Moving from the UK to Taipei has many advantages: tastier food, a cleaner, cooler underground system and, yes, vastly better weather – I’d take a sweltering Taiwanese summer day over grey English drizzle anytime. And, for a politico like me it provides the opportunity to immerse myself in the country’s politics at Hong Kong solidarity rallies, or a very different, slightly bluer, type of gathering

My relocation has also allowed me to observe Taiwan’s news cycle throughout the day.  Over the past few weeks, if my university library’s telly is anything to go by, it has been the ‘will he, won’t he?” saga starring Foxconn tycoon Terry Gou which has captured the media’s attention (his face has been on that screen constantly!). Being here also gives me a small insight into the mood of the Taiwanese public.

Terry Gou.
Terry Gou. File photo: Fortune Global Forum 2017, via Flickr.

As you will no doubt be aware Taiwan has lost two diplomatic allies this month. By diplomatic allies, I mean those who formally recognised the Republic of China rather than the People’s Republic. Last week started badly with the Solomon Islands cutting ties with Taipei and, if that wasn’t already a knockback, by Friday fellow island nation Kiribati joined them.

There was a great deal of speculation about the Solomon Island’s decision. So much so, that the question over the past few weeks was not if but when its government would recognise Beijing. This move should also come as no surprise as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ramps up its efforts to exert greater influence over the South Pacific, a region where it already plays a significant role in terms of trade and aid, and a place which may become a key battleground between their agenda and the United States’ (US) desire to build a free and open Indo-Pacific. Of course, Beijing also wants to punish Taiwan ever since its people had the audacity to elect the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen as their president.

Since Tsai’s election victory in 2016, Beijing has poached seven diplomatic allies from Taiwan including: Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador. Alongside Chinese pressure blocking Taiwan’s participation in international organisations, and the (ironically named) People’s Liberation Army manoeuvrings close to the island, this ally-poaching sends a clear message to the Taiwanese public: if you elect the “wrong” person, expect consequences. As such, the only real surprise here was that both announcements came back-to-back. Beijing has traditionally enjoyed orchestrating a slow trickle of bad news for Taipei, so why the haste now? A cynic might think this has something to do with the upcoming presidential election. In January, voters will decide whether or not to give Tsai a second term or go for change by electing the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Han Kuo-yu, the pro-China Kaohsiung Mayor-cum-fruit and veg salesman. No doubt, the CCP hopes that a stream of bad international news stories for the Tsai administration will bolster her opponents’ chances.

Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai Ing-wen. File photo: Flickr/presidentialoffice.

So what is the mood here? Beijing’s message appears to be breaking through.  I’ve never seen anything like it (and I was in London the morning after the Brexit vote). Despondent, distressed, depressed sum up the sad scenes I’ve witnessed since the Solomon Islands broke off relations. The streets have literally been silent but for sporadic sobbing from members of the mourning public. That was until Kiribati’s announcement. As news broke of this super allies defection I witness one man fall to his knees and violently shake his fist at the heavens. His screams were drowned out only by the mass hysteria of passers-by. Taiwan will never be the same again…

Of course, nothing has changed. Many people in Taiwan have simply shrugged off this latest spat of diplomatic switches, if they took any notice in the first place, as this is something many of them have come to expect. Although let’s not be too nonchalant about the recent news. It’s unfair and it’s not nice. Sorry if that sounds simplistic, I know these things count for little in the diplomatic circle, but Taiwanese people are well within their rights to be incredibly frustrated every time Taiwan isn’t treated like any other country. For all the shrugs, there is a deep-seated frustration, and paradoxically an understanding that the loss of formal diplomatic allies is neither an existential threat nor all bad news – and they have good reasons for thinking this way.

As J. Michael Cole points out: “The loss of small, impoverished countries as allies will have little real impact on Taiwan’s independence.” Taipei, he argues, would be much better served strengthening its unofficial ties with stronger, more influential liberal democracies.

Taiwan elections rally
A rally before the Taiwan elections in November 2018.

Clustered in Central America and scattered throughout the South Pacific, Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies allow Taipei to enjoy all the trappings of a normal country on the world stage via state visits and participation in regional fora. Yet trade, cultural and educational exchanges are real diplomacy too, all of which Taiwan manages to successfully promote with its non-official allies.

Sure, diplomatic allies can formally lobby the United Nations for Taiwan’s participation but what clout does a ragtag group, consisting of Belize, Palau and the Holy See, actually have? Answer: little. One would also imagine that this year’s statement to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been somewhat undermined given that one of the eleven signatures, Kiribati, underwent a complete U-turn on its China policy within days of the letter landing.

What’s more, as the actions of Japan, Germany, Australia, and others at this year’s World Health Organisation’s annual summit demonstrate, countries can – and do – stand up for Taiwan, even if they do not formally recognise it. Furthermore, despite unofficial ties no other country has done – or can do – more than the US to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ultimately, it is Washington’s deliberately ambiguous stance on whether or not it would militarily come to the rescue if China invaded is what keeps Beijing at bay, and allows Taiwan to remain an independent country.

The United Nations.
File photo: UN.

Japan, Germany, Australia and the US, these are Taiwan’s real friends, who share the islands liberal democratic values, even if they are too cowardly to formally recognise the country. While those countries who switch to Beijing for aid packages or make their recognition dependent on Taipei coughing up goods, reportedly in Kiribati case this was commercial aeroplanes, were never good friends in the first place. Taipei shouldn’t engage in this sort of ‘dollar-diplomacy’, to drop the jargon for a second, it is simply extortion which denies Taiwan the opportunity to spend money expanding its influence elsewhere.

So Beijing could poach a few more of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies over the next few months, and it would not make a difference to their status. For the time being, the loss of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati has not changed the mood of the Taiwanese public. Whether this will change if others follow their lead is unknown. Likewise, time will tell if the departure of two Pacific Island nations will become a successful KMT attack line against Tsai. However, it could also be the case that Beijing’s intimidation tactics backfire. Much like they did when they fired rockets into Taiwan’s territorial waters during the run-up to the 1996 presidential election (why they thought this would work is beyond me). Come 2020, many Taiwanese voters, faced with a bellicose Beijing, will remain defiant by voting for who they want to run their country.

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Gray is a writer based in Taipei who regularly comments on Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong politics. Previously he worked in human rights advocacy, and for many years was an activist for the UK Labour Party. Follow him on Twitter.