The Debate

Can the US Help Taiwan Keep Its Remaining Diplomatic Relationships?

Taiwan has lost five partners to China since 2016. Washington might be able to help stem the tide.

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Can the US Help Taiwan Keep Its Remaining Diplomatic Relationships?
Credit: Presidential Office, Republic of China (Taiwan)

Only 17 countries recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan), having had to choose between the island democracy and the more powerful People’s Republic of China. With the deterioration of cross-strait relations since the 2016 Taiwanese presidential election, five countries have broken relations with Taipei, lured by a combination of economic and political incentives. Taiwan should be concerned that others may follow suit. However, the United States may be willing to play a greater role in stemming such losses.

Last week U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia W. Patrick Murphy urged the six Pacific Island states recognizing Taiwan to remain, while also stating that Chinese militarization in the region would be as destabilizing as recent actions in the South China Sea. Similarly, in September 2018, the United States recalled diplomats from El Salvador, Panama, and the Dominican Republic after all three broke relations with Taiwan, while Senator Cory Gardner introduced the TAIPEI Act, which would allow the State Department to modify foreign aid and relations with countries that sever relations with Taiwan.

However, the Trump administration seemed to contradict such efforts to stave off additional diplomatic losses for Taiwan when the State Department announced in April of this year plans to made additional aid cuts to El Salvador and two of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, Guatemala and Honduras. Such cuts may leave these latter two with little choice but to recognize China.

Neither words of caution nor the cutting of American assistance is likely to convince countries considering the switch to China. In the long run, Taiwan is unlikely to be able to match Chinese offers of assistance, nor should it encourage countries viewing diplomatic recognition as a bidding war. Furthermore, my own research finds that as a country’s exports as a share of GDP increases, they are more likely to recognize China. Thus, Taiwanese assistance packages designed for economic growth alone counterintuitively may lead to further diplomatic isolation.

However, the United States can encourage these countries to remain with Taiwan through a combination of international assistance packages and other incentives. Washington could not only tie continued aid packages to recognition, similar to what is proposed in the TAIPEI Act, but also tie increases in aid with substantive improvements a country’s relations with Taiwan. Similarly, the expansion of free trade agreements (FTAs) could be tied in part to maintaining relations with Taiwan, with increased tariffs on those that break relations. The United States also could potentially tie recognition to support in the United Nations, threatening to veto peacekeepers or humanitarian assistance as China often has in the past to persuade holdouts. Admittedly, this last act opens up several potential problems and would likely exacerbate tensions with China, but would signal American resolve.

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The United States has clear strategic interests in Central America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, where most of Taiwan’s diplomatic partnerships reside. While increasing foreign aid in general may not be domestically popular, framing aid to Taiwan’s diplomatic partners as protecting vulnerable democracies and staving off Chinese encroachment may be more palatable.  Furthermore, pressure from the United States signals to both Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and China alike that Washington respects and will protect Taiwan’s diplomacy.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics in East Asian democracies.