Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 7 April 2024

 

Taiwan Can Get By With a Little Help From Its Friends

In the aftermath of the worst earthquake in a quarter of a century, the island has shown it has far more influential friends than detractors. 

Red lines.
Red lines. Photographer: An Rong Xu/Bloomberg
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The global attention on Taiwan in the wake of its worst natural disaster in 25 years is unprecedented: Close to 90 countries have come forward with offers of assistance and support.

The public affirmations are significant. In the past, most nations have walked a fine line — they don’t want to anger China, but nor do they want to leave the self-ruled democratic island completely isolated. It shows how much more important Taipei has become geopolitically, and is a break from the past when most would shy away from expressing views on the disputed territory.

Among those to offer help was China, which the Taiwanese quickly rejected, calling it “shameless” that Beijing’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations had thanked the world for its goodwill on behalf of the island. The foreign ministry in Taipei condemned Beijing’s use of the earthquake to “conduct cognitive operations internationally” — diplomatic code for psychological warfare. Taiwan has rebuffed China’s offers on similar grounds before, most notably in 1999, when the last big earthquake of this magnitude struck the island. Then, the international community had not been as vocal in pledging aid as Beijing tried to control the routing of supplies and rescue materials.

So, a quarter of a century later, why the change in tone? There are a few factors, but perhaps none more so important than slowing Chinese growth. President Xi Jinping’s management of the political system has also become increasingly insular, while his military has become more assertive both in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. That, and a less conducive environment for foreign businesses in the world’s second-largest economy have perhaps signaled to the global community that it’s the right time to take a more open approach on Taiwan, despite the fact that it could earn Beijing’s ire. Taiwan’s status is a key red line for Xi, as he said last week in a phone conversation with US President Joe Biden. The mainland sees it as part of its own territory, whereas Taipei guards its position fiercely.

Besides the economy, China also poses a greater national security threat to countries in the region, and coalitions have been building to contain it. The Quad, an alliance involving the US, India, Australia and Japan, was formed in the wake of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. It has morphed into a grouping that Beijing views as a direct threat to its regional ambitions and control of the South China Sea, as well as its eventual unification plans for Taiwan. It also sees AUKUS — a partnership between the US, UK and Australia — as a way for Washington to exert American supremacy in China’s backyard. So it will no doubt be watching the outpouring of support for Taipei with concern.

American ties with Taiwan are one of Beijing’s biggest gripes. While Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Taipei, it is a key partner in the Indo-Pacific, and enjoys robust unofficial links that have grown even stronger under the Biden administration.

To understand the complicated relationship between Taipei, Washington and Beijing, you have to go back in time. It is a love-hate triangle that dates back to 1949. During World War II, the US was an ally of the Republic of China (ROC) run by the Kuomintang (KMT). Following the bloody civil war between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party, the KMT government fled to Taiwan, and in October of that year, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established on the mainland.

The US and Taiwan continued to engage with one another, through the 1950s and 60s, signing a mutual defense treaty in 1954. But everything changed in the summer of 1971, when Henry Kissinger, then President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, secretly visited Beijing and met with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, paving the way for a huge strategic turnaround between the three. The PRC replaced the ROC to become the sole representative of China at the UN. That decision ushered in a new era of US-China ties, and created a symbiotic economic relationship that has existed until today, although tensions between the two superpowers and talk of de-risking has worn away at that.

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This has left Taiwan increasingly isolated, although it is dependent on the US for defense equipment, deterrence and diplomacy, along with Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” to maintain the status quo. It has managed that deftly, and although the number of diplomatic partners have dwindled in recent years, due mainly to Beijing’s coercion, it has seen rising global support since 2021, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies notes. This has been, in part, a reaction to Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and the effective end of the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement.

China under Xi has drawn suspicion from both sides of the political spectrum in the US. That’s meant a harsher, more strident approach toward Beijing— and that has benefited Taiwan. Still, the island knows all too well how quickly things can change: A new president in the White House could reverse course dramatically. Taipei is used to braving it alone, but a little help from its friends never hurts.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

  • A Distracted US Is Worrying Taiwan: Karishma Vaswani
  • Taiwan Isn’t What’s Dividing the US and China: Minxin Pei
  • The US and China Are Waging a Cold War That Is Truly MAD: Niall Ferguson

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Karishma Vaswani at kvaswani6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Ruth Pollard at rpollard2@bloomberg.net

Karishma Vaswani is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia politics with a special focus on China. Previously, she was the BBC's lead Asia presenter and worked for the BBC across Asia and South Asia for two decades.
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