Photographer: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP via Getty Images

Taiwan’s Leader Faces Obstacles in Search for Ties Beyond China

  • Tsai must contend with rival’s economic might, frosty Beijing
  • Warniness of more assertive China could aid outreach efforts

The 300-meter Andronikos delivered a strong message about Chinese economic might as the cargo ship slipped through the Panama Canal last month. Stacked high with steel containers, the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Co. vessel made the ceremonial first passage through the Agua Clara locks that double the canal’s capacity.

There to see it was Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, one of more than 60 foreign dignitaries on hand for the occasion. Panama is among the dwindling pool of countries that still recognize Taiwan, or the Republic of China as it’s formally known, rather than its giant, Communist-led rival. And Tsai was using her first overseas trip since taking office May 20 to shore up ties.

Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to the Panama Canal on June 25.
Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to the Panama Canal on June 25.
Photographer: Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

The episode illustrates the scale of the former trade negotiator’s challenge as she attempts to raise Taiwan’s profile and expand trade ties beyond China, which absorbs 40 percent of its exports. Tsai must not only contend with China’s economic clout, but a Beijing government that has shown a willingness to rekindle their dormant diplomatic rivalry if she doesn’t adopt her predecessor’s framework for negotiations.

In March, China officially established ties with the tiny West African nation of Gambia, which once recognized Taiwan. More defections could follow, with Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Lee saying earlier this month that relationships with the island’s 22 allies were "not quite" stable, with some even in "crisis."

“She has worked on keeping Taiwan allies and improving as much as possible Taiwan’s international space, but I am afraid that she will hit important difficulties down the road,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of Hong Kong Baptist University’s government and international studies department. “Taiwan’s international space and diplomatic allies will shrink. The first test will be Panama, or the Vatican.”

While China considers Taiwan a lost province to be regained, by force if necessary, the two enjoyed warming ties under former President Ma Ying-jeou, culminating in the first-of-its-kind summit last year with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party officially supports independence, has pledged to uphold relations, but signaled a departure from Ma’s more accommodating approach.

Her refusal to accept the so-called one-China principal -- the idea that both sides are part of the same China, even if they disagree on what that means -- has drawn angry warnings from Beijing. At the same time, she’s pledged to “proactively participate” in international affairs and sought to reduce Taiwan’s economic reliance on mainland China, which hosts factories that make iPhones for Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. and gobbles up chips from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

Southbound Strategy

Instead, Tsai’s giving greater focus to the U.S., Taiwan’s military protector; Japan, China’s main regional rival; and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the fast-growing target of a "New Southbound" planning office she created. Increasing such ties requires expanding the space the Chinese government now allows Taiwan to occupy in international affairs. 

In an illustration of Taiwan’s isolation, Tsai’s stopovers in Miami and Los Angeles on her way to and from Latin America included no announced meetings with senior Obama administration officials or the presumptive U.S. presidential nominees. Lacking a formal diplomatic relationship with Japan, which makes a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe difficult, Tsai sat next to his mother at a concert in Taipei last month.

QuickTake: Taiwan Walks Tightrope Between China and Not China

"Beijing will always cast a long shadow over any Taiwan government’s efforts to improve ties with foreign countries," said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor and author of the new book, "Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun." "Under Tsai’s administration, Taiwan-Japanese relations are likely to deepen while relying, as far as possible, on non-governmental and quasi-governmental working relationships."

Even while visiting Panama and Paraguay, Tsai could not escape warnings about the fragility of Taiwan’s political situation back home. On June 25, the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing confirmed that official communications channels between the sides had been suspended since Tsai took office.

Xi’s Warning

Then, while the Communist Party was celebrating its 95th anniversary on July 1, a Taiwanese naval patrol boat accidentally fired an anti-ship missile in the Taiwan Strait, prompting Beijing to demand an explanation. In a speech, Xi cautioned Taiwan against “splittist” activity and for the first time incorporated “reunification of the Motherland” into his “Chinese Dream” for a renaissance of the Chinese civilization.

In Paraguay, Tsai urged Beijing to be more "flexible" and show more “goodwill.” Increased assertiveness by China could play to Taiwan’s advantage overseas, as countries from the U.S. to Japan to Vietnam, grow more wary of its growing might amid territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas.

“Chinese arrogance and bullying is creating such a negative response," said Bruce Jacobs, professor emeritus of Asian languages and studies at Monash University in Melbourne. "In that sense, there is even more likely a reception to Taiwan’s outbound policy.”

That might not be enough to offset the challenges. One avenue for Tsai to build economic ties beyond China -- the U.S.-led, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal -- faces an uncertain future in Congress amid criticism from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Even if the pact passes, Taiwan would need the U.S. to decide that allowing the island to join would be worth the price of annoying China.

A Cosco Shipping vessel passes through the Panama Canal last month.
A Cosco Shipping vessel passes through the Panama Canal last month.
Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Tsai’s New Southbound strategy must overcome the shortcomings of similar Asean-outreach efforts under predecessors such as Chen Shui-bian. Five Chinese provinces now have economies larger than Taiwan’s, which last year grew at is slowest pace since 2009. China’s the largest trading partner of eight of Asean’s 10 members.

“Taiwan has no official ties with those countries, while China has strong presence there,” said Chang Ya-chung, an international relations professor at National Taiwan University. “An absence of political ties could increase economic risks.”

‘Good Friend’

Meanwhile, Taiwan is trying to preserve the diplomatic bonds it already has. It avoided a defection by Panama in 2009 only because Beijing rejected its overtures in what was seen as a favor to Ma.

During her trip, Tsai called Panama a "good friend" and praised the country for treating Taiwan with sincerity during her visit for the canal ceremony. She said the Panamanians had notified her that a Chinese ship had won a draw to make the first transit.

Taiwan is planning a frenetic round of diplomatic visits to shore up other relationships. Lee intends to visit Nicaragua and Burkina Faso and Vice President Chen Chien-jen will travel to the Vatican in September.

China will have to consider how isolated it can afford Taiwan to be, said Professor Ja Ian Chong, of the National University of Singapore, who specializes in Asia-Pacific relations. The risk is pushing the island further toward independence.

"Efforts to have more countries de-recognize Taiwan are likely to make Beijing-Taiwan relations frostier," Chong said. "This may present Beijing with the rather complicated question of how much it wishes to escalate tensions with Taiwan, potentially alienating even more Taiwanese."

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