Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Who will abandon Taiwan next?

A ‘cascade’ of countries flowing from Taipei to Beijing isn't likely any time soon. Nonetheless, the question remains – who’s next after Panama?

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen meets with Honduras's First Vice President Ricardo Antonio Alvarez Arias, June 2017 (Photo: Flickr/總統府)
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen meets with Honduras's First Vice President Ricardo Antonio Alvarez Arias, June 2017 (Photo: Flickr/總統府)
Published 22 Jun 2017 

Earlier this month Panama established formal ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC) immediately after severing diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC), as Taiwan is officially known. The question that is now being insistently, even fastidiously, asked is which state will be the next to switch from Taiwan to China?

Some analysts have envisioned a possible diplomatic chain reaction, prompted by Panama's crossing of the Taiwan Strait. According to this domino-effect scenario, after Panama's departure a good number of the 20 allies the ROC is left with (mostly small or minuscule developing states) would be convinced of the inevitability of changing over to China. Thus, they would abandon ship en masse within months.

Such a 'great escape' scenario is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons, its plausibility notwithstanding. First of all, Panama is a case in its own right. The Panama Canal bestows on the Central American state an importance and geopolitical weight transcending its actual size. Beijing can thus be expected to give special attention to Panama, even after the fanfare marking the establishment of relations subsides. By contrast, the other countries recognising Taiwan are not graced with a similarly strategic global trade artery. Nonetheless, in Taipei they are treated like diplomatic aristocracy. For them, Taiwan is a generous aid provider and attentive development partner, which is presumably going to try even harder to keep them from leaving the fold. The fewer allies Taiwan has, the more aid it can allocate to each.

Chinese investment in Panama has also increased sharply in the recent years, and Beijing's ships are the second-most frequent users of the Canal. This represented a strong incentive for Panama, which was reportedly long-ready to take the jump. By contrast, the circumstances of several microstates siding with Taiwan are markedly dissimilar. Their geopolitical and economic marginality makes them relatively indifferent to China's power and sufficiently content with the assistance that Taipei provides in exchange for recognition. Furthermore, the risk of finding themselves third-tier partners and 'diplomatic plebeians' soon after changing recognition to Beijing is substantial. Finally, letting China in could have destabilising consequences, such as increased pressure for Chinese immigration, economic colonialism and resource predation. Tellingly, back in 2010, when asked why his country should stick with the small fish (Taiwan) instead of going for the big one (China), Palau's House Speaker Noah Idechong suggested the big fish 'could sink' Palau's boat.

In addition, while Beijing is confident it can swiftly lure any diplomatic ally away from Taiwan through the promise of aid, loans or trade deals, it might not be anxious to cause an exodus of ambassadors from the other side. China's primary intent is putting heavy pressure and inflicting serious political damage on Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen for her continuing refusal to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, a political formula postulating the existence of only one China, inclusive of the Mainland and Taiwan, with different interpretations. This purpose would be better served by plucking off Taiwan's allies one by one, and using the remaining ones as bargaining chips – a slow 'death by 20 cuts' and international asphyxiation, unless Tsai chooses her predecessor's path and accepts the Consensus.

In fact, there appears to be method and rhythm in China's punitiveness. After Panama's cross-Strait relocation, a pattern can be identified by which on the eve of each round of state visits by Tsai to diplomatic allies in a particular region, Beijing effects the defection of one of Taiwan's friends in another area, and immediately establishes ties with the breakaway country. It occurred in December 2016, when tiny São Tomé and Principe broke ranks and recognised China less than one month before Tsai Ing-wen's second tour of Latin America, and in the aftermath of the famous telephone conversation between Tsai and US President Donald Trump. It has happened again this month, with Panama bidding adiós a few weeks away from Tsai's announced visit to diplomatic allies in the South Pacific.

So, contrary to the opinion of Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican ambassador to China, there will probably not be a 'cascade' of countries flowing from Taipei to Beijing any time soon. Nonetheless, the question remains on the table – who's next after Panama? In terms of likelihood, another Central American state such as Nicaragua, where China's economic leverage and influence are strong, or Caribbean countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which already have trade representative offices in Beijing and are keenly eyeing Chinese investments.

Guajardo also pointed out that 'the big catch for Beijing would be the Vatican'. For China, repairing relations with the Vatican would undoubtedly be a resounding success delivering a severe diplomatic blow to Taiwan.

The Holy See, the supreme government of the Catholic Church with territorial residence in the Vatican City State, is the only European sovereign entity with diplomatic ties to the ROC. Holy See-ROC relations have been ongoing since 1942. However, recent developments in Vatican Sinopolitik could be read as signs that, for the Seat of Peter, Beijing might be 'well worth a mass'. Even though the two sides have strong incentives for normalising relations, such a historic achievement remained elusive until 2014, when Pope Francis inaugurated an unprecedented charm offensive toward China with the aim of setting the relationship with the Asian giant on a rapprochement course. As noted by Wang Yu-yuan, a former ROC ambassador to the Vatican, relations between the Apostolic See and the China 'have never been better as now'. As a result, discussion of the issue is increasingly tempered with anxiety in Taiwan. Catholics all over the world are also closely watching. While the dialogue is said to be about the appointment of bishops, it might ultimately precipitate diplomatic change. Is the relocation of the Apostolic nunciature to China to Beijing imminent? Is Taiwan ineluctably bound to lose its key Roman ally in the near future?

Not really. The Holy See, and relations with it, are unlike those with other sovereign polities, which are often influenced by realpolitik, geostrategic or trade considerations. The Apostolic Palace is not interested in receiving foreign aid or signing trade agreements, but in securing religious freedom for the Catholic flock and upholding human rights. This can play in Taiwan's favour when it comes to preserving its formal relations with the Holy See. Beijing demands that the Vatican conforms to the One-China policy by severing its diplomatic ties with Taiwan as a precondition for normalising relations. Yet, as long as there is no actual religious freedom for the Catholic Church in China, the Holy See will remain very reluctant to change recognition to the Mainland. Therein lie Taipei's hopes for maintaining its important ally.

Ending diplomatic ties with Taiwan before having secured religious freedom for the Church in China would leave the Holy See in a substantially weaker position. In particular, the Vatican could not continue to offer the severing of relations with Taipei as a bartering tool for the improvement of the condition of Chinese Catholics. Moreover, in the interval between the denouement of diplomatic relations with Taiwan and the exchange of ambassadors with Beijing, the Apostolic See would remain without any nunciature on Chinese (China and Taiwan) soil. This is a scenario that the Holy See cannot even contemplate, especially because negotiations with China might drag on (with few results) for years.

Holy See diplomacy is historically characterised by prudence and patience. The Vatican has most likely given due consideration to the possibility that Beijing might be showing 'flexibility' for the purpose of ensnaring the Holy See into breaking diplomatic ties with the ROC. Once that's accomplished, there is no further Vatican leverage in the talks and no further incentive for said flexibility. The Chinese will pocket the winnings and walk away from the table. The fact that, in 2016, the Apostolic nunciature in Taipei moved to the new elegant quarters it had commissioned to build may speak volumes about Vatican unrivalled perspicacity and assuage the concerns of the Taiwanese. Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin's assessment that normalising relations between the Vatican and Beijing 'is not easy' and 'needs a lot of patience and perseverance' (given at the January 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos) should be of further reassurance to Taipei. The Holy See will not be the next to walk across the Taiwan Strait. Probably, it will be the last to go.

You may also be interested in