Taiwan’s Foreign Minister David Lee has admitted his country came under diplomatic siege from China in 2017, with only 20 countries now keeping consular representatives in the increasingly isolated republic.
Most of these are thinly-populated island nations in Central America, the Caribbean and Southern Pacific, like Dominica, Saint Lucia, the Marshall Islands, Paraguay, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
But Lee insisted in a Lunar New Year video uploaded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website that his diplomats would keep battling on.
“Although our diplomatic situation is fraught with challenges, our diplomats are neither frustrated nor lax … They fight tirelessly for our nation’s dignity and interests, and to expand our nation’s international presence,” he said. Lee pointed to the impressive list of international cooperation and humanitarian aid projects that Taiwan undertook worldwide in 2017, as well as President Tsai Ing-wen’s visits to seven diplomatic allies in Central America and the Pacific in November.
There were more setbacks in 2017, notably with Panama’s decision in June to sever ties and switch its embassy to Beijing. São Tomé and Príncipe in Equatorial Africa had established diplomatic relations with China in December 2016 on a promise of generous aid.
In addition, Papua New Guinea, Bahrain, Ecuador and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates asked that Taiwan’s diplomatic missions in their countries remove all references to “Republic of China” or “Taiwan”. China is even putting pressure on countries that have made the switch. Nigeria ordered that Taiwan move its representative office from the capital Abuja to Lagos and banned all official exchanges with Taipei.
China has stepped up diplomatic pressure on Taiwan since Tsai’s staunchly pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential election in 2016. Her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, from the pro-reunification Kuomintang party, fared a bit better: Beijing is said to have rejected Panama’s overtures at that time to “save Ma’s face”.
Taiwan still has one high-profile European friend in the Vatican City, but even that may soon change. Vatican sources have said the Holy See is likely to establish diplomatic relations with China within months as part of a controversial deal on the formal appointment of bishops. It has maintained consular relations with Taiwan for 96 years.
Few expect Taipei’s remaining allies in Caribbean and Pacific to resist the carrot of Chinese money for much longer. But Taipei does have at least one advantage over China: holders of its passport can get visa waivers and landing permits in 166 countries, including the United States, while mainland Chinese almost invariably face hassles.
About the only place Taiwanese are not welcome is at United Nations buildings, including offices in New York City, Geneva and Bangkok, as the global body does not recognise the republic. And these are the places where Taipei most needs to have its views being heard.