In a span of a week Taiwan lost two diplomatic allies, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. After 36 years, on September 16, 2019, the law makers of the Solomon Islands voted 27-0 with 6 abstentions to switch its diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing.1Kiribati also followed suit on September 20.2The total number of countries having diplomatic relations with Taiwan is down to 15. Since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) became the President in 2016, Taipei has lost 7 diplomatic allies. The other countries that have switched their diplomatic recognitions are El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Sao Tome and Principe, Burkina Faso and Panama.
For the last four years Beijing has been very vocal of its dislike towards Tsai Ing-wen. Beijing was unhappy about Tsai’s victory as she belongs to the pro-independence DPP. To add to this, the refusal of Tsai to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus (both sides accept that there is ‘one China’ but they have different meaning for one China)3 further annoyed Beijing. China has undertaken every possible step to reduce the number of countries that recognise Taiwan with the sole aim of stifling its diplomatic space. The 19th Party Congress had clarified Xi Jinping’s approach towards Taiwan. As per the report, China will be aiming to attain “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and become a modern socialist power by the year 2050. During the Party Congress, Xi had argued that, “We have the resolve, the confidence and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for Taiwan independence in any form.”4A similar stance was visible during Xi’s January speech to mark the 40th anniversary of Message to Compatriots in Taiwan. He asserted that, “The historical and legal facts, that Taiwan is part of China and the two sides across Taiwan Straits belong to one and the same China, can never be altered by anyone or any force”.5
Taiwan has announced the withdrawal of all its staff and the ongoing bilateral cooperative programmes with immediate effect with Solomon Islands and Kiribati. Tsai Ing-wen in a statement said that, “It is indeed regrettable that their unfinished cooperative projects must come to an end, and it is a loss for Solomon Islands people”.6 The United States has cancelled the scheduled meeting between US Vice-President Mike Pence and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, expressing its disappointment.7
Beijing has expressed its warmth and optimism for future relations with the Solomon Islands and Kiribati and “welcomed them into the family of cooperation between China and other Pacific Islands”.8At a press conference, spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying said that, “We believe that to establish and develop diplomatic relations with China, the world's second largest economy with 1.4 billion people and bright prospects, will bring the Solomon Islands unprecedented opportunities for development”.9China still regards Taiwan as its renegade province, which will be ultimately united with the mainland. The One-China Principle is one of the core policies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Beijing has leveraged its financial strength to marginalise Taiwan. China has promised 500 million dollar financial aid to the Solomon Islands.10 No surprise that after the switch by Solomon Islands, the People’s Daily through an article had warned that if Tsai Ing-wen won the 2020 elections, the island would lose all its diplomatic allies to Beijing.11Smaller countries like Nauru and Tuvalu may also follow Beijing.12Taiwan has blamed China was using “dollar diplomacy” to sway the countries.
In addition to curtailing Taiwan’s international space, Beijing has used every possible leverage to put pressure on the Tsai administration. Taiwanese and Chinese economies are heavily interlinked and interdependent. As a result, Beijing can exploit this to put economic pressure on Taiwan, and one major sector to achieve this is tourism. Large numbers of Chinese visit Taiwan every year, however, after Tsai election the number of tourists to Taiwan declined by 27 percent.13 To add to this step, the Chinese government has decided to stop issuing travel permits to people going to Taiwan hoping to add pressure before the January 2020 elections. While discussing this development, Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing said, “It’s a declaration to the Taiwan people that if they elected Tsai Ing-wen in 2020 . . . the two sides won’t have normal non-governmental exchanges in future”.14
The larger goal of China is of ‘national rejuvenation’. Xi believes that the Taiwan issue should be resolved by 2050 to fulfil the ‘China Dream’. Beijing has always welcomed Taiwan back under the policy of ‘One Country, Two Systems’. However, today China and Taiwan are very different political and social entities. Taiwan has been a thriving democracy since 1996 and China continues to be an authoritarian one party system. The younger generation in Taiwan identifies itself as ‘Taiwanese’ rather than Chinese. The generation that had moved to Taiwan during the civil war is almost non-existent and the younger people have no nostalgic feelings towards unification. The change in the school curriculum has also played a crucial role. Today it is focused on Taiwan’s history rather than discussing the history of China.15According to a survey conducted by the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center (ESC) poll, 56.9 percent of people identified themselves as Taiwanese.16These sentiments are strengthened by the harsh stance adopted by Beijing and its constant effort to marginalise Taiwan. With such actions, Beijing may push Taipei to become more assertive to pursue its independent identity.
* The Authoress, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
1 “Heavy police presence in Solomon Islands as Taiwanese embassy lowers flag for last time” South China Morning Post, September 17, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3027643/heavy-police-presence-solomon-islands-taiwanese-embassy-lowers, (accessed September 24, 2019).
2 “Taipei down to 15 allies as Kiribati announces switch of diplomatic ties to Beijing” by Lawrence Chung, South China Morning Post, September 20, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3029626/taiwan-down-15-allies-kiribati-announces-switch-diplomatic, (accessed September 24, 2019).
3 “The 1992 Consensus and China-Taiwan Relations” by Aris Teon, The Greater China Journal, August 31, 2016 at https://china-journal.org/2016/08/31/the-1992-consensus-and-china-taiwan-relations/ (accessed October 15, 2019).
4 “Full text of Xi Jinping's report at 19th CPC National Congress” Xinhuanet, October 18, 2017 at http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2017-11/05/content_7812833.htm, (accessed September 25, 2019).
5 “Highlights of Xi's speech at Taiwan message anniversary event” China Daily, January 2, 2019 at https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201901/02/WS5c2c1ad2a310d91214052069.html, (accessed September 26, 2019).
6 “Heavy police presence in Solomon Islands as Taiwanese embassy lowers flag for last time” South China Morning Post, September 17, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3027643/heavy-police-presence-solomon-islands-taiwanese-embassy-lowers, (accessed September 24, 2019).
7 “US cancels Solomon Islands meeting after ‘disappointment’ at it switching ties from Taipei to Beijing” by Sarah Zheng, South China Morning Post, September 18, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3027827/us-cancels-solomon-islands-meeting-after-disappointment-it, (accessed September 24, 2019).
8 “Taipei down to 15 allies as Kiribati announces switch of diplomatic ties to Beijing” by Lawrence Chung, South China Morning Post, September 20, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3029626/taiwan-down-15-allies-kiribati-announces-switch-diplomatic, (accessed September 24, 2019).
9 “Beijing welcomes relationship with Solomon Islands after Taiwan split” By Mo Jingxi/Zhang Yi, China Daily, September 18, 2019 at https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201909/18/WS5d8187b7a310cf3e3556c166.html, (accessed September 24, 2019).
10 “What does it take for China to take Taiwan's Pacific allies? Apparently, $730 million” by Natalie Whiting, Christina Zhou and Kai Feng, ABC News, September 19, 2019 at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-18/solomon-islands-cuts-ties-with-taiwan-in-favour-of-china/11524118, (accessed September 25, 2019).
11 “Re-elect President Tsai Ing-wen in 2020 and Taiwan will lose all its allies, Beijing warns” Sarah Zheng, South China Morning Post, September 17, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3027673/re-elect-president-tsai-ing-wen-2020-and-taiwan-will-lose-all, (accessed September 24, 2019).
12 “Taiwan Loses Second Ally This Week to China” By Jason Scott, Bloomberg, September 20, 2019 at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-20/taiwan-loses-second-ally-this-week-as-kiribati-severs-ties-k0rp5wgk, (accessed September 25, 2019).
13 “China Is Using Tourism to Hit Taiwan Where It Really Hurts” By Nicola Smith, Time, November 17, 2016 at https://time.com/4574290/china-taiwan-tourism-tourists/, (accessed September 25, 2019).
14 “China suspends individual tourist permits to Taiwan before election” by Tom Hancock in Bijie, China and Nian Liu in Beijing, Financial Times, July 31, 2019 at https://www.ft.com/content/6ba14934-b35e-11e9-8cb2-799a3a8cf37b, (accessed September 25, 2019).
15 “Must Reads: With each generation, the people of Taiwan feel more Taiwanese — and less Chinese” by Alice Su, Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2019 at https://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-taiwan-generation-gap-20190215-htmlstory.html, (accessed September 25, 2019).
16 “Taiwanese identity rises for the first time in four years: poll”, Focus Taiwan, January 11, 2019 at http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/201907110012.aspx, (accessed September 25, 2019).