Throughout 2018, Taiwan and its sovereignty faced a barrage of threats from the People’s Republic of China in the economic, military, and diplomatic realms. These threats ranged from the serious—poaching allies and opening new flight routes—to the absurd—pressuring hotels, airlines, and bakeries for the way they characterized Taiwan. Each incident seemed just like another way that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was trying to demonstrate its power over Taiwan. Looked at over the course of the year, the actions point to a concerted effort to box in and to hamper Taiwan in every possible realm. In essence, the CCP wants to make it as difficult as possible for the Taiwanese government to function. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2018 Report to Congress provides an extensive review of all Chinese actions this year, but this article will only focus on major events in cross-Strait relations.
How successful the CCP was in 2018 at achieving this goal depends on from which perspective you take.
A Year of Successes
As the year winds down, Xi Jinping and the CCP can look back and be happy with the results of its plan to isolate Taiwan.
It successfully poached the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Burkina Faso from Taiwan’s sphere, leaving Taiwan with only 17 official diplomatic allies. In Africa and Europe, Taiwan only has one country left, Eswatini and the Holy See, respectively. That means three fewer voices to speak on Taiwan’s behalf at international organizations that Taiwan is not allowed to join. And the remaining countries, the grand scheme of things, do not have very loud voices. The three that now recognize China did not really provide many economic benefits to Taiwan, and the same will be the case for China. The CCP also struck a deal with the Vatican on the selection of bishops and is hoping to sway the Pope into switching recognitions.
The Party also worked to pressure countries with unofficial relations with Taiwan to downgrade them by changing the names of the foreign missions. This was the case in Jordan and Papua New Guinea, where Taiwan was forced to remove the words “Republic of China.” Also, Taiwan’s request to attend the annual World Health Assembly was denied due to pressure from China. Since Tsai Ing-wen took office, China has worked to exclude Taiwan from as many international organizations as possible. Taiwan has been excluded from the International Civil Aviation Organization’s once-every-three-years meeting, and its application to become an observer at INTERPOL—whose head at the time was a Chinese citizen who has since been disappeared in the PRC—was denied.
In January, China announced the opening of a new flight path that would take planes close to the middle of the Taiwan Strait and cut over existing Taiwanese flight routes. The two sides had previously agreed not to do this without consulting with the other due to the dangers it poses to commercial flight traffic. The point that the CCP wanted to make is that Taiwan could do nothing about this but raise a stink.
The most bizarre—yet most serious—incursion involved the CCP pressuring airlines, hotels, clothing companies, and other private businesses into downgrading Taiwan’s classification from its own country to a part of China. China’s Civil Aviation Administration notified 44 airlines that they had to change the classification or face consequences. The letter motivated the Trump administration to accuse the CCP of “Orwellian nonsense” by forcing its reality on private, foreign entities. Despite pushback, almost every single airline complied with the demand.
On the face of it, these actions and subsequent results point to a successful year of badgering Taiwan and getting its way. However, Beijing’s list of successes must also take into account Taiwan’s successes and how other countries—namely the United States—responded to Beijing’s actions.
A Year of Pushback
This year was a good year for U.S.-Taiwan relations with the passage of Taiwan Travel Act, the introduction of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, an entire section dedicated to it in the 2018 Defense Authorization Act, and Tsai’s stop-over trip, to name a few.
The Taiwan Travel Act (TTA), passed in March, is perhaps the most significant piece of U.S. legislation regarding Taiwan since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, which will turn 40 in early 2019—this important milestone will be celebrated in the U.S. and Taiwan and derided in China. The TTA calls for reciprocal visits by high-level officials in both the American and Taiwanese governments. While no visits by U.S. Cabinet officials to Taiwan have occurred yet, its passage (with unanimous consent in the Senate) sent a signal to the PRC that no matter what it does to pressure Taiwan, the United States still firmly supports the island-nation.
In response to El Salvador establishing relations with China after Taiwan refused to succumb to economic blackmail, Senator Cory Gardner introduced the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act. While the bill has not become a law, its bipartisan support puts Taiwan’s 17 remaining allies on notice. The key part of the TAIPEI Act states, “The Secretary of State may consider taking such action to modify United States diplomatic presence as necessary and appropriate to provide incentives to countries considering or taking steps to alter or downgrade official or unofficial ties with Taiwan.” Unless any of the 17 can count on Beijing to provide unequivocal support upon the change in recognition to make up for any losses incurred, these countries may be dissuaded from “changing teams” for the promise of some dubious economic development package.
Another notable “win” for Taiwan occurred when Tsai visited NASA in Houston (something that no Chinese official or scientist has been able to do) and visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Tsai became the first sitting Taiwanese president to step foot in a U.S. federal building. The Chinese reacted as expected to her trip to NASA. On the whole, her visit did not mean much in terms of substance, but the great symbolic nature demonstrates that not everything has to “look good but also taste delicious.” By allowing Tsai to simply walk into a building, the U.S. sent a clear message to the CCP.
In another symbolic win for Taiwan, in June—on the same day as the much-ballyhooed Trump-Kim summit in Singapore—the U.S. opened a new office in Taipei for its American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto embassy there. At the ceremony, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce said, “I also want to acknowledge that it represents much more than steel and glass and concrete. The New Office Complex is a symbol of the strength and vibrancy of the U.S.-Taiwan partnership in the 21st century. . . . AIT’s new home is both a tangible symbol that reflects the strength of our ties, and a state-of-the-art facility that will make possible even greater cooperation for years to come.”
This list only includes key developments in U.S.-Taiwan relations and does not include the burgeoning relationship between Taiwan and Japan or peripheral points of U.S. pressure on China in the South China Sea, the ongoing trade war, and outcry against the regime’s massive internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Taiwan’s international space is smaller than ever, but U.S.-Taiwan relations are as solid as ever. And many countries around the world are beginning to wake up to the fact that opening up to China is not necessarily a good thing; many of the strings attached to any deals will erode their sovereignty in the long term—just ask Sri Lanka, Greece, and Djibouti.
However, Taiwan needs to work on getting greater support beyond the United States if it is going to push back against Beijing. The pieces are in place for an attempt to do just that: Taiwan is working to better relations with India and the New Southbound Policy, which focuses on developing relations in Southeast Asia, will be entering its third year.
No one knows what 2019 will bring in cross-Strait relations, but in addition to death and taxes, the only other certainty in life is Beijing’s resolve to continue to squeeze Taiwan into submission.