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  1. World
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17 March 2023

The diplomatic battle for Taiwan

Taiwan’s remaining allies are being whittled away as Beijing positions itself as a peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine.

By Katie Stallard

TAIPEI – When I arrived in Taiwan on 9 March, it had diplomatic relations with just 14 countries. This was already considerably down from the 22 formal partners it had in 2016 when President Tsai Ing-wen first came to power. By the time I flew out of Taiwan seven days later it was in the process of losing one more. On 14 March Xiomara Castro, the president of Honduras, announced that she had instructed her foreign minister to establish formal relations with Beijing, which means severing ties with Taipei.

Since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine in February 2022 there has been increasing focus in Washington on the danger that Taiwan could be next – that Beijing might decide to invade the self-governing island, which it claims as part of China. In 2021 Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, warned that China‘s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was rapidly improving its capabilities and could attempt an assault as soon as 2027. In January this year Mike Minihan, a general in the US Air Force, told his officers to be ready for war with China over Taiwan by 2025.

Yet the incessant discussion of a potential Chinese invasion – driven by analysis of the PLA’s advancing capabilities rather than hard evidence of any intent to attack – misses the multi-pronged campaign Beijing is already waging against Taiwan. This includes “grey-zone’ activities, such as the repeated flights by Chinese military aircraft across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, attempts to spread disinformation, economic coercion and the ongoing efforts to whittle away Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies.

[See also: The global affairs forecast for 2023: Crisis in Taiwan and Joe Biden’s second run]

In fact, as I heard repeatedly during meetings with government officials and analysts in Taipei, these efforts are connected. If Beijing succeeds in isolating the island and breaking the population’s will to resist unification, then there will be no need for a massive amphibious assault across the Taiwan Strait. Equally, if the situation ever does come to conflict, Taiwan’s complicated diplomatic status and its dwindling formal ties will make it harder to co-ordinate an international response.

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Even in the case of Ukraine, which is an internationally recognised sovereign state with clearly delineated borders, one security-focused researcher told me he was struck by how many countries, particularly across the Global South, had declined to condemn Russia’s aggression. The situation would be much more challenging for Taiwan, he warned, which has ever fewer diplomatic allies and has not been a member of the United Nations since 1971, when the Chinese seat was transferred to Beijing. The United States cut its own diplomatic ties with Taipei when it established official relations with Beijing in 1979, although they retain robust informal ties, and the US is obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act to provide the territory with the means to defend itself.

This is why there was such excitement in Taipei that the UK’s recent foreign and defence policy review, formally known as the Integrated Review Refresh, mentioned the threat to Taiwan for the first time. The document describes China as an “epoch-defining challenge” to the international order and commits the government to increasing defence spending by £5bn over the next two years. It was released on 14 March, against the backdrop of Rishi Sunak’s visit to San Diego to announce the details of the Aukus security pact between the UK, US and Australia. The impressive symbolism, however, was immediately followed by questions from British defence analysts as to whether it would be backed up by the necessary resources.

[See also: How serious is the Taiwan Strait crisis?]

Beijing is not standing still. Eduardo Reina, Honduras’ foreign minister, explained that the decision to cut ties with Taiwan was driven by “pragmatism, not ideology”, specifically the allure of potential Chinese investment at a time when his country is “drowning” in debt. Paraguay’s main opposition party has said that it will also switch recognition to Beijing if it wins election in April, citing the need to boost trade.

Meanwhile, the recent peace deal China brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia shows the scale of President Xi Jinping’s ambition to be seen as a major player in a new global order no longer dominated by the US. While his much-vaunted partnership with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, his dictatorial approach to power and his increasingly assertive foreign policy have alienated some Western leaders, the prospect of access to China’s market and investment funds remains appealing across much of the globe.

The countries who rally to Taiwan’s defence in the event of a conflict, or even cross perceived diplomatic red lines in the meantime, can expect to suffer serious economic consequences. When Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in Vilnius, the capital, in 2021 that used “Taiwan” in the name, instead of “Taipei”, China downgraded its diplomatic ties and blocked imports of Lithuanian goods. (Beijing denies this was the case.)

Xi’s expected visit to Moscow next week will be closely watched in Taipei. Following efforts by Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, to position his country as a possible mediator in the war in Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference in February, along with the release of a 12-point paper on the conflict, Xi is clearly keen to be seen as a potential peacemaker. Yet this is undermined by the reality that he has already chosen sides – refusing even to acknowledge that Russia has invaded Ukraine, while providing extensive diplomatic and economic support to Moscow.

Much as he might prefer an end to the war, which has harmed China’s interests in multiple ways – galvanising Western alliances, accelerating arms sales to Taiwan and weakening the global economy – Xi does not want Russia to suffer a humiliating defeat that might threaten Putin’s grip on power. He wants Putin to continue on as a partner in their shared contest with the US, and to supply China with the energy security and advanced weaponry needed to contemplate any future action against Taiwan.

The outcome of the war in Ukraine will be felt far beyond the borders of the country. If the conflict ends with any scenario that Putin can claim as a victory, such as a negotiated settlement that grants Russia permanent control of Crimea, then that could embolden other autocrats with territorial ambitions, including Xi. As one international relations scholar in Taipei summed up the situation to me: Beijing is already working to undermine diplomatic support for Taiwan and to seed its own narrative that China is being placed in an impossible position – just as Russia was in Ukraine – by “anti-China elements” who are threatening its security. If Western unity breaks down, and Putin’s aggression succeeds, then Xi may well draw the lesson that the international response to a sustained blockade of Taiwan, or even an invasion, would be limited in scope and duration. That would be a dangerous message to send.

A portion of the travel costs associated with Katie Stallard’s trip was paid by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The New Statesman retained complete editorial independence throughout.

[See also: China’s military drills show the crisis around Taiwan is only just beginning]

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