Taiwan Loses Another Ally

In another blow to Taiwan’s ever-shrinking list of diplomatic allies comes the news that Panama has severed ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing a relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Panama’s announcement comes only months after Sao Tome and Principe cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China. With these two nations switching recognition, Taiwan has only 20 official diplomatic allies. As China continues to exert pressure on President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that holds a majority in the country’s legislature, China will attempt to poach more of Taiwan’s allies in an attempt to further isolate Taiwan from the international space.

The Office of the President released a statement addressing the switch in recognition: “We express our deep regret and disappointment at the Republic of Panama’s decision to renounce our long-standing friendship and establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.”

The End of the Diplomatic Truce

Though people unfamiliar with Taiwan are not likely to see the importance of the end of this relationship, it is important to understand how China acted during the tenure of former President Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s other major political party that has a more a pro-China view than the DPP. At the beginning of his presidency in 2008, Ma announced that he was pursuing a policy that he called a “diplomatic truce,” in which Taiwan and China tacitly agreed to stop poaching each other’s allies. In 2008, Ma said during the planning stages, “If the diplomatic truce turns out to be a successful strategy, it might be possible that we won’t gain any more allies, but we won’t lose any either.”

Ma’s prediction almost proved true. During his two terms in office, Taiwan only lost one ally, Gambia, in 2013. However, China did not establish official relations with Gambia until 2016, only a few months before Ma left office and Tsai took his place. The delay in establishing relations could be seen as a sign of deference for the diplomatic truce under Ma’s presidency.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, the diplomatic truce has ended with China poaching two countries— Sao Tome and Principe and Panama—from Taiwan since Tsai took office in May 2016. Panama’s move has particularly angered Taiwan. In the summer of 2016, Tsai visited the country for the opening ceremony of the newly expanded Panama Canal. Panama and Taiwan had good relations and exchanges before this announcement.

The canal is most likely the primary reason for Panama’s sudden decision since China is its “second most important customer.” China now has no incentive to stop using the canal, and it cannot dangle its high level of usage over Panama as a veiled threat. The move now also calls into question the China-backed Nicaragua Canal as Nicaragua still recognizes Taiwan, not China. The project’s viability had already been hotly debated, and perhaps Panama hopes that China will focus less on the Nicaragua Canal as a result of its decision.

Tsai released a statement criticizing China’s role in the Panama switch as well as its recent actions in trying to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world:

Although we have lost a diplomatic ally, our refusal to engage in a diplomatic bidding war will not change. The fact that the Republic of China exists will not change. And Taiwan’s value and standing in the international community will not change.

We are a sovereign country. This sovereignty cannot be challenged nor traded. China has continued to manipulate the “one China” principle and pressure Taiwan’s international space, threatening the rights of the Taiwanese people. But it remains undeniable that the Republic of China is a sovereign country. This is a fact China will never be able to deny.

What Next?

The question, now, for Taiwan is what will happen next. Sao Tome and Principe’s decision to switch to China did not cause much angst in Taiwan since the small island nation apparently asked for $200 million before its switch in recognition. The country was essentially demanding a handout for the continuation of relations, but the Panama case appears different and unexpected. China’s poaching of these nations is exactly what the diplomatic truce under the Ma years stopped, but with Tsai in office, China has decided to alter its course.

Now, if China is truly opening its wallet to Taiwan’s other 20 allies, can Taiwan—or any nation—blame them for accepting a switch in recognition for the prospect or promise of millions of dollars in aid and/or investment? There is not much that Taiwan can do since the Tsai administration has stated that it will not engage in this practice for the sake of stability across the Taiwan Strait. As pressure continues to mount on Taiwan and as its list of allies grows thin, Taiwan may need to rethink its strategy for keeping or finding allies in light of China’s recent actions.

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Taiwan’s Ex-Presidents: A Carousel of Legal Problems

On March 14, the former president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, was charged with leaking classified information related to a wiretapping case. This indictment is not the first—or even second—time that a former president of the country has experienced legal troubles after leaving office.

As president, Ma released recordings of a member of the Democratic Progressive Party and Wang Jin-pyng, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT) and President of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislative body), to the Premier.

Ma said that he ordered the leak because he felt that it was his duty as the head of state to release information related to potential influence peddling. The government’s prosecutor authorized the wiretapping due to suspicions that the two politicians were using Wang’s position to influence judicial officials.

If convicted, Ma could face up to three years in jail.

Ma has insisted on his innocence claiming that he handled everything appropriately as head of state. According to Ma, he was dealing with a crisis and what “he believed were political flaws and responsibilities involving cabinet members.”

When discussing the charge, Ma said, “Legislators can get away with peddling their influence, but the people who uncovered the scandal have been prosecuted. Where is the justice?”

Post-Presidency Blues

Ma’s post-presidency has been anything but pleasant. The wiretapping lawsuit is not the only one that Ma has faced (and is facing) since he left office in May 2016. The day that he left office, Ma faced 24 lawsuits because his presidential immunity ceased. Also, he was barred by the presidential office from travelling to Hong Kong for “national security concerns” though he has traveled several times to the United States since leaving office.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, Ma is not the first former president to be charged, convicted, or jailed after his tenure in office.

Former President Chen Shui-bian, a member of the DPP, was found guilty of corruption in 2009. He, along with his wife, was sentenced to life in prison, but the sentencing was later reduced to 20 years. He was found guilty of corruption and graft for accepting over US$20 million in bribes and misusing public funds. Chen claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated and a form of revenge by the KMT for his staunch pro-independence views.

The Chen case is an important precedent to explore because Ma may find himself in similar circumstances soon. Like Chen, Ma faces a government with the executive and legislative branches controlled by the other side. Members of the KMT have complained that Ma’s indictment is revenge for what the KMT did to former president Chen. His refusal to pardon Chen as a courtesy to his predecessor, among other things, provides little incentive for current President Tsai Ing-wen to be lenient and pardon him.

Further compounding this pattern of legal troubles, another Chen’s predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, was also indicted on corruption charges for embezzling US$7.8 million during his tenure in office. Lee was acquitted and won on the prosecutor’s appeal.

This pattern of every ex-president of Taiwan being charged is troubling for what many consider a vibrant and healthy democracy in Asia. Not only did Taiwan recently elect its first woman president in 2016, but it also handed the Legislative Yuan to the opposition DPP for the first time in the country’s history. Many across the world looked (and still do look) to Taiwan as a blueprint for a successful and open democracy in a region where there are not very many.

When it comes to ex-presidents, however, Taiwan is riding a carousel of judicial issues. What does it say for a country that the first three presidents who came to office through popular, democratic elections have faced prosecution? Can a democracy truly be characterized as vibrant and thriving when Lee, Chen, and Ma were not able to live life as a private citizen without being surrounded by a cloud of lawsuits?

Stop the Carousel

This bickering and targeting of ex-presidents is not healthy for the country. The lawsuit against Ma and related debates will soak up hours of air time on Taiwanese television, distracting people and the government from more important issues like cross-Strait relations, Chinese aggression in the East Asia, pension reform, modernizing the economy, and many other things.

If Ma is found guilty for leaking classified information in this particular case, it would be in President Tsai’s best interest to pardon him. She must break the cycle of political bickering and revenge and show herself to be a truly transcendent leader. By eschewing partisan politics and not sticking it to the opposition, Tsai can show her colleagues—rivals and allies alike—how to truly lead a nation.

An opportunistic leader would seize the moment to shore up his or her popular support, but a selfless leader should rise above—not bow to—the popular opinion of the day for the good of the country. If she does not work toward bridging gaps and reducing the hyper-partisan nature of Taiwanese politics, then in four, eight, or however many years it takes for the KMT to return to power, Tsai just might find herself taking a ride on the same carousel that Chen has ridden since 2009 and that Ma is just getting (un)comfortable on.

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Trump, Tsai, and the Three Communiques: Prospects for Stability in US-China-Taiwan Relations

The Shanghai Communique of 1972 and the U.S.-China Joint Communiques of 1979 and 1982 have been essential foundations of a bilateral relationship that has remained impressively stable while it has become much broader, deeper, multifaceted, and globally important than either side could have expected forty-five years ago, and as it has faced challenges created by China’s rapid rise.

The U.S. and China have had different understandings of these fundamental texts.  To China, the Communiques embody binding international commitments. For the U.S., they are two sides’ parallel statements of deeply entrenched policies.  Where China sees U.S. acceptance of China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, the U.S. insists that it merely acknowledges the existence of a view ostensibly shared on both sides of the Strait.  From the U.S. perspective, the U.S.’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and—less securely—President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances stand alongside the Three Communiques as authoritative statements of U.S. policy.  For China, the additional documents lack such stature and have been sources of U.S. failures to implement commitments in the Communiques, particularly on arms sales to Taiwan.

Despite such divergences, the Communiques have underpinned a mutually acceptable framework for handling what was once the most serious problem for U.S.-China relations and remains a major area of potential discord today: Taiwan.  For the U.S., the arrangement has meant adopting a “one China policy” that eschews support for “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” Taiwan independence, diplomatic relations or security pacts with the government in Taipei, support for Taiwan’s joining states-member-only organizations, and so on.  For China, it has meant acquiescing (although with objections) in U.S. policies and practices that support a functionally autonomous Taiwan, including robust informal relations, some level of arms sales, advocating Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the international system, and insistence that any resolution of the cross-Strait issue be peaceful and (since the Clinton administration) have the assent of the people of Taiwan.

Perhaps the most important practical contribution of the Communiques (and the TRA) has been to provide a fixed anchor for U.S. policy—one on which Beijing has been able to rely.  Occasionally, U.S. presidents or officials have appeared to deviate from policies rooted in the documents.  Sometimes, these moves seemed “pro-Taiwan,” as when President George W. Bush said he would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, or when President Bill Clinton offered what Beijing saw as excessive support for the unacceptably “pro-independence” Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui.  Other times, the seeming shifts were “pro-Beijing,” as when Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated Taiwan lacked sovereignty and seemed to imply support for reunification, or when President Barack Obama omitted a robust reference to Taiwan, while reaffirming respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in a joint statement during his 2009 visit to China.  When these disturbances have occurred, U.S. leaders have retreated to the “big four” texts and reassured nervous audiences in Beijing, Taipei, and elsewhere that there was no change in policy.  This has been good for stability in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations.  The bounds the Communiques have set for both sides have helped contain even serious crises, including those surrounding China’s missile tests in the Strait in the mid-1990s and Taiwan’s referendum on entry into the United Nations in 2008.

Will this pattern persist in a new difficult period, with Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump in power?  Trump’s early moves have been, at best, extreme versions of the apparent departures from established policy undertaken by other administrations.  Trump appeared to move in a “pro-Taiwan” direction when he accepted Tsai’s congratulatory phone call.  Much more alarming for Beijing, Trump declared the one China policy to be negotiable, and linked its continuation to possible Chinese concessions on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea.  Trump statements also shook Taiwan, where his suggestion that the one China policy was a “bargaining chip” in negotiations with China implied that Taiwan might be a bargaining chip too, and where candidate Trump’s less-than-reassuring statements about commitments to treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea undermined confidence in the U.S.’s thinner and less formal support for Taiwan’s security.

It is encouraging that the Trump administration has imitated its predecessors in returning to the shelter of long-established policy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed that there were no plans to change the one China policy, and Trump promised, in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that the U.S. would “honor” the one China policy.  While these are welcome moves, concerns continue.  Trump framed his pledge as granting a request from Xi, not as reconfirming unshakeable U.S. policy.  Like many of Trump’s statements, it may be fleeting, soon to be undercut by a tweet.  Disturbingly absent from Trump administration statements have been strong references to the Three Communiques and the TRA—the traditional underpinnings of stability in U.S. policy.  Recommitment to those foundational documents is especially important today, with a U.S. leader prone to extraordinary volatility, a leader in Taiwan distrusted by Beijing, and a leader in China who has said that a political solution for Taiwan cannot be passed on “from generation to generation.”

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Stopover Hysteria: Understanding Tsai’s Stopover in the United States

Photo credit: The Office of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

On January 7, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan will embark on a trip to the United States—not to visit President Barack Obama or President-elect Donald Trump, but to refuel her plane, rest, and conduct some meetings before moving on to Central America. This type of visit has become routine in U.S.-Taiwan relations and is nothing new or particularly special, so why is this trip so controversial?

Tsai is stopping in the U.S. en route to state visits to some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, specifically Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. News outlets have covered this trip not because these countries are four on a list of only twenty-one states with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan or because Sao Tome and Pincipe recently switched its recognition from Taiwan to China (a long and growing list), but because Tsai will stop in Houston and San Francisco briefly during transit. Since 1994, every president of Taiwan has landed in the United States while en route to visit diplomatic allies. These visits have ranged from a few hours to a few days—depending upon the state of U.S.-Taiwan relations.

The president of Taiwan must receive special permission from the U.S. government to land or to stay in the country for any amount of time. This rule was established to ease the minds of the Chinese who are suspicious of any interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan that hints of any kind of diplomatic recognition. Since the U.S. severed ties with Taiwan in 1979, no president of Taiwan has participated in an official state visit in the U.S.—only brief stopovers and meetings with U.S. Congressmen and other people of note.

In a post-“Trump Call” world, China is on alert for any indications of a major change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. As a result, the Chinese foreign ministry has been unusually quite vocal about the potential of a Tsai stopover in the U.S. When asked about Tsai’s visit, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said,

The one-China policy is a consensus shared by the international community, and also a principle of how we handle Taiwan’s engagement with foreign countries. We hope that relevant countries can carefully address Taiwan-related issues. As to the Taiwan leader’s transit in the US, I believe her real intention is clear to all. We hope that the US side can follow the one-China policy and the three joint communiques, disallow the Taiwan leader’s transit in the US, refrain from sending any wrong signal to the pro-independence force in Taiwan, and take concrete steps to uphold the overall interests of China-US relations and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

In early December 2016, another spokesman said that “the so-called transit diplomacy is only a petty trick played by the Taiwan leader, whose hidden political agenda should be clear to all.” Despite these protests, the U.S. granted Tsai approval, and she will be landing in Houston  on January 7 and departing for Honduras on January 8, and then she will land in San Francisco on January 13 and return to Taiwan on January 15. Previous presidents have stopped over in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Miami, Honolulu, and Anchorage—with the final city being the unofficial stopover location when ties between the U.S. and Taiwan are less than stellar.

Tsai has a busy schedule for her visit to Central America: she is visiting Honduras after being invited by its president, Juan Orlando Hernandez; she will attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua; and she will visit Antigua in Guatemala to promote tourism between Taiwan and Guatemala. All of these visits and events are important for the continuation of relations between these countries and Taiwan, but the only feature of the trip extensively covered in the news is her stopover in the U.S. and China’s outrage over what had become routine.

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) noted to Reuters the routine nature of these visits: “President Tsai’s transit through the United States is based on long-standing U.S. practice and is consistent with the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan.” No matter how much the media or China tries to play up the controversy of this stopover, it should not qualify as exceptionally newsworthy. China’s perception of possible changes in U.S. policy and U.S.-Taiwan relations has caused even the smallest bit of information to be blown out of proportion. Did China raise a stink when Secretary of State John Kerry met with James Soong, Taiwan’s representative to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2016? How about when U.S. Ambassador Matthew J. Matthews, Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Senior Official for APEC, visited Taiwan in early December 2016? No—because these visits are routine, nothing special, just like Tsai’s impending “visit.”

The one thing to look out for is who Tsai meets in San Francisco and Houston. During her visit stopover in Miami in June 2016, Tsai met with Senator Marco Rubio. Will anyone tapped to be in the Trump administration meet with her? If so, how senior of an official and from which department? The answers to these questions are important and could give a glimpse into how a Trump administration will handle the “Taiwan question” beyond the infamous phone call. The genuine issues at stake here are not a routine stopover, but the seemingly deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China, the apparent risks to cross-strait relations, and apprehensions about what the impending Trump administration will do come January 20, 2017 in regards to cross-strait relations and China policy. 

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Desperate for Attention: Hung-Xi Meeting Lacks Meaning

On November 1, 2016, Hung Hsiu-chu, chairwoman of the Kuomintang (KMT), met with Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP), at an annual forum between the KMT and CCP. This meeting received much fanfare in the media. The amount of attention that this photo op received may seem puzzling: Hung is not the president of Taiwan; she was such an unappealing presidential candidate that the KMT replaced her three months before the election; and the KMT does not hold the presidency or legislature making it the opposition party for the first time in Taiwan’s history. Hung kept floating the idea of promoting a “peace platform” even though she lacks any authority or mandate to negotiate or sign an agreement between Taiwan and China. In fact, it would be illegal. The Hung-Xi meeting only holds ceremonial importance, but even that characterization is a stretch. It has been incorrectly framed as another historic Ma-Xi meeting. That handshake represented years of negotiating, and having the sitting leaders of Taiwan and China finally meet marked a potential new chapter in cross-strait relations. That much hoped for chapter never materialized due to the KMT’s electoral collapse, and framing the Hung-Xi meeting in the same context does disservice to the historic nature of the meeting in Singapore last year.

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For Hung, it is a desperate headline grab that will further alienate the KMT from the populace, and for Xi, it is an attempt to embarrass President Tsai Ing-wen, who has called for a resumption of “talks” between Taiwan and China. While this event does occur annually between the leaders of the two parties, the timing and circumstances for a peace deal are not right: Taiwanese identity is at an all-time high, and the historic election in January 2016 shows that the public mood is against further integration with China. If Hung wanted to push the KMT further away from the public and continue to lose elections, then she made the correct move. Her views on unification do not align with the broad base of the public’s, and they are so pro-China that it is one of the reasons the KMT replaced her when she ran for president in 2015. Why does Hung think that she has any legal or political mandate to even think about such a deal?

The way in which Hung acted before and during the “Cross-Strait Peace Development Forum” rankled members of both the KMT and DPP. Before the scheduled meeting, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) publicly warned Hung not to address “politically sensitive” topics with Xi. After the meeting, DPP officials said that she let the nation down through her actions. She did not challenge Xi’s statements on “one China,” so the term “Republic of China” (Taiwan’s official name) was omitted from the record again. DPP officials also expressed worry about Hung trying to move towards a similar definition of “one China” with the CCP. New Power Party (NPP) chairman Huang Kuo-chang (a new party that formed after the Sunflower Movement) expressed his discontent with this meeting by saying that KMT was “toeing the Communist line of united front while distancing itself farther and farther away from mainstream Taiwan.” Also, before this meeting, KMT officials emphasized “one China, different interpretations,” which is former President Ma Ying-jeou’s preferred formulation.  There are even reports that Hung argued with Ma over the 1992 Consensus and what “one China, different interpretations” means. If Ma—who advocated and maintained the status quo during his time in office—had to argue with her over the party’s interpretation of the 1992 Consensus, that shows how radical of a view she has.

As long as Hung controls the KMT, she could derail any chances that the party has of retaking major offices. The best hope for the party is that she gets ousted by a moderate member of the KMT so the party can work towards making meaningful policy changes that the public will accept. Hung and the KMT cannot hedge on a Tsai stumble or Chinese pressure to bring voters back into their ranks. This election solidifies a shift in Taiwanese political ideals, and the KMT must evolve to remain a viable party option. The party must move with the people, not vice versa. If ideologues like Hung continue to chair the party, create the platform, and pull stunts like the meeting with Xi, then the KMT is a lost cause.

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