Say goodbye to your little friend

Taiwan’s tiny circle of diplomatic friends has just gotten a little bit smaller. Earlier this week, the island cut official ties with Costa Rica after the Central American nation decided to officially recognize Beijing as the official seat of China. The Republic of China (capital: Taipei) was a founding member of the UN and a ...

601390_taiwan18.jpg
601390_taiwan18.jpg

Taiwan's tiny circle of diplomatic friends has just gotten a little bit smaller. Earlier this week, the island cut official ties with Costa Rica after the Central American nation decided to officially recognize Beijing as the official seat of China. The Republic of China (capital: Taipei) was a founding member of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council. And in 1955, only 23 countries recognized Beijing. But the scorecard today? China: 170, Taiwan: 24.

China and Taiwan have been battling for recognition on the world stage since the end of China's civil war in 1949, when the Kuomintang government fled to Taipei while the Communist Party held onto power in mainland China. The biggest shift in relative power came in 1971, when the UN General Assembly switched its allegiance to Beijing. The U.S. followed suit in 1979.

Since then, Taiwan has struggled mightily to hold onto as many allies as possible, investing heavily in developing the economies of nations in Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific (its last remaining European ally is The Holy See). Costa Rica has been a key partner over the years. A few years ago, I happened to spend some time in Taiwan, followed soon after by a visit to Costa Rica. It was a surreal experience, getting off the plane and driving on highways in San Jose, which were lined with factories flying gigantic Taiwanese flags. When I visited Poas Volcano National Park, I saw a giant special exhibition in the visitor center about the park's sister national park, Taroko Gorge in eastern Taiwan, which I had visited only a couple months earlier. Taiwan's influence was palpable everywhere in the country.

Taiwan’s tiny circle of diplomatic friends has just gotten a little bit smaller. Earlier this week, the island cut official ties with Costa Rica after the Central American nation decided to officially recognize Beijing as the official seat of China. The Republic of China (capital: Taipei) was a founding member of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council. And in 1955, only 23 countries recognized Beijing. But the scorecard today? China: 170, Taiwan: 24.

China and Taiwan have been battling for recognition on the world stage since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when the Kuomintang government fled to Taipei while the Communist Party held onto power in mainland China. The biggest shift in relative power came in 1971, when the UN General Assembly switched its allegiance to Beijing. The U.S. followed suit in 1979.

Since then, Taiwan has struggled mightily to hold onto as many allies as possible, investing heavily in developing the economies of nations in Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific (its last remaining European ally is The Holy See). Costa Rica has been a key partner over the years. A few years ago, I happened to spend some time in Taiwan, followed soon after by a visit to Costa Rica. It was a surreal experience, getting off the plane and driving on highways in San Jose, which were lined with factories flying gigantic Taiwanese flags. When I visited Poas Volcano National Park, I saw a giant special exhibition in the visitor center about the park’s sister national park, Taroko Gorge in eastern Taiwan, which I had visited only a couple months earlier. Taiwan’s influence was palpable everywhere in the country.

Such were the fruits of Taiwan’s checkbook diplomacy. The ink on that checkbook may not be running dry (in an atypical diplomatic maneuver, St. Lucia actually switched allegiance from Beijing to Taipei this past April), but it’s dwarfed by an even bigger checkbook being waived from across the Taiwan Strait. Among Taiwan’s remaining 24 allies are powerhouses like Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Sao Tome and Principe. Costa Rica, with its population of 4.1 million, was one of the bigger ones. But no more. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias said that his recognition of Beijing was purely for economic reasons. “It is an act of elemental realism,” he said. Small comfort to the people of Taiwan, who are learning that life on an island can be lonely indeed.

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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