The government of the Solomon Islands has decided to switch its diplomatic relations from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This announcement occurred almost parallel to the US government’s decision to provide a major package of military technology, namely “66 F-16C/D Block 70 aircraft and related equipment and support for an estimated cost of $8 billion,” to the Asian nation.
Thus, while Washington continues to support Taipei, it has been unable to prevent some governments from establishing relations with Beijing. Many of the nations that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan are located in Latin America and the Caribbean, two regions where the US has plenty of allies and partners; hence, as we discuss Taipei’s future in the Western Hemisphere, we must discuss what Washington can (realistically) do to help its ally.
Taiwan’s Loss Is China’s Gain
According to the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the countries that still have diplomatic relations with Taipei are Belize, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, as well as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Moreover, Taipei has economic and cultural offices in countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. Nevertheless, Taiwan suffered diplomatic blows in recent years: Panama switched in 2017, while the Dominican Republic and El Salvador switched 2018.
Changes of diplomatic recognition are generally attributed to Beijing’s “checkbook diplomacy”; specifically, promises of financial aid, investment offers, and trade agreements that would open the doors to the large Chinese market. These are “soft power” tools that convince governments to switch from Taipei to Beijing. “China’s checkbook diplomacy, in the form of inclusion in the Belt and Road Initiative and aid for developing infrastructure and special economic zones, are superior to that of Taiwan. On top of that, relations with Beijing can affect existing gains from trade, which are substantial for countries like Panama,” explained Dr. Vasabjit Banerjee, an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University, to the author.
With that said, Taiwan continues to be an active actor in Latin America and the Caribbean. For example, in late July Taipei donated two Bell helicopters and 30 tactical vehicles to Paraguay’s armed forces. Moreover, Taipei has provided a loan to improve the infrastructure of Saint Lucia’s Hewanorra International Airport. Furthermore, in a sign of strengthening relations, the government of Saint Vincent will open an embassy in Taiwan—“once the embassy is completed, all 17 of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies will have an official embassy in the country,” according to The Taiwan Times.
However, China’s financial assistance and market size far exceed what Taiwan can offer. Hence, as a representative of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) explained to the author, “Taiwan is always on alert for indications that the Chinese are expanding their outreach in the Western Hemisphere. In a year with many elections across the region, Taipei is well aware that any changes in government can cause a reordering of foreign policy priorities.” With that said, the DPP representative reassured us about Taiwan’s adaptability: “As a democracy we are well accustomed to adjusting to such changes, and our diplomats in the front lines are working hard every day to strengthen Taiwan’s engagements with all sectors of the societies in which they work.”
Anecdotally, it is worth mentioning that it is possible for countries to switch back to recognizing Taiwan, though this certainly does not happen often. In the Western Hemisphere, one country that changed recognition twice is the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia: Castries established diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1984, switched to Beijing in 1997, switched back to Taipei in 2007, “and opened its embassy in Taipei in June 2015, making it St. Lucia’s first embassy in Asia.”
Et Tu, Washington?
As for what the US can do to support Taiwan to prevent any further diplomatic losses, I reached out to various experts for their opinions.
For example, the DPP representative explained:
The US can, and has, stressed that it considers any unilateral disturbance of the cross-strait status quo—including changes in diplomatic recognition—to be harmful to regional peace and stability. Beyond that, Taiwan and the US have been working more closely together to identify potential new areas of cooperation, where our respective strengths and advantages can be mutually complementary in providing development assistance to Taiwan’s allied countries—whether in the areas of disaster relief, women’s empowerment, clean energy development, or public health.
This is similar to Dr. Banerjee’s advice:
Washington can encourage Taiwan to publicize that the type of aid it delivers to the region is more than top-down infrastructure projects and trade links that benefit business elites. Rather, it provides grassroots aid to local communities that enhance health outcomes or increase food security in ways that are more aware of social realities.
In other words, Washington and Taipei should focus on promoting how their projects directly help the general population of Taiwan’s allies.
Moreover, in an interview with the author, Dr. Ryan Berg, a Latin America research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC, explained that it is unlikely that Washington can help Taipei gain back some of its lost allies. Nevertheless, “in order to prevent more countries from switching to recognize Beijing, the US must present a compelling, alternate vision for the Americas. Lacking such a vision, it’s doubtful the US will convince leaders not to open relations with China, given all the bonuses, like a major cash infusion into the economy, that normally accompanies a decision like that,” Dr. Berg explained.
There is also a security angle to this geopolitical situation. Dr. Banerjee explained:
Taiwan has long-established links with the security forces in the region, especially in Central America. Thus, Taiwan can provide such training and equipment to security and law enforcement forces in the region. Doing so will help continue its long established ties with regional security forces, while securing the countries against narco-traffickers and gang violence, as well as helping the United States’ regional efforts.
As previously mentioned, Taiwan recently donated helicopters and tactical vehicles to Paraguay, and this will, hopefully, convince Asuncion to maintain ties with Taipei.
Finally, it is worth noting a statement made at a September 11 event on US-Taiwan defense relations at the Hudson Institute, another think-tank in Washington, DC. One of the speakers, Professor Michael Tsai, Taiwan’s former minister of defense, encouraged the US to “review and revise the outdated State Department Guideline on Taiwan (since 1994) which does a disservice to Taiwan and harms Taiwan’s efforts to seek international participation and recognition.” Leading by (diplomatic) example could help the US convince its Western Hemisphere allies to revise their views regarding Taiwan.
Washington should keep in mind that supporting Taiwan does not solely mean providing military technology. Supporting its Asian ally also has a diplomatic angle, as Taipei has lost several allies in recent years, many of them in the Western Hemisphere, which chose to establish relations with the PRC. While the US should respect the sovereignty and national interests of its allies and partners throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Washington can constructively engage with them to explain the benefits of continuous relations with Taiwan.
In November, Chile will host a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), of which Taiwan is a member; the DPP representative explains that “Taiwan’s delegation will be going into this year’s summit with the same determination as always to demonstrate our ability to make positive contributions to the international community.” Washington would be well-advised to utilize the upcoming APEC summit as a part of a strategy to showcase to the Western Hemisphere its support for Taiwan.