Margaret K. Lewis. ChinaFile Conversation. "The World Is Deserting Taiwan. How Should the U.S. Respond?"

On June 14, USALI Affiliated Professor was featured in a ChinaFile Conversation. Below is an excerpt from the conversation which featured several experts. 

On June 12, the small Central American nation of Panama announced it was severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan so that it could establish relations with the People’s Republic of China. Now, only 19 countries and the Vatican recognize Taiwan. Why did this happen? How does it affect Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland? Should the United States get involved in preventing the further diplomatic isolation of Taiwan? —The Editors

From Margaret K. Lewis: The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took back power last year on an upbeat campaign that it would “Light up Taiwan” (點亮台灣), but President Tsai Ing-wen must be feeling anything but sunny at this moment.

The president continues to struggle in opinion polls, with the economy remaining a point of deep concern: compared with many of Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies, Panama was a fairly large trading partner. Yes, the loss of diplomatic relations with Panama will have a small effect on Taiwan’s total foreign trade. Yet it is notable as another straw on the proverbial camel’s back, building on other economic pressure from Beijing, such as moves to curb mainland visitors that provide crucial tourism revenue in Taiwan.

The diplomatic mood with the mainland is dreary as well. Combined with the loss of diplomatic relations with Sao Tome and Principe in December 2016, Panama’s diplomatic switch signals an unfortunate return to the days of “dollar diplomacy” where China and Taiwan used economic sticks and carrots to woo diplomatic allies. It is unlikely that Beijing will relax its pressure as long as Tsai stands firm in her refusal to recognize the “1992 consensus”—a political formula recognized by her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, under which both sides of the Strait acknowledged that Taiwan and the Mainland are part of “one China” but maintained their own interpretations of what that meant. Indeed, there threaten to be darker days ahead if the recent criminal subversion charges by China against Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che indicates future trends.

I question the wisdom and efficacy of the United States getting directly involved in bilateral relations between Taiwan and its remaining diplomatic allies. Instead, the United States should focus on how to increase Taiwan’s international space in key multilateral institutions for which statehood is not a prerequisite, because it is in the United States’ interests. In particular, the United States should continue to press for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization (WHO). In May, Beijing once again blocked Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the WHO. Pathogens do not care about diplomacy: Leaving Taiwan outside of the WHO hampers the international community’s ability to prepare for and respond to disease outbreaks.

Taiwan is also shut out of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This exclusion is especially concerning considering Taiwan’s position in an extremely busy section of East Asian airspace. The bottom line is that including Taiwan in international health and air-traffic safety is good for the safety of American citizens (not to mention Chinese citizens, as well), which is good reason for the United States to press Beijing to remove the obstacles it places in Taiwan’s path. Perhaps it is time for a new slogan: “Lighten up on Taiwan.”

Read the entire article here.