It’s Time to Stop Pandering to Beijing Over Taiwan

An independent nation deserves a place on the global stage.

A supporter of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen
A supporter of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen waves a flag outside the campaign headquarters in Taipei on Jan. 11. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Taiwan is the only developed country in the world right now where all schools are open, and one of the very few where professional baseball, basketball, and soccer are being played, though behind closed doors. It’s a testament to the island state’s relative success in containing the novel coronavirus outbreak. But besides playing ball at home, Taiwan is also doing its part in international coronavirus efforts, such as donating millions of face masks and cooperating in research initiatives.

The island has been widely recognized for its domestic coronavirus campaign and face mask donations to the United States, the European Union, Asian neighbors, and its allies. Making it even more impressive is that Taiwan is doing all this without the help of the World Health Organization, whose officials have repeatedly ignored or made spurious claims about Taiwan.

That’s because Taiwan is a pariah state on the international arena, excluded from multilateral organizations like the United Nations and WHO because of China’s insistence that Taiwan is rightfully under Beijing’s domain. And yet the case for Taiwan to be recognized as a country and a national actor in multilateral institutions is stronger than ever.

Taiwan is a de facto independent state whose official name is the Republic of China. This formal designation originated from when the Kuomintang (KMT) ruled China in the early 20th century after 1911. After losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communists, the KMT fled to Taiwan and reestablished the Republic of China there in 1949. After decades as an authoritarian state under the KMT, Taiwan adopted multiparty elections in the 1990s and has developed into the flourishing democracy it is today.

Only 15 countries in the world recognize Taiwan (with the Republic of China name) as a country because of the “One China” policy that Beijing attempts to force on the world. This requires countries to acknowledge China’s claim to Taiwan, whether they agree or not, and thus refrain from recognizing Taiwan or the rights of the Taiwanese to be represented by their own government. As such, countries that have diplomatic relations with China cannot also have the same with Taiwan. This has led to Taiwan being excluded from the U.N. and its affiliated agencies like WHO.

Time after time, Taiwan has tried to become a member of the U.N., a process that is also repeated with WHO. This process always fails, despite pleas from Taiwan’s few allies as well as the United States, the EU, and Australia. In the few multinational organizations it is allowed into, Taiwan participates under artificial names such as “Chinese Taipei” in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the Olympics.

The United States is Taiwan’s strongest partner despite not officially recognizing it, having broken off relations with Taiwan in 1979 for diplomatic ties with China. Instead, the United States also follows the “One China” policy in which it acknowledges but does not endorse Beijing’s claims that Taiwan is part of China. The United States is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to support Taiwan militarily through sales of arms.

To this end, the United States has passed motions such as the TAIPEI Act to increase Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. The United States has also stepped up arms sales to Taiwan, including a $2 billion deal in 2019 that included 108 tanks. Meanwhile, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was allowed to visit NASA in Houston on a stopover in 2018 while visiting allies in Central America, the first time a Taiwanese president has ever visited a U.S. federal agency while in power.

While the United States and a few countries such as Japan and Australia support Taiwan’s bid to attend this year’s WHO World Health Assembly, it is still likely that Taiwan might still be stymied, as in previous years, due to China’s opposition. China’s growing leadership and influence in many organizations, especially the U.N.-affiliated agencies, has been well documented.

The truth is very few countries other than the United States will dare defy China to openly support Taiwan. Many countries, especially those in the developing world, will not risk harming trade with China, which is often their largest economic partner. As such, almost every country’s official policy on Taiwan is basically determined by China.

The EU has a substantial relationship with Taiwan, but there is a limit to how far it will go. “The EU already supports a more active role for Taiwan in international organizations such as the WHO,” said Brigitte Dekker, a researcher at Clingendael, a Dutch think tank, referring to official statements released by EU states and parliamentarians. “That said, I do not believe there is momentum now for the EU to increase its current efforts and support for the inclusion of Taiwan in international organizations beyond this scope.”

“The EU will likely hold on to its One China policy to avoid disturbing its relationship with Beijing,” Dekker said.

However, there is scope for European countries to deepen individual relations with Taiwan. The Netherlands recently changed the name of its office, a sort of unofficial embassy, in Taiwan by removing the words “Trade and Investment,” signifying the fact that mutual relations had broadened beyond trade. Even this was met by outrage from China, which threatened reprisals against the Netherlands.   Asian countries, with the notable exception of Japan, almost never speak out in support of Taiwan despite strong trading ties.

The United States, the EU, and other like-minded countries should look to interact with Taiwan in multilateral arenas that are less susceptible to Chinese influence. For example, this could involve inviting Taiwan as a guest to G-7 meetings or to become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Taiwan has attended OECD committees in the past, but even this limited participation ended due to Chinese heavy-handedness.

The United States can still do more, such as send naval ships to call at Taiwanese ports and send cabinet-level officials on more frequent visits. The last U.S. cabinet official to visit Taiwan was Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy in 2014, and before that, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater in 2000.

Taiwan should also be invited to multilateral military drills such as the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific naval exercises for vessels from countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. China was kicked out of the last edition of the exercise in 2018 for its South China Sea militarization.

Taiwan is also being considered for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an Asia-Pacific regional trade pact led by Japan after the United States pulled out of the deal, then known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in 2017. China is not part of the CPTPP, which was set up mainly to reduce dependence on China.

All of these steps, if taken, would be good for Taiwan and the world, but the benefits would be limited, because Taiwan would be treated like a guest and not a full member of the international community. Taiwan’s participation would always be subject to China’s whims, such as when it was allowed to attend WHO’s assemblies as an observer between 2009 and 2016 because a China-friendly KMT government was in power then. After the current president from the Democratic Progressive Party came to power in 2016, Taiwan was barred again.

In effect, the world would still be continuing to pander to China, even after it has been culpable for what might be the world’s worst crisis since World War II through its failure to contain the early spread of the coronavirus.

The ultimate option would be to officially recognize Taiwan as a country, an initiative led by the United States. This would no doubt lead to serious repercussions from China, including the possibility of military action, especially against Taiwan. Such a move would require an understanding from Taiwan of this risk, as well as guaranteed military support from Washington.

The onus for action would fall on the United States, but it would be crucial to get the EU and such nations as Japan, India, and Australia on board.

After the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic, the United States should seriously consider recognizing Taiwan, as it would be the best chance to do so for three key reasons.

First, China bears heavy responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 270,000 people and infected nearly 4 million. The country censored and held back information about the outbreak in its early stages and is still not being forthright. And instead of accepting responsibility, Beijing has claimed it bought the world time and gloated about its supposed triumph. China also tried to push a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the United States, and it sent defective masks and equipment to numerous countries.

After Australia called for an official investigation into the origin and spread of the coronavirus, the Chinese ambassador to the country immediately threatened a Chinese boycott of Australian beef, wine, and universities. The recent shocking reports of Africans in Guangzhou being ejected onto the streets and barred from restaurants have angered African nations, which traditionally have had warm relations with China.

All of this means China’s relations with the international community are at a very low point. The country has acted more like an erratic and unreliable dictatorship rather than a responsible world power, even during a global crisis that it helped cause.

The second significant reason is China’s growing military aggressiveness, which has led to serious concerns of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan within the next few years.

At the beginning of 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping explicitly demanded that Taiwan “unite” with China or face potential military action. Chinese military officials have also announced a desire to take Taiwan, with the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary in 2021 mentioned as a possible deadline.

To this end, China has ramped up naval shipbuilding, especially large surface combat vessels and amphibious assault ships. The latter would be essential for any invasion of Taiwan. In February, Chinese state media announced China was purchasing 1.4 million units of body armor to outfit troops to fight against “Taiwan secessionists” and U.S. forces.

China’s provocative behavior has been building up for years, and it has even taken advantage of the pandemic to intensify this. China’s aggression has not just been directed at Taiwan but also other countries such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as can be seen regularly in the South China Sea.

Even if Taiwan’s international status remains unchanged, there is a strong likelihood that China will initiate a conflict against Taiwan in the near future. This thus removes the main reason for not recognizing Taiwan as a country, which is to avoid provoking China and maintain peace. In fact, recognizing Taiwan’s nationhood might even act as a deterrent by making it clear the United States and the international community see Taiwan as an actual country and not part of China.

Third, while the global recession will strongly affect the United States, it will hit China hard too. Reeling from a lockdown during much of February and March, and a weakened economy that has been slowing down since at least last year, China saw its first-quarter GDP fall by 6.8 percent, its first reported decrease since the 1970s. Export orders are expected to remain weak due to declining demand from such markets as the United States and EU, while Chinese consumers will not spend as much as before.

China’s main method of enticing states is hefty so-called financial aid and a massive appetite for commodity imports as well as the world’s largest consumer market and pool of overseas tourists. All three have been weakened and will continue to be so for the upcoming future, making it harder for China to tempt or punish countries through economic means.

After winning her second term in January, Tsai said Taiwan is already independent. Most of the world should openly recognize this too, rather than continuing to pander to China’s ludicrous claim to Taiwan.

For the sake of not just Taiwan but the world, all options must be on the table when it comes to furthering Taiwan’s presence on the international stage.

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.

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