date on Taiwan’s relations with the United States.”

At the same time, he adds: “We’ve been cooperating with the United States on a number of initiatives—for example, the container security initiative, making sure that containers which move through Color Taiwanese ports don’t go to North Korea for processing of weapons of mass destruction.”

In the wake of Taiwan’s Costa Rican setback, Taiwanese Foreign Minister James Huang is cracking the whip to hold onto the island’s remaining allies in Latin America.

The Associated Press quoted Huang as saying: “I’ve asked our embassies to take extreme precautions against any further pressure by the Chinese communists.” Huang didn’t elaborate on what the embassies would do, saying only that “now we have to step up our diplomatic work.”

The AP also quoted analyst Andrew Yang of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies as saying that Costa Rica’s action was a huge blow to Taiwan’s international standing. “Probably Nicaragua and Panama are next, and then maybe Paraguay,” Yang told the news service.

For many observers, why Nicaragua hasn’t already severed relations with Taiwan is a mystery. The country’s new president, Daniel Ortega, is a longtime Marxist who as Nicaragua’s revolutionary leader during the 1970s cultivated ties with Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam.

And in the case of Panama, this may only be a matter of time too. Despite massive investment by Taiwan into Panamanian industrial parks and free trade zones, China is becoming a major investor in the Central American nation as well. It’s already the third-largest user of the Panama Canal, which is itself about to undergo a billion expansion.

“We don’t see any serious indicators that other countries will follow suit, but this is a serious concern to policymakers in Taipei,” Wu admits. “From what we know, the Chinese government is very active in Latin America, working several of our allies hard.”

According to Wu, China promised the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada a 0 million aid package if the island would recognize Beijing instead of Taiwan. Senegal was won over with an offer of 0 million, Wu says.

For Beijing, breaking ties with Taiwan and recognizing mainland China as the sole legitimate government of the Chinese people is a prerequisite for having diplomatic relations with the world’s most populous country.

Taiwan lost its most important ally, the United States, in 1979, when the Carter administration established relations with mainland China and dropped formal recognition of Taiwan. That came eight years after the loss of Taiwan’s seat at the United Nations.

Even so, the United States remains Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner—after China itself—and just last month, a visiting Taiwanese trade delegation agreed to buy billion in U.S. agricultural products over the next five years.

“We want to use these kinds of procurement plans to remind our American friends—including those in different states and on Capitol Hill—that bilateral relations are not only important for Taiwan’s interests but also for American interests,” says Wu.

He adds that despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties, “the United States is the most important friend Taiwan has. There’s no doubt about it. Security is indispensable for Taiwan’s safety.”

Wu is specifically referring to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which mandates U.S. military protection of Taiwan in defense of its independence from China, while not actually disputing Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is merely a renegade province of China.

“Our American friends told us that if Taiwan is attacked without any provocation, the U.S. will help Taiwan defend itself and provide us with the necessary defense. But at the same time, we were told that if Taiwan provoked the situation, the U.S. might not be there for us.”

Exactly what “provocation” means is subject to debate, although Wu suggested that “if we have a formal declaration of independence or change the flag, or change the name of our country from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan, that might count as provocation.”

For that reason, he says that “at the beginning of President [Chen Shui-bian’s] term, he pledged that as long as China didn’t have hostile intents, he would not have a referendum on independence.”

Despite its best efforts, international support for Taiwan has been steadily eroding ever since 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In the 1990s, the most serious defections came from some staunchly anti-communist countries: South Korea and Saudi Arabia (1992) and South Africa (1998).

“For those countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we try to cultivate substantive relations underneath the official cover,” Wu says, noting that Taiwan maintains trade offices in dozens of cities abroad, from Buenos Aires to Bangkok.

Half of the governments that still have relations with Taiwan are in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Paraguay—Taiwan’s only friend in South America. That’s a holdover from the regime of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who was a rabid fascist and made sure his country had nothing to do with the “reds.”

Wu says that despite Paraguay’s recent establishment of ties with communist Cuba, there’s little danger the country would defect to Beijing anytime soon.

“In the past few years, our president has visited Paraguay, and we’re trying to help Paraguay with all kinds of development projects,” he says. “There’s even a Taiwan village in a suburb of Asunción.”

As bad as Taiwan’s immediate diplomatic outlook is, Wu says things have been worse. “The lowest number of countries recognizing Taiwan was 19, and that was back in 1996,” Wu says. “I don’t think this means all of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are going in this direction. Some countries understand the way we try to approach assistance. They feel Taiwan is more dependable.”

One such example is St. Lucia, which in May decided to switch relations back from Beijing to Taipei, even after the communist Chinese built a soccer stadium for the tiny Caribbean nation.

For the purposes of foreign assistance, Taiwan has divided its friends into two groups: small countries and large ones. “We examine what specific projects these countries need, whether they’re in agriculture or health care,” Wu explains. “Usually, with almost no exceptions to this rule, we try to do it within million a year for larger countries, and million a year for smaller countries.

“Within these limits, we try to provide all kinds of assistance and support, including sending Taiwanese experts to those areas. What we deliver is not cash, but services and development. China, meanwhile, promises huge amounts of money, writing off loans or buying up national debt. In the case of Costa Rica, they will buy up Costa Rica’s national debt for 0 million.”

Perhaps the best example of Taiwan’s softer approach, he says, is the landlocked nation of Burkina Faso, sandwiched between Mali, Niger and four smaller West African countries.

“Burkina Faso re-recognized Taiwan in the early 1990s. We found that this country needed agricultural development, so we sent a team of experts to Burkina Faso and discovered that the soil was perfect for rice production,” says Wu. “Since then, Burkina Faso has been turned into the green miracle of the African continent and now produces more rice than it can consume. Our relations with Burkina Faso are very solid, and since then we’ve started to look into what they need in other areas.”

By contrast, Wu argues, China is behaving irresponsibly in Africa and promising the stars while extracting petroleum, natural gas and minerals to fuel its booming export-driven economy.

“If you look at Africa’s trouble spots, you almost always find China behind it,” Wu charges. “The Chinese government supports these repressive regimes in exchange for raw materials. And very often, they promise personal donations and bribery.”

A perfect example, he says, is Sudan. Wu predicts that “as the genocide in Darfur continues, there will be more and more international pressure on China to bring the massacre to an end by demanding that the [Omar] al-Bashir regime stop its killing in Darfur.”

But that’s not the only issue involving Beijing. “China makes investments in Africa and supposedly helps these countries develop their economies. But these businessmen and state-owned enterprises are not helping the way they should,” Wu complains. “When China promises infrastructure, they bring in their own people from China. They don’t create job opportunities.

“Also, when Chinese investors come in, they ignore safety regulations. This causes Africans to resent them. There are even cases where small- and medium-size businessmen went to Africa looking for opportunities, and when they saw the handicrafts made by Africans, they copied the designs and are now selling them in Africa for less than the Africans themselves can sell it.”

A longer-term issue is whether the Chinese government itself can continue to dole out millions of dollars in aid to poor countries while confronting its massive poverty at home.

“They want to hurt Taiwan by gaining relations with those countries, but the more they do, the more difficult it’ll be to deliver what they promise,” Wu says. “China will soon run into trouble. The U.S. is already suspicious about China’s motives.”

In fact, Wu adds: “Some countries switched recognition [to Beijing] in the 1990s and then found out that the Chinese were not able to deliver. But we did not take them back because their attitude wasn’t right.”

An academic by profession, Wu was associated for years with Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. Among other things, Wu possesses a master’s from the University of Missouri and a doctorate from Ohio State University—both in political science. He’s written a number of articles for scholarly publications on the subject of international relations, including a 2001 treatise titled “China Rising: Implications of Economic and Military Growth in the PRC.”

While still in college, Wu did something out of the ordinary and traveled to Jordan—despite years of being told by his country’s military dictatorship at the time that “Israel was Taiwan’s friend” and that the Arabs were all terrorists.

“I took a class on the Middle East, and some of my classmates wanted to form an association to support the Palestinians,” he recalls. “I was so interested that I ended up spending a summer at the University of Yarmouk studying Arabic. Propaganda is propaganda, and you quickly learn that there are no good guys and no bad guys.

“Yet the Chinese government continues to brainwash the people, and the people believe it,” he says. “China continues to tell its people that Taiwan is a holy and inalienable part of Chinese territory and that it must be taken back at all costs. That kind of memory is not going to fade away.”

As a Taiwanese diplomat, Wu says there’s nothing in his country’s laws preventing him from visiting the mainland. “The problem is that the Chinese government doesn’t recognize us,” he says. “I don’t think my government would say no, as long as there’s a mission for me. But we understand the Chinese government would not let me in.”

Wu actually traveled to the mainland once, in 1999—but that was still when he was a professor. “I tried to chat with cab drivers and bystanders, but I didn’t want them to know I was Taiwanese,” he recalls. “I gradually led them into discussions about Taiwan, which got them very excited. Some started jumping up and down, insisting that if the Taiwanese declared independence, China would have to wipe them out.”

Yet there may never be a need to resort to military force. “China’s current policy is to lure the Taiwanese economy closer to China and try to cultivate friendship with the opposition,” Wu says. “The Chinese government doesn’t seem to need to resort to the use of force as long as their current policy is working.”

It is perhaps no irony that China—the very country that denies Taiwan’s existence as a separate nation—has become Taiwan’s most important business partner.

Since the early 1990s, Taiwanese companies have invested around 0 billion in mainland China. At present, some 90 local Taiwanese chambers of commerce are scattered throughout China, according to Wu. In addition, more than 1 million Taiwanese nationals have taken up long-term residence in China, settling mainly in Guangdong province and Greater Shanghai.

While not as dramatic as mainland China’s growth, Taiwan’s economy appears to be doing well. Last year, the country’s gross domestic product grew by 4.7 percent, while maintaining unemployment at only 3.7 percent and keeping 0 billion in reserves—much of which it uses to help win friends and influence around the world.

Wu estimates Taiwan’s current per-capita income at ,000. Coming up with a comparable figure for the mainland is much harder, however, due to China’s enormous regional disparities in living standards.

“In rich areas like Shanghai or Beijing, per-capita income might be ,000 or ,000, but in the remote countryside, where two-thirds of Chinese live, per-capita income might be as low as 0 a year. There are whole villages described by experts as being below the poverty line,” Wu says.

One place Taiwan is keeping a close eye on is Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

“We’ve observed the subtle changes that have taken place in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. What we see is China chipping away at the original press freedoms,” Wu charges. “Hong Kong used to be very proud of its independent journalists. But now, there’s only one print media outlet, Apple Daily, not influenced by China.

“Hong Kong also used to be very proud of its independent TV stations, but Chinese capital has bought out everything,” he adds. “Beginning about three or four years ago, the Chinese government started cracking down on independent TV commentators. Now they do not comment anymore. They simply disappeared from the TV screen.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999