United Daily News Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 23, 2016
Executive Summary: After eight years of diplomatic truce, Sao Tome and Principe have suddenly broken off relations with Taipei. Many are angry and uneasy. Beijing persuaded a diplomatic ally to switch sides because the Tsai government refused to recognize the 1992 Consensus. That was entirely predictable. The Trump Tsai phone call resulted in Trump opening fire on the Mainland, and accelerated the process.
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After eight years of diplomatic truce, Sao Tome and Principe have suddenly broken off relations with Taipei. Many are angry and uneasy. Beijing persuaded a diplomatic ally to switch sides because the Tsai government refused to recognize the 1992 Consensus. That was entirely predictable. The Trump Tsai phone call resulted in Trump opening fire on the Mainland, and accelerated the process.
The first domino has fallen. if we do not want to see a second or even third and fourth domino fall, what countermeasures must the Tsai government take? Unfortunately, public statements by President Tsai personally and others following high-level national security meetings, indicate that no new strategies are in sight. All we see are replays of the "Pity poor Taiwan” card from the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian eras. This is more regrettable than any severing of diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Sao Tome and Principe broke off relations with Taipei. President Tsai called on government agencies charged with national security and foreign affairs to consider countermeasures. She made three points. One. The government will help allies via “pragmatic diplomacy”. But it need not compete with Beijing over checkbook diplomacy. Two. Cross-Strait relations do not conflict with participation in international affairs. The government considers Beijing's handling of the one China principle regrettable. Three. Government agencies charged with fiscal and economic affairs should continue to focus on foreign exchange matters and their impact on the stock market. These three points are tired cliches. Not one of them has any relevance to events over the past 20 years. The government is merely consoling itself. The presidential office even resorted to indignation and sensationalism to fan public sentiment. It retreated instead of advanced in its thinking.
Sao Tome and Principle broke off relations with Taipei. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs underscored Sao Tome and Principe's demand for 200 million USD in financial aid. It created the impression among the Taiwan public that Sao Tome and Principle was "greedy", and "unscrupulous". But this is the reality of international politics. This tiny island took advantage of the contradiction between the Mainland and Taiwan. It used it as leverage. This is the way small nations pursue their national interests. The Tsai government can only blame the diplomatic quarrel between the two sides of the Strait. This presented other nations with opportunities to exploit. Besides, how is this any different from the Tsai government's pandering to the United States and Japan?
Furthermore, so-called "checkbook diplomacy" is ugly beyond compare. But suppose we use it in a positive manner, for humanitarian assistance? Suppose we use it to help our allies grow their economies, or establish medical or educational facilities? This would increase our participation in international activities and our international visibility. Unfortunately, when Taiwan was knee deep in money, we merely bought other nations off with money. We failed to establish a reputation as an international benefactor. Taiwan is no longer so flush. We can no longer compete with the Mainland in checkbook diplomacy. We now blame our allies for demanding too much money. If we fail to resolve these contradictions as Taiwan's economic competitiveness declines and our diplomatic arrogance increases, how can we possibly address our diplomatic plight?
The loss of diplomatic relations with Sao Tome and Principe is not that frightening. After all, it is only a tiny island off the coast of Africa with 150,000 people and 1,000 hectares of land area. The question is, who do we have to lose before we really begin to worry? Who do we have to maintain diplomatic relations with before we really feel we have dignity? Political debate on Taiwan has long been a mile wide and an inch deep. The government's reaction to severed diplomatic relations has been to blame Beijing, denounce those nations that broke off relations, or issue panicky and empty declarations. Seldom if ever has the government reflected upon or changed its strategy and tactics. This time was no exception. Even more surprising, David Lee insisted that the severed relations had no relationship with the 1992 Consensus. Tsai Ing-wen said the move was directed against everyone in the nation. How can people this evasive honestly confront reality?
Severed diplomatic relations are not that frightening. What is frightening is the government's aimlessness and blindness, and its ability to lead people around by the nose. Take cross-Strait relations. The ROC must strive for equality, dignity, and visibility. That goes without saying. But the international reality means that equality, dignity, and visibility cannot be achieved through confrontation or impassioned propaganda. It can only be achieved by quietly working behind the scenes on critical issues. The DPP, sad to say, is not good at this. The DPP demands instant results. The DPP is good at springing short-term surprises and launching surprise attacks. These tactics, unfortunately, do not work well on the diplomatic front. Even if they win battles, they cannot win wars. This is clear from the defeats at the WHO annual meeting, the ICAO Assembly, and Interpol.
Tsai Ing-wen needs to be less DPP-centric, and more concerned with the national interest. Only then will she be able to see what her diplomatic strategy ought to be.