What the Fights Over Recognising Israel and Taiwan Are Really About

30-Sep-2020 Intellasia | Slate | 6:02 AM Print This Post

The Trump administration has spent months cajoling Muslim countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel ahead of the US election. The latest target is Sudan, reports the New York Times. The effort has already garnered recognition from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as established diplomatic ties between Israel and Kosovo. Even before this move, a number of governments, most notably Australia but also some countries in the Pacific and Central America, have followed the Trump administration’s lead by recognising Jerusalem as capital of Israel. It also signals a shift in momentum after years in which an increasing number of countries and international organisations were recognising Palestine’s statehood, over US opposition.

Recognition fights like these are often less about the actual countries being recognised than they are about superpowers flexing their muscles on the world stage and signaling to adversaries.

The Trump administration’s push to win diplomatic recognition of Israel mirrors, in a strange way, US rival China’s ongoing campaign to get countries to unrecognise Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory. Only 15 countries currently have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwanmost of them in Central America and the Pacificand China has been dangling economic incentives to get them to switch. Since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took power in 2016, seven countries have cut ties with her government. (When I visited the tiny pacific nation of Kiribati in 2016, signs touting Kiribati-Taiwan cooperation and economic aid from Taipei were everywhere, but the island nation switched to Beijing at the end of last year.)

Vatican City still recognises Taiwan, though leaders in Taipei were made nervous last month with the renewal of a controversial deal between the Holy See and Beijing over the appointment of bishops. Taiwan did get a rare diplomatic win this week when the EU intervened to convince a global alliance of mayors to stop referring to Taiwanese cities as part of China.

Technically speaking, despite its strong military support for Taiwan, the US is on the “Chinese” side of this divide; it does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. But that hasn’t stopped the US from urging other smaller nations to keep their ties with the island nation.

Recognition fights are one of the weirder realms of geopolitical competition. Taiwan and Israel plainly do exist as independent countries, but the most common definition of a state under international law requires it to have the “capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” So denying recognition is a way of denying a country’s political legitimacy.

Countries like Kiribati and Honduras probably aren’t actually all that interested in the status of Israel or Taiwan, but recognition is a low-cost way to curry favour with the superpowersthe US and Chinathat are extremely invested. Clearly, the UAE and Bahrain have made the calculation that strong ties with Washington and building a coalition to counter regional rival Iran are more pressing concerns than these nations’ long-standing support for Palestinian statehood. (Some valuable weapons sales also sweetened the deal.) Sudan’s big ask is likely to be removal from the US state sponsors of terrorism list, on which it has been included since Osama bin Laden’s residence there in the early 1990s.

For the superpowers, these recognition fights are a form of coalition building, of getting allies lined up behind their respective geopolitical priorities and worldviews. In the US case, recognition of Israel represents backing a regional coalition against Iran. In China’s, disavowing Taiwan’s independence means accepting China’s status as the preeminent regional power. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has attempted to wage a proxy fight, somewhat less successfully, with its ongoing campaign to win recognition of its annexation of Crimea, and the Russian-backed separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus. The ongoing international divide over whether to recognise the Russian and Chinese-backed de facto President Nicolas Maduro or US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela serves a similar function.

Recognition battles were a prominent tactic during the Cold War. From the Chinese Revolution until 1979, the US refused to grant international recognition to the Communist government in Beijing. The government of Taiwan occupied the Chinese seat at the United Nations despite the communist regime’s de facto control of all of mainland China. The US also formally recognised the three Baltic countriesEstonia, Latvia, and Lithuaniaas independent throughout the Cold War, even though they had been under Soviet control since World War II.



Category: Taiwan

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