China Power | Politics | East Asia

Will Beijing’s Taiwan Strategy Backfire?

China’s strategy of global diplomatic isolation will harm Chinese interests in the long-run.

By Travis Sanderson for
Will Beijing’s Taiwan Strategy Backfire?
Credit: Official Photo by Chien Chih-Hung / Office of the President

Last week, both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati cut formal diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan and entered diplomatic relationships with the People’s Republic of China. The two countries follow a long line of nations which have, in return for increased aid and financial assistance, recognized Beijing over Taipei.

With this development, the number of countries with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan has now dropped to 15. While the Taiwanese government reels as president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) suffers what many perceive as a defeat, the Chinese government trades $730 million and commercial airplanes for two more victories in its strategy of global diplomatic isolation against Taiwan.

The Chinese strategy will likely continue to produce results for Beijing. Taiwan simply cannot compete in the long run against its larger and more economically powerful neighbor, especially since China has prioritized foreign assistance as a core component of its Belt and Road foreign policy. But as Beijing’s strategy pays out dividends to China’s attempt to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, Chinese decision-makers fail to see the danger that their own strategy produces for Chinese interests. 

Rather than boost the chances of reunification, global isolation will force Taiwan to consider new alternatives to formal diplomatic recognition. The process has already started. The South China Morning Post reported after El Salvador’s 2018 cut of diplomatic relations with Taiwan that Presidential Office “Spokesman Alex Huang confirmed that Taipei was considering all possibilities, including the loss of all of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.The loss of diplomatic allies has been framed by the Taiwanese government as an attack on Taiwan’s sovereignty, a step up in rhetoric.

The government steps in sync with the people; when Taiwanese youth felt the government was too conciliatory to the People’s Republic, they took to the streets and occupied the legislature in the Sunflower Movement. Global isolation will alienate Taiwanese people further, sending them to pressure their government to reject policies that may lead to Chinese influence over the island.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In a situation where Taiwan is globally isolated, Beijing will be hard-pressed to find any political allies across the strait. The Pan-Green camp was long ago dismissed by China as pro-independence, but Beijing’s recent support for the China-friendly Han Kuo-Yu shows China still believes in potential allies inside the Pan-Blue camp. There is little evidence that the KMT can consider unification now. In her book Why Taiwan Matters, scholar Shelley Rigger described the KMT’s definition of success as “[incorporating] some forms of unification — not absorption or annexation into the PRC, but a unification negotiated between the two sides acting as equals to craft a new Chinese state that would preserve Taiwan’s democratic system.” The two sides negotiating the Chinese political state as equals has not occurred, and eight years have passed since those words were written. Now, Xi Jinping consolidates authoritarian power on one side of the strait while Han Kuo-yu, the latest avatar of the China-friendly Kuomintang, has stated that “one country, two systems” would only occur “over [his] dead body.” The positions of the Chinese government and the Kuomintang have widened, the chance of negotiation more distant than ever. Global diplomatic isolation might alienate Taiwanese voters further, forcing the Kuomintang to become more and more China-skeptical to remain politically competitive.  

As the Kuomintang shifts farther away from Beijing, the Pan-Green Camp will move further into the territory in which it was born. One of the loudest voices in the vacuum of allies leaving Taiwan is the pro-independence faction. As the South China Morning Post reported, “former premier and DPP chairman Yu Shyi-kun said that even if Taiwan ended up with no diplomatic allies in its present form as the Republic of China, it could gain allies as an independent Taiwan,” an idea that could grow as Taiwan becomes increasingly globally isolated. The pro-independence camp’s position, emphasizing the economic benefit of Taiwan redistributing aid from allies to its own people, has the potential to become more attractive to voters. 

The loss of the last formal diplomatic ally will spell the final nail in the coffin of the Republic of China’s claim to statehood for people on both sides of the strait. Rather than make Taiwanese people accept the sovereignty of the People’s Republic over the island, Taiwanese will likely become more alienated from unification. The Taiwanese political leadership, already increasingly China-skeptical, will explore new options. China’s strategy of global diplomatic isolation will harm Chinese interests in the long-run by unbalancing the Taiwanese political order and status quo. If China does not want an increasingly pro-independence Taiwan, it should not pursue the global diplomatic isolation of Taipei to its final conclusion. 

Travis Sanderson is a Huayu Scholar and independent writer based in Taipei.