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The Chinese Communist Party’s Political War on Taiwan: The Assault on Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies

(Panama’s Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi toast the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. Source: AFP)

By Emily David |

This article examines the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive actions to deny Taiwan international legitimacy and seize its diplomatic allies. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has wasted no time capitalizing on the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Panama and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On June 12th, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez announced the severing of ties with the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) in exchange for formal relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China), as the CCP successfully turned another of Taiwan’s dwindling diplomatic allies. That same day, it was reported that a Chinese firm began work on a $1.8 billion deepwater port and container terminal in the Panama Canal, which would double the capacity of the Canal and serve as a crucial component of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. Since then, China and Panama have agreed to cooperate on trade, investment, maritime affairs, and tourism, in addition to law enforcement and security. Panama’s switch represents Beijing’s latest conquest in a broader strategy to wage an intensified, concerted offensive against the ROC and Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies. Such tactics by the PRC serve as a threat to the current international order, endangering the resolution of transnational challenges, liberal values, and the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. 

Following the culmination of China’s civil war in 1949, in which the defeated Nationalist/Kuomintang (KMT) government fled to the island of Taiwan, and the CCP founded the People’s Republic of China, the ROC ceased to exist in the eyes of the Party. Given that Taiwan could stand as an alternative liberal/democratic Chinese government in the international community, the CCP has long sought to subjugate Taiwan and limit its global presence under its “one country, two systems” principle that asserts there is only one China (the PRC), that Taiwan is part of China, and that the PRC is the sole representative of China.  

As such, the PRC has insisted that states in the international community must hold formal diplomatic relations with either China or Taiwan, but not both—as dictated in the PRC’s “one-China” principle. Due to China’s population, geographic size, massive economic clout, and its political strong-arm tactics, the PRC has amassed a preponderance of formal allies vis-à-vis Taiwan’s mere twenty. 

While the CCP’s charm offensive strategy and recent successes in winning Panama and São Tomé and Príncipe’s loyalties have been well documented, the broader issue regarding Taiwan and the CCP’s ongoing strategy of coercing Taiwan’s formal diplomatic partners has been underemphasized. Beijing’s strategic effort to globalize its “one-China” principle aims to further tip the scales of the global community in its favor, in a plan that intends to delegitimize Taiwan’s government and minimize its international space.  

Not only does the CCP’s assault on Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have implications for understanding China’s political tactics and broader geostrategic aims, but, also, it has direct repercussions for Taiwan’s international participation, and for the health, safety, and dignity of Taiwan’s people.  

Recently, the CCP has increased its efforts in a coordinated campaign to compel, and at times intimidate, Taiwan’s modest alliance group to abandon their support for the ROC and switch their affinity to the PRC in exchange for tremendous economic and politicalincentives. While often irresistible to developing countries yearning for significant investment and political advantages, Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, has refused to partake in the CCP’s “diplomatic bidding war.” 

This has taken place amid a backdrop of four important developments. These include the 2016 election of President Tsai and the elevation of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to power (securing a majority in the Legislative Yuan), the congratulatory phone call between President Tsai and then President-elect Donald Trump, President Tsai’s continued resolve against capitulating to General Secretary Xi Jinping’s calls to recognize the PRC’s principle of “one country, two systems” and the 1992 Consensus, as well as the upcoming 19th National Party Congress in Beijing this fall.  

With a president and a political party that emphasize the unique Taiwanese identity, the CCP fears greater distance across the Strait, and the inability to capture the “hearts and minds” of the people on Taiwan. President Tsai’s electoral victory also gave rise to a shift in the political leadership’s stance toward the 1992 Consensus–which the CCP employs to gain ROC assent to the PRC’s “one-China” principle. While former President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT made his affirmation of the 1992 Consensus a primary feature of cross-Strait relations during his administration, the current President respectsthe historical fact that the meeting took place, yet stops short of acknowledging the 1992 Consensus. Ahead of the 19th Party Congress, which will unveil the emerging CCP leaders for the next five years, and which will be utilized to shore up political support for General Secretary Xi and his policies, Beijing wants to ensure allegiance from the Party’s hardliners who endorse a more assertive position on issues regarding the PRC’s territorial sovereignty, which they perceive to include Taiwan. Clearly unhappy with the current state of affairs, these developments could have influenced Beijing to take a more direct role in determining Taiwan’s fate. 

Of the most recent diplomatic defectors, Gambia cut formal ties with Taiwan in November of 2013, citing “national strategic interest.” China attempted this tactic with Burkina Faso and Swaziland, but failed to persuade either African state with its prowess. In addition, in the latest of such moves prior to Panama’s abandonment of Taiwan, China was able to successfully pressure São Tomé and Príncipe to renounce the ROC in favor of the PRC in December 2016. Moving forward, analysts are most concerned about China’s actions towards the Vatican, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, which are three of Taiwan’s 20 remaining allies.  

Although the CCP relentlessly insists they do not interfere in the affairs of other states, the CCP’s coercive actions take gratuitous measures to decimate Taiwan’s alliance system, constrain Taiwan’s international space, and forcefully reassert China’s “one-China” principle among the PRC’s existing partners. Such action requires greater scrutiny from American researchers and policymakers. These threats to Taiwan are significant in and of themselves, and should be acknowledged as such, yet they also carry strategic importance to the United States and our allies in the region. Although the CCP’s continued efforts to turn Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies do nothing to alter Taiwan’s legitimacy, or the objective reality that it exists as a sovereign state as outlined in the ROC constitution, Beijing’s work to dismantle Taiwan’s alliances in order to bolster its own geopolitical tactics harms three important elements of the current international order: addressing transnational challenges, liberal values, and the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. 

First, the CCP’s actions aim to constrain Taiwan’s legitimate cause to participate and contribute public goods to the international community. Taiwan’s allies play a crucial role in garnering support for its expanded participation in international organizations, as Beijing attempts to shut Taiwan out of critical global institutions such as ICAO, WHA, and others. Taiwan’s participation in such organizations provides substantial public goods to the international community, offering solutions to transnational issues through their contributions to humanitarian aid and disaster relief, epidemic prevention, counterterrorism, and environmental protection, among others. Particularly notable are Taiwan’s global efforts to provide assistance relief to the Southeast Asian countries afflicted by the 2005 tsunami, and to stop the spread of Ebola in 2014. Any further exclusion of Taiwan from the international community would only serve to deprive the world of an actor willing to assume the burden of working to solve our common global challenges.  

Second, Beijing’s coercion works to dismantle the liberal and democratic ideals on the island of Taiwan, and, by extension, liberal values throughout the international community. Through the promotion of values such as liberty and equality, Taiwan stands as a beacon of liberalism in the Asia-Pacific that serves to create a more stable, peaceful, and prosperous world. This can be evidenced through a number of different measures. For one, Taiwan shares common elements of other liberal societies such as freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, judicial impartiality, and equal rights for all.  In Freedom House’s latest “Freedom in the World” report, Taiwan scored 91 out of 100, placing it as a country with some of the most robust civil liberties and political rights in the world today. The U.S. State Department’s 2017 “Trafficking in Persons Report” placed Taiwan within the “Tier 1” designation, indicating that Taiwan fully meets the minimum standards of the United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). In addition, Reporters Without Borders recently opted to open its first Asia Bureau in Taiwan, due to Taiwan’s ranking as the freest place in Asia according to its annual “Press Freedom Index” report. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, championing liberal international values that should be encouraged and supported. A threat to Taiwan’s democracy is a threat to all democracies, especially to emerging democracies in the Asia-Pacific.  

Third, with every move to convert Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, the CCP demonstrates its ultimate goal of reuniting Taiwan with the mainland. Although Beijing is currently unprepared to mount an invasion at this time, it is rapidly improving its capabilities and is increasingly becoming more prepared to take Taiwan by force.[i] If China does attempt an invasion of the island in the future, this would create a security imbalance in the region that could prompt other powers in the Pacific to take action to help secure Taiwan’s defense such as the United States, as outlined in Section 2.b.6. of the Taiwan Relations Act, and possibly Japan via secondary support. This would add to the existing instability already incited by the PRC through its assertive actions over the disputed territories in the East and South China Seas, and over border disputes with countries likeIndia.  

Yet, despite China’s coercive moves, Taiwan has remained calm, pragmatic, and resolute. Following the loss of Panama as Taiwan’s diplomatic ally, President Tsai Ing-wen reaffirmed Taiwan’s existential reality as a sovereign state under its constitution, its continued status as a valuable member of the international community, and its determined desire to promote peace in the cross-Strait relationship. President Tsai also announced the appointment of seven “ambassadors-at-large” to promote and spread Taiwan’s values worldwide, in a seemingly pointed message to the PRC that the promulgation of Taiwan’s principles, and all that Taiwan represents, will not and cannot be quashed by the CCP. 

On the part of the United States, greater action to support Taiwan in accordance with theguiding documents of U.S. policy toward Taiwan including the United States’ “one-China” policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the “Six Assurances” is necessary.   

Such action has already been taken in the form of the Trump administration’s forwarding of the seven existing arms sales notifications to Congress for approval. Congress has also been proactive as of late with the Taiwan Travel Act, which urges the U.S. government to encourage visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials at all levels, and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s inclusion of a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018 to re-establish regular ports of callbetween the U.S. and Taiwanese Navies. Additional action could manifest in the United States’ extension of Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) observer status to Taiwan, and in the initiation of a formal mechanism for people-to-people exchanges. Additionally, the U.S. could use creative leadership to expand Taiwan’s international space such as utilizing efforts by U.S. embassies to work jointly with Taiwan’s current diplomatic allies on established platforms like the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). The U.S. could also support Taiwan’s participation in bodies that do not require statehood for membership, or help to facilitate the establishment of new institutions that reflect Taiwan’s unique strengths, among other actions.   

The United States cannot stand idly by as the Chinese Communist Party threatens Taiwan, America’s core values, and the peace and security of the international community. The time to act is now. 

Emily David is a Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute where her research focuses on the Chinese Communist Party, cross-Strait relations, and U.S.-Taiwan relations. She recently completed her Master’s degree in Chinese Politics, Foreign Policy, and International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. 

[i] Ian Easton, “How China Would Invade Taiwan (And How to Stop It),” The National Interest, March 25, 2017, at