Taiwan should avoid baiting China, say experts

24-Dec-2016 Intellasia | Straits Times | 6:00 AM Print This Post

They say the ball is in Beijing’s court, and Taipei has to be cautious in engaging friends

In the wake of West African nation Sao Tome and Principe’s decision to cut official ties with Taiwan, all eyes are now on how Taipei will maintain its visibility in the international community.

Sao Tome’s move comes amid frosty ties between China and Taiwan and is a sign, say observers, that Beijing is punishing Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province, for not acknowledging the “one China” principle.

Some analysts caution against agitating China further, given Beijing’s growing suspicion of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

Political analyst Edward Chen I-hsin of Tamkang University tells The Straits Times that Ms Tsai’s unprecedented phone call with United States President-elect Donald Trump was viewed by many in China as an instance of Taiwan burnishing its credentials as a sovereign state. Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi dismissed the 10-minute phone call as a “petty gambit” by the island.

Says Professor Chen: “It is clear that China is not happy with the episode so it is better that Taiwan keeps a low profile.”

But there are those who say that there is little Taiwan can do other than to stay calm and be cautious in the way it engages its friends.

Sao Tome’s decision to cut nearly 20 years of bilateral ties leaves Taiwan with 21 diplomatic allies, many of them small and impoverished nations in need of financial assistance.

National Chengchi University political analyst Yen Chen-shen says it is too early to tell whether Sao Tome could trigger a diplomatic domino effect.

“It is still not clear if this was an isolated incident or a warning of more to come… The surest sign is when China decides to establish ties with Sao Tome.”

Still, there are fears that Taiwan’s circle of friends may shrink further, with speculation rife that the Vatican, Panama, or one of the South American countries that Ms Tsai is visiting next month may follow suit.

With Beijing having deeper pockets and able to dangle more carrots, Prof essor Yen says that he will not be surprised if Taiwan’s remaining allies lean towards China.

Ms Tsai has asserted this week that Taiwan will not “use money to compete with China in the diplomatic field”.

The Taiwanese media, too, has come down hard on Sao Tome following revelations that the nation of 190,000 ditched Taiwan after its request for NT$6.4 billion (S$289 million) in financial aid was rebuffed.

To Taiwan expert Ross Feingold, who is a senior adviser at political consultancy DC International Advisory, Ms Tsai will have her work cut out for her.

Citing her new Southbound Policy, Feingold says that the Taiwan President’s challenge will be to hammer out “substantive arrangements” with countries in South-east Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand in the areas of trade and business. But he admits that it will be an uphill task, given China’s upper hand.

Even as the China-friendly Kuomintang’s (KMT) vice-chair Chen Cheng-hsiang meets Chinese cross-strait affairs chief Zhang Zhijun today to discuss how to improve cross-strait trade links in the KMT-controlled counties, Feingold says it will not make much difference.

“Ultimately, the ball is in Beijing’s court. It still calls the shots and makes decisions at a time that suits its interest.”



Category: Taiwan

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