A new diplomatic struggle is unfolding over Taiwan

A new diplomatic struggle is unfolding over Taiwan


The new year has brought no respite from tensions over Taiwan. On January 13th its people elected an independence-minded candidate, William Lai Ching-te, as their next president, infuriating China. Two days later it was China’s turn, with its officials announcing that little Nauru was cutting ties with Taiwan in favour of China. On January 24th the US navy sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait, which China described as a “provocative act”. Amid this drama a new diplomatic battle is intensifying that risks setting the stage for war.

For over 70 years the government in Beijing led by the Communist Party has fought for official recognition from the world. Lately, it has opened up a novel front in this campaign. The party wants not only to be the sole representative of China, it also wants countries to adopt its view that Taiwan is an alienable part of it. Victory in this struggle would give China’s leaders a big diplomatic cudgel—as well as a legal basis for invading the island.

When Nauru made the jump it became the 183rd country to recognise China. That compares with around 160 two decades ago and between 80 and 90 three decades before that (when there were fewer countries). Most big states switched a while back. Britain and many other Western countries established ties with China in the early 1970s. America, a laggard, did so in 1979. When it comes to recognition, then, China is winning and has been for a while. Only 11 countries (and the Vatican) continue to formally recognise Taiwan.

The new front is more complicated. Those 183 countries view Taiwan in very different ways. At one end of the spectrum are states that treat the island as a de facto independent country, even if they don’t recognise it. At the other end are those that endorse China’s claim. The Economist has analysed Chinese foreign-ministry statements from 2023, all in Mandarin. We assess that at least 28 countries have affirmed China’s view of things. For example in October Pakistan said it “firmly supports” China’s push for reunification (there is no mention of it being peaceful); a statement by Syria in September uses similar language. Pushing that number higher is now a preoccupation of Chinese officials. In their eyes, such support helps China make the case that unification is justified, by force if necessary.

Most Western countries sit at the pro-Taiwan end of the spectrum—and are moving further in that direction even as they formally maintain a policy of non-recognition. America has loosened restrictions on interactions between its officials and those on the island. A trip there by Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House of Representatives, sparked a crisis in 2022. America has increased military aid to Taiwan. President Joe Biden has even said that America would defend it from invasion, though his aides often walk back such statements in order to maintain “strategic ambiguity”.

Perhaps most frustrating to Chinese officials is that America is pulling its allies along with it. The Biden administration has encouraged countries to “expand engagement with Taiwan”. A steady stream of Western parliamentary delegations has visited the island. Australia, Britain, Canada and France have sent warships through the Taiwan Strait (which China calls its territorial waters). The EU and G7 have made a point of calling for stability in the area.

The Czech Republic has been active in this regard. It has its own history of resisting an authoritarian power. Now it is embracing Taiwan. Czech parliamentary leaders have visited the island with large delegations in tow. Petr Pavel, the Czech president, spoke on the phone with his Taiwanese counterpart, Tsai Ing-wen, last year. Mr Pavel was also the first European head of state to congratulate Taiwan on its elections this month. Czech officials say that none of this implies formal recognition and that their actions are consistent with the country’s one-China policy. But in China there is a growing sense of crisis, as democratic countries hollow out the meaning of “one China”, says Fukuda Madoka of Hosei University in Japan.

China has therefore focused its efforts (and economic pressure) on the developing world. Most of the countries that have affirmed its stance on Taiwan are poor. China has woven its views into declarations with various groupings of African, Arab, Central Asian and Pacific countries. It has also promoted them in new forums, such as the “Group of Friends in Defence of the Charter of the United Nations”, which includes Iran, Russia and North Korea. At a recent group meeting, China styled itself a “defender of the international order”.

Recently China has claimed that the UN itself endorses its view of Taiwan. China points to Resolution 2758, passed in 1971, which recognised the government in Beijing as the only lawful representative of China at the UN. The measure expelled the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek, then leader of Taiwan. But it did not mention Taiwan by name. American officials argue that it leaves the island’s status up in the air. China, though, has successfully pressed countries such as Nauru to cite the resolution when talking about Taiwan. It scored another victory in January when Dennis Francis, a Trinidadian diplomat who is serving as president of the UN General Assembly, suggested that the body’s work would adhere to China’s view of things and be guided by Resolution 2758.

So on this front, too, China can claim some success. It has also convinced many countries to adopt its jargon on things like human rights and development. With Taiwan, the struggle risks going beyond language. In recent years China has increased its aggressive activity in the Taiwan Strait, flying planes close to the island. China is changing the status quo militarily and on the diplomatic stage, says Lai I-Chung of Taiwan Thinktank, a policy outfit. That bodes ill for the future. As China sees it, the more countries that adopt its view of Taiwan, the more cover it has to turn words into action.

 



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