China’s Poaching Style of Conducting Diplomacy
Prof Rajaram Panda

Beijing seems to be determined to strangulate Taiwan as barely 48 hours after the presidential elections in which the pro-sovereignty leaning returned the Democratic Progressive Party candidate William Lai Ching-te, whose stance has irked Beijing. The Pacific island-nation Nauru, a country with 11,000 population became the first ally to switch allegiance to Beijing. Beijing had hoped to see that the DPP candidate was ousted. With Nauru’s switch, Taiwan is left with just 12 formal allies. Beijing has openly criticised Lai as an “obstinate splittist” who would bring the risk of war to Taiwan.

In a statement, the government of the tiny island country in Micronesia, north-east of Australia, announced the switch and decided to recognise the People’s Republic of China and sought resumption of full diplomatic relations. The government justified that the decision to switch was “in the best interest of the Republic and people of Nauru”. As was expected, Beijing was happy to welcome the island nation, remarking that it marks a new chapter in bilateral relations on the basis of the one-China principle. While Taiwan was obviously upset as it happened a day after the election results were out, China rejoiced with the development.

Beijing was very uncomfortable during the DPP’s two terms under President Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai chose a tough stance defending Taiwan sovereignty and defied pressure from Beijing. Beijing continued to exert pressure against Taiwan and claimed the island as one of its provinces, despite the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has never governed it. Beijing continued to threaten use of force to annex if peaceful means for reunification failed. To cajole Taiwan into submission, Beijing chose variety of means including military aggression, cognitive warfare and economic coercion. Beijing was able to convince nine of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to switch recognition during the presidency of Tsai. Nauru becomes the ninth.

The question that arises, would Beijing have engineered Nauru’s switch 48 hours after the election results were available if its preferred party the Kuomintang (KMT) would have won? Probably it would have waited for the KMT to settle down, though its resolve to suffocate Taiwan would have remained on track. Beijing has also assiduously worked on seeing that Taiwan is kept out of any UN organisation, including World Health Organisation.[1] The last country to switch allegiance from Taiwan to China was Honduras in April 2023.

How did the switch easily happen for so many countries? The primary reason for the countries switching allegiance was financial incentives that Beijing offered on liberal terms. For example, Honduras’s foreign minister was candid to admit that his country was suffering from acute financial problems and did not receive the expected help from Taiwan. Honduras accused Taiwan remained unresponsive to its request to renegotiate $600m in debt or increase financial aid. Taiwan accused Honduras of asking for more than $2 billion and urged it not to quench its thirst with poison by siding with Beijing. Taiwanese deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang lashed out at Nauru for betraying Taipei. It transpired that the Pacific nation decided to cut ties after it demanded in vain a “huge sum of money” and failed to get the same from Taiwan to repay its domestic and external debts.

The small and poor countries that have switched allegiance do not realise that China has a history of delivering “white elephants” but would not deliver on its economic promises. Despite such being Beijing’s history, Nauru failed to realise and understand the damage its decision would cause to the island nation’s economic future. Moreover, Nauru has a history of switching relations between Beijing and Taipei several times. It maintained relations with Taipei from 1980 to 2002, then switched to Beijing in 2002 and maintained diplomatic ties till 2005, when it again switched back to Taiwan only to switch back on 14 January 2024. Now it has avowed adherence to one-China policy, implying thereby that Taiwan is an “inalienable part of China’s territory”. For record, many countries, including the US and India, do not recognise Taiwan as an independent state but Washington is opposed to any attempt to take the self-governed island by force and is committed to supplying it with weapons.

Observers of Taiwan issue were surprised over this sudden turn of events. It was only in October 2023, then Nauru’s President Russ Joseph Kun had visited Taiwan on a state visit to meet Tsai, during which Kun extolled Taiwan’s achievement as a democracy, advocate of freedom, peace, sustainability, stability, and economic growth in the region. Though Kun was ousted from office via a no-confidence motion just weeks after his return from Taipei and replaced by David Adeang on 30 October 2023, and Taiwanese officials visited Nauru the following month, November, which is why the sudden switching announcement was a surprise. David Adeang continued to ask Taiwan for a huge amount of financial aid that surpassed what Taiwan would normally provide to diplomatic allies.[2]

The remaining 12 diplomatic allies of Taiwan are Guatemala, Belize, Haiti, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and Grenadines in the Americas. In the Pacific the remaining allies are the Marshall Islands, Palau and Tuvalu. In Africa, it is only Eswatini, and in Europe it is the Vatican City.

The small diplomatic corps in Taiwan was not aware of the impending announcement by Nauru. Tuvulu is one Pacific nation that is aware of Beijing’s economic deals, which are not transparent compared with Taiwan’s. Other Pacific Island nations which have switched to Beijing are ignorant of how Beijing has been going around selling itself to countries in the Pacific and have fallen into Beijing’s trap. With Nauru gone, the remaining three Pacific allies would find it difficult to be a combined voice on issues such as climate change at the global stage. China used poaching of a diplomatic ally as a tool in its repertoire to punish Taiwan following DPP’s victory.

The switching announcement came following the arrival of a US delegation in Taipei to meet Lai and other Taiwanese leaders, probably to oversee the transition from Tsai to Lai regime and that there is no deviation to the existing cross-strait relations.[3]

Taiwan’s response was swift. Protecting its own sovereignty, it not only vowed to sever diplomatic ties with Nauru forthwith but also closed all cooperation projects with Nauru, shut down its embassy, withdrew personnel from its technical mission in Nauru and demanded the Pacific island nation to close its embassy in Taiwan. Taipei sees Nauru’s decision as an assault on democratic values and a challenge to international-based order.

Challenges before Lai

Analysts fear that cross-strait ties, which worsened under Tsai, could worsen further under Lai and become more challenging. Tsai made history in 2016 when she was elected the first female leader of the island. As she prepares to bow out after completing her second four-year term in May 2024, she would leave a difficult legacy for Lai, her successor, as Taiwan was seen as one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world for conflict during her presidency.

In May 2021, The Economist in a cover story called Taiwan “the most dangerous place on Earth” and warned of a potential conflict over the self-ruled island.[4] Given the position of the US and China on the Taiwan issue, both need to work harder to avoid war over the future of Taiwan. Thus far, there is an exercise of high-calibre ambiguity that has kept peace between the US and China over Taiwan, an island of 24 million people and just 100 miles (160 km) off China coast. The ambiguity is that while China claims there is only one China, which they run, and that Taiwan is a rebellious part of it, the US nods to the one China idea but has spent 70 years ensuring there are two. Now the schism seems to be transparent as the strategic ambiguity appears no longer relevant. While doubts have crept over the US ability to defend Taiwan if Beijing chooses to be adventurous, Beijing seems to be prepared to seize Taiwan by the use of force. In such a situation, a regional conflict could be unpreventable. This is something the new leader Lai in Taiwan is needed to ponder about as the situation has turned volatile now than ever before.

Lai’s hands could be crippled as the DPP does not have a majority in the parliament and therefore might be compelled to take a less ballistic and more careful approach to relations with Beijing. Lai might listen to the counsel of other prominent political figures, such as Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who in a speech in April 2023 described tensions over the Taiwan Strait as the “most dangerous flashpoint” for conflict.[5]

However, it would be erroneous to put the entire blame on Tsai for the prevailing conflict situation. Cross border tensions continued to rise after Tsai became president in 2016 and the world started to view Taiwan as a new hotspot. This was because Tsai reversed her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou of the mainland-friendly Kuomintang’s decision and dropped his engagement policy towards Beijing. She refused to accept the “1992 consensus” – a verbal agreement, recognised by Ma, that Taiwan is part of “one China”, though the two sides could have different views of what that China stands for. Following Tsai’s refusal, Beijing suspended official talks and exchanges, poach nine of the island’s allies and stage military drills around the island as part of a pressure campaign in Taipei. Since then, tensions skyrocketed during the eight years of Tsai’s rule. Beijing’s mettle shall be tested as the DPP under Lai is expected to continue Tsai’s policies and may even toughen his stance. By sending a delegation led by former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former deputy secretary of state James Steinberg who arrived in Taipei shortly after the election, Washington sent a message to Beijing that it remains committed to Taiwan’s defence. The geopolitical tension fuelled by cross-strait stalemate is likely to trouble Lai during his entire tenure.

This is because while Tsai was willing to compromise to prevent the cross-strait situation from worsening, Lai could be less compromising. However, Lai’s ability to assert could be constrained by lack of majority in the parliament, which is why provoking Beijing would not be a good option, at least in the first year when he settles down. Though Taiwan’s international visibility increased under Tsai, her tough position led to the worsening of cross-strait relations. That worried the world. It is also to be seen how Lai repairs Taiwan’s economic relations with Beijing which was affected by Tsai’s New Southbound Policy.

Tsai had chosen to pursue a policy of reducing reliance on the Chinese market. She encouraged the Taiwanese businesses to shift their investments to Southeast Asia and India. This did not succeed as Taiwan’s trade reliance on mainland China is so high that Tsai’s policy did not make any economic sense to overlook the Chinese market. What Lai is expected to do is to prepare for Taiwan’s independence, such as policies to weaken “traditional Chinese elements” in Taiwanese culture and education. There may be some differences in their styles in governance, but both Tsai and Lai are strong proponents of Taiwan independence.

Though Lai is expected not to cross the red line in order not to provoke Beijing, he is cognizant of Washington’s professed stance of not supporting Taiwan independence and adherence to the one-China policy. That realisation would help to keep Lai in check from any provocative measures that could go out of control as Beijing’s response could be massive. The lack of a majority in the parliament could also have a sobering influence on Lai on decision making. On its part, Beijing is expected to adopt more non-military measures to put pressure on Taiwan in the coming months as it would not like to be seen as excessively provocative.

Endnotes

[1]Helen Davidson and Amy Hawkins, “Nauru to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China”, The Guardian, 15 January 2024, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/15/nauru-to-sever-diplomatic-ties-with-taiwan-in-favour-of-china
[2]William Yang, “Taiwan Loses Nauru to China Following Ruling Party's Election Victory”, 15 January 2024, 3https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/taiwan/2024/taiwan-240115-voa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3815%2eon0ao069c5%2e3jnv
[3]Lawrence Chung, “Taiwan and Nauru cut ties as Pacific republic switches recognition to Beijing”, 15 January 2024, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3248481/taiwan-and-nauru-cut-ties-pacific-republic-switches-recognition-beijing?utm_medium=email&utm
[4]“The most dangerous place on earth”, The Economist, 1 May 2021, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/05/01/the-most-dangerous-place-on-earth
[5]Lawrence Chung, “Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen leaves tough legacy for president-elect William Lai”, 15 January 2024, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3248399/taiwans-tsai-ing-wen-leaves-tough-legacy-president-elect-william-lai?utm_medium=email&utm_sourc

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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