Washington’s TAIPEI Act will not solve Taiwan’s problems

Taiwan needs a new approach to counter China’s campaign to isolate it internationally.

Tsai Reuters
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a news conference at the National Palace during her one-day visit to Haiti, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 13, 2019 [Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters]

In the past few weeks, the US Senate and the House of Representatives passed similar versions of an act aiming to strengthen Taiwan’s standing in the world and curb China’s attempts to further isolate the island, which has been de-facto independent since 1950.

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province that must return to the mainland fold, by force if necessary. It insists that nations cannot have official relations with both China and Taiwan, with the result that Taiwan has formal diplomatic ties with only a small number of countries.

The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which is expected to be finalised in Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in the coming days, is calling for Washington to increase “its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan;” while reducing its engagement with “nations that take serious or significant actions to undermine Taiwan”.

With the act, Taiwan’s allies in the US Congress are hoping to convince the remaining 15 countries that maintain official diplomatic ties with the island to resist Beijing’s attempts to woo them with economic incentives and continue their support for Taipei on the international arena.

The passing of the bill has been presented by the Taiwanese media as a positive shift in US policy towards the Taiwan issue.

The US pulled its diplomats out of Taiwan and established an embassy in Beijing 40 years ago, paving the way for the island’s diplomatic isolation. Over the years, it has maintained informal but close relations with Taipei, but refused to re-establish formal diplomatic ties or take a side in the ongoing confrontation between Taiwan and China.

Despite the positive reaction the act received in Taipei, some analysts raised questions about its practical potential, arguing the act is unlikely to help Taiwan hold on to the few allies it has.

Beijing’s efforts to isolate the island diplomatically have intensified since the leader of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency of Taiwan in 2016. Since then, a total of eight countries switched their allegiance from Taipei to Beijing.

Tsai’s refusal to endorse the so-called “1992 Consensus,” reached between China’s Communists and Taiwan’s then-ruling Nationalists, under which both agreed there is only “one China”, with each having their own interpretation of what that means, has often been cited as the reason behind Beijing’s increasing belligerence.

The Taiwanese government’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s proposal to implement the “one country, two systems” principle in Taiwan, which would allow the island to retain its own economic and administrative systems but still be considered a part of China just like Hong Kong, has also been put forward as a reason. It needs to be noted, however, that not only the DPP government but also the pro-China opposition and majority of the Taiwanese public are against the proposal – especially now, in light of the ongoing turmoil in Hong Kong.

After the loss of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in September, Taipei now maintains diplomatic relations only with the Vatican and 14 other countries, many of which are small nations in Central America and the Pacific. Despite the threats coming from Washington, analysts expect Beijing to convince some of these countries to switch alliances before Taiwan’s January 2020 general election, in a bid to weaken Tsai’s chances of winning a second term in office.

The rapid loss of diplomatic allies has led to calls from the Beijing-leaning opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party for a change in Taiwan’s approach to China, although a majority of the Taiwanese people appearnot very concerned” about the loss, with many preferring that the money allocated to foreign aid be spent at home rather than used as, what some consider, a bribe to maintain diplomatic ties.

Nonetheless, Taipei undoubtedly needs allies on the international arena if it wants to continue resisting China.

As most of Taipei’s current allies are likely to ignore Washington’s potentially empty threats, take Chinese money and rescind their support for Taiwan, Tsai needs to build other relationships.

One option for the government could be to increase its efforts to draw in support from international organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Tsai has already made some considerable progress in attracting NGO support. Since she came to power, Taiwan has become the first in Asia to host a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) bureau and has also hosted the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) in 2018 and 2019.

Last month, Taipei also hosted the 40th Congress of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which was the first congress it has ever held in Asia. The FIDH, founded in the wake of the first world war as the first international NGO dedicated to defending human rights, is now comprised of 184 organisations in 112 countries. The five-day Congress in Taipei saw the attendance of more than 400 human rights advocates and government officials from around the world, raising Taiwan’s profile and putting it under the international spotlight.

Gaining the support of influential NGOs such as the FIDH, RSF and OFF can help Taipei build international support for its autonomy and allow it to have a voice on the international arena even if it fails to maintain its diplomatic ties with some of its current allies.

China is an economic, diplomatic and political giant and Taiwan is clearly not capable of convincing many states to support it over Beijing. Threats from Washington, which itself does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, are unlikely to be enough to convince any state to turn its back on China and the economic opportunities it offers.

But non-state actors can be important allies for Taiwan. International human rights advocates and organisations helped Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters to be heard in the international arena and they can do the same for the Taiwanese people. Rather than using Washington to punish allies who switch their allegiance to Beijing, Taipei would be better off gaining friends through efforts to turn Taipei into the world’s human rights capital.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.