Isolated Taiwan Battles To Stop Motley Allies Defecting To China

A workaday 15-storey office tower in the leafy suburbs of the Taiwanese capital is an unlikely venue for a diplomatic battle involving the world’s two most powerful men, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump.

But diplomats from Taiwan’s motley crew of foreign allies, most of whom are stationed in the building, were shaken this week by the sudden departure of the ambassador of São Tomé and Príncipe, one of several countries that has been under pressure from Beijing to cut ties with Taipei. 

“We’re like one big happy family, so it’s very sad to see him go like this,” says Dilmei Olkeriil, the ambassador to Taiwan from Palau, one of the remaining 21 diplomatic allies, most of them small, developing countries like hers. “Of course, all our leaders get pressure from the People’s Republic of China but Palau continues to support Taiwan.” 

Taiwan has been thrust back into the international spotlight by the US president-elect, who infuriated Mr Xi’s China by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and calling into question the “One China” principle under which most of the world rejects diplomatic ties with Taipei. 

China, which claims Taiwan is part of its territory, has intensified its squeeze on the democratically ruled island since the election earlier this year of Ms Tsai and her Democratic Progressive party, which wants to maintain Taiwan’s de facto independence and reduce its economic reliance on China. 

Beijing has slashed the number of tourists visiting Taiwan, curbed Taiwan’s involvement in international bodies such as the World Health Organisation and renewed a battle with Taipei for diplomatic allies, which was put on hold under the more China-friendly administration of the previous president

Analysts believe that São Tomé’s defection was orchestrated by China to punish Taiwan for the call with Mr Trump. Taiwanese officials fear that more nations could switch sides. “We don’t want to see that but it’s up to these countries if they think our approach is better,” says Leo Lee, vice-minister of foreign affairs. 

Taiwan accused São Tomé of making “excessive” financial demands and “playing both sides of the Taiwan Strait while holding out for the highest bidder”. Mr Lee insists his government will no longer “engage in money diplomacy”. Ms Tsai is due to set off for a trip to four Central American allies next month to shore up ties. 

In the past both sides competed to buy the support of developing countries, leading to a notorious incident in 2006 when Taiwan lost $30m to middlemen who claimed to be able to establish ties with Papua New Guinea. 

Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies have little money or power. The total population of all 21 countries is just 84m, from the African nation of Burkina Faso, with 19m, to the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, with 11,000, and the Vatican, with just 800. 

But they are symbolically important and help to raise Taiwan’s voice in international organisations, much to Beijing’s irritation. 

“We want to keep as many diplomatic allies as possible because they support our sovereignty,” says Lo Chih-cheng, a DPP legislator and foreign affairs expert. 

Some analysts question Taiwan’s focus on these allies and believe it would be better to concentrate on strengthening ties with more powerful countries from the US and Japan to middle powers in Southeast Asia. 

“While it’s nice to have these formal alliances, from a ruthlessly pragmatic point of view, they’re more trouble than they’re worth,” says William Stanton, former head of the unofficial US embassy in Taipei, which is known as the American Institute in Taiwan. 

But working with countries that follow Beijing’s “One China” policy is tough. Most decline to send senior ministers to Taiwan for fear of upsetting Beijing. When they meet Taiwanese officials in their capitals, they host them in coffee shops, yet still face angry protests from the local Chinese embassy. 

Ambassadors from Taiwan’s allies, many of whom are friends and live in the same apartment block adjoining their Taipei office, say they are keen to defend Taiwan in international organisations such as the United Nations. But they want more investment and development assistance to solidify the relationship. 

“Taiwan needs to focus more on Central America,” says Rafael Fernando Sierra Quesada, the Honduran ambassador to Taiwan. “We don’t want cash but we need Taiwanese companies to invest and for Taiwan to help us become as prosperous in 50 years as they are now.” 

He adds that if Taiwanese companies build more factories in Honduras, even a “crazy president” would not dare defect to China because of the protests from citizens who would fear for their jobs. 

Teekoa Iuta, the ambassador from Kiribati, another poor Pacific island nation, says her people appreciate the development assistance that Taiwan offers, from helping tackle a drought this year to strengthening the runway at the main airport. 

But she says many of Taiwan’s allies were expecting more support from Ms Tsai’s government, as they come under greater pressure from Beijing. 

“People in our group are getting jittery and we joke that we are all half-packed,” she says. 

However, Ms Iuta sees a silver lining in the departure of her friend from São Tomé. “When I came to Taiwan in 2013, there were no spare offices in the main compound where the other embassies are,” she says. “But now I might be able to move in.”

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