Efforts by the Chinese government to further isolate “wayward province” Taiwan are continuing to be successful, as El Salvador becomes the latest ally of the self-governing island democracy to drop its support.
Analysts are now warning that Taiwan — which calls itself the Republic of China — has to do more to retain its remaining 17 allies or risk being completely alienated — and vulnerable — after El Salvador became the fifth country to switch its diplomatic recognition to Beijing since President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party took power in 2016.
The diplomatic switch by El Salvador marks the fifth nation to do so since Tsai became leader, down from 22 just two years ago and from 70 before the United Nations formally recognized Beijing as the sole governing authority for all of China’s claims.
Taipei has been shedding allies at an increasing rate — faster under Tsai than the island’s previous leader Ma Jing-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang, which was much more aligned with the mainland.
The losses are on pace to be higher even than the Tsai’s DPP predecessor, President Chen Shui-bian. Between 2000 and 2008, nine allies switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, though Chen also developed new ties with three other countries.
China has been ramping up efforts via diplomatic pressure and pledges of economic cooperation with Taiwan’s allies in an effort to further isolate the island in a bid to force Taipei to accept Beijing’s “one-China” principle.
Analyst comment: China’s objective is to strip away all of Taiwan’s allies and so isolate the regime diplomatically Tsai will have no choice but to succumb to Beijing’s leadership. Isolation includes being cut off from international organizations in which Taiwan is a participant. Even if the island isn’t interested in being a part of every international organization, participation has advantages like giving the Taiwanese government valuable insight into the international agenda.
Some analysts have speculated that Taiwan should relish the loss of all allies because they say it would provide Taipei with the opportunity to declare independence and formalize its status as the Republic of China. The risk here is that it would also provide China the opening to attack and take the island by force, as Beijing has regularly said it would not tolerate an independent Taiwan.
The United States is said to favor Taiwan’s efforts to bolster relationships with its remaining allies and to foster new ones, especially in Latin America, where U.S. influence is greater. But even so, there is some sentiment in Taiwan’s foreign policy and governing sectors that view the hundreds of millions spent annually on foreign aid to mostly African and Latin American ‘allies’ as an unnecessary financial drain on the country’s resources.
America is Taiwan’s most important relationship, though formal U.S. diplomatic recognition switched from Taiwan to China in 1979, during the Carter administration. Officially, according to the U.S. State Department, Washington does not favor Taiwanese independence. That said, the U.S. has made a formal commitment to Taiwan’s defense, and in June 2017, the Trump administration announced a $1.3 billion arms deal with Taiwan that mostly pertains to converting legacy systems from analog to digital and upgrades to existing systems, with technical support for an early warning radar system, torpedoes, anti-radiation missiles, and missile components. China complained that the deal violated a 1982 Joint Communique in which the United States stated its intention “gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”
A formal declaration of independence by Taiwan might have gone off without major repercussions even a decade ago, but today China’s growing naval and military might make such a declaration extremely dangerous given Beijing’s increasing capabilities. Given Beijing’s unwavering claim that Taiwan belongs to the mainland, it seems likely China would attack.
What is less clear is whether the U.S. or its regional allies would risk war with China in order to defend Taiwan, though doing nothing may be worse as it would embolden the Chinese to become even more confrontational throughout the Indo-Pacific.
We may find out sooner rather than later depending on how quickly China can convince Taiwan’s remaining allies to switch diplomatic recognition.