WASHINGTON – After years of thumbing its nose at mainland China and engaging in a high-stakes game of “dollar diplomacy” that drained the coffers of both countries, Taiwan has toned down its rhetoric – thanks to a new leader who favors cooperation over confrontation.
This change of heart, says Taiwan’s top diplomat in Washington, makes it far less likely that any Central American country will follow Costa Rica’s lead and break relations with Taiwan in favor of ties with communist China.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, elected in March 2008 with 58 percent of the vote, calls himself a “peacemaker, not a troublemaker.” Since his inauguration a year ago, he’s cast aside the belligerent stance of his proindependence predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, lifting the prospect of cross-strait reconciliation to the most promising level in decades.
As a result of intense negotiations, more than 100 direct flights per week now link Taipei, Taiwan with Shanghai, Beijing and other mainland cities – up from zero only a year ago. And the government is looking to expand that to around 350 flights a week.
“Before, it would take eight and a half hours to fly from Taipei – via Hong Kong – to Shanghai. Now it takes only 85 minutes,” said Jason Yuan, 67, representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington.
“As president of a company, I can now leave Taipei at 9 a.m., arrive in Shanghai at 10:30 a.m., do my business, fly back at 6 p.m. and be home for dinner with my wife,” said Yuan.
Yuan, formerly Taiwan’s ambassador to Panama, said that for the past 60 years his country never really had any constructive dialogue with the mainland.
“Under the new president, our policy is very clear and easy to understand: no unification, no independence, no use of force,” he said. “This will create a healthy U.S.-Taiwan-China relationship. It’s a win-win-win situation for all of us.”
Despite the worldwide recession and worsening unemployment at home, Taiwan enjoys an annual per-capita gross domestic product of around $17,000 and boasts foreign exchange reserves of just over $300 billion – the world’s fourth largest after China, Japan and Russia.
But economic prosperity hasn’t led to diplomatic respect for the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known, despite its democratic system and flourishing free press.
Today, only 23 governments recognize the island that the People’s Republic of China regards as a breakaway province, with most of the world – including Costa Rica for nearly two years now – throwing their allegiance to China and its 1.3 billion people.
An End to ‘Dollar Diplomacy’
China’s economic might has clearly put it ahead in the tit-for-tat race for global recognition, but Yuan says the days of “dollar diplomacy” are definitely over. No more, vowed the TECRO chief, will Taiwan try to buy small countries’ friendship with promises of millions of dollars in economic assistance.
“We have ‘flexible diplomacy’ now,” he said. “We have made this clear to the other side. We told them, ‘You enjoy diplomatic ties with 171 countries. We have only 23 countries. Do we need to use taxpayers’ money to steal countries back and forth? It’s nonsense. One more country on your list doesn’t mean much. So why should we fight about it?’”
This new attitude was very much on display last year in Paraguay – the only South American nation that still recognizes Taiwan instead of mainland China. Immediately following his April 2008 election victory, left-leaning Paraguayan President-elect Fernando Lugo vowed that upon taking office, he’d immediately break relations with Taiwan and recognize China – possibly hoping to squeeze a few extra dollars out of Beijing for his impoverished country. Even so, Taiwanese President Ma insisted on attending Lugo’s inauguration in Asunción as planned.
“A lot of advisers told him not to go,” Yuan recalled. “They said if he went and Paraguay broke ties with us, it would be a big embarrassment, and that it would look very bad. But our president went anyway.” Eventually, the Chinese themselves persuaded Lugo to back off from his threat because, as Yuan said, “the timing was not right.” This new attitude could also explain why some other smaller countries have maintained close relations with Taiwan at the expense of shutting out China.
“Nicaragua’s (President Daniel) Ortega is another example. He’s a leftist, but Nicaragua still maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan,” said Yuan. “My minister just got back yesterday from El Salvador, and there, it was business as usual also.”
On June 1, leftist Mauricio Funes will replace El Salvador’s current pro-Taiwan president, Tony Saca. Among other things, Funes has promised to establish diplomatic ties with both Cuba and China – following in the footsteps of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who in June 2007 kicked out the Taiwanese, welcomed the Chinese, and is presently negotiating Central America’s first free trade agreement with Beijing.
In March, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Francisco Ou said his country would not object if El Salvador forged formal ties with China. The remarks sparked widespread speculation that Taiwan might accept dual recognition in line with Ma’s call for a “diplomatic truce” with China.
René León, who will soon resign as El Salvador’s long-serving ambassador in Washington, said that “at the very least, relations with China will be evaluated by the new president…
“There is a movement within the FMLN that would like to see El Salvador quickly shift recognition from Taipei to Beijing. But if Funes prevails and Taiwan is clever enough, I wouldn’t be suprised if he maintains relations with Taiwan.”
Yuan suggested that Costa Rica already regrets its “betrayal” of Taiwan, but he declined to elaborate. He insists his country no longer tries to tell other nations what to do, claiming that – with relations improving day by day – China would gain little at this point by having Nicaragua, El Salvador or any other small state come over to its side while abandoning Taiwan.
“I don’t resent Panama doing business with mainland China, nor do we resent Chinese ships going through the Panama Canal,” said Yuan. “We do business with the mainland, so how can we stop others from doing the same?”