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Taiwan’s place in the international community

Related to the future development of Taiwan’s external relations, which will be among most salient issues in the coming weeks of the national election campaign, the question of Taiwan’s limited international space will be ubiquitous. Ever since Taipei lost its UN membership in 1971, the government of the ROC has been subjugated to a fierce diplomatic battleground. Whereas during the eight-year period under the previous administration Taiwan had lost six diplomatic allies, since Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 inauguration, the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies has remained constant; Taiwan at present shares full diplomatic relations with 23 countries and has 117 foreign missions spread over 80 countries. Although the record on full diplomatic recognition is not so impressive, diplomatic ties are still being perceived as the most substantive manifestations of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Stability of diplomatic ties since 2008 has been viewed by the KMT as an attestation of Ma’s successful approach to foreign relations consisting of diplomatic truce and proactive diplomacy in contrast to Chen Shui-bian’s failed diplomatic initiatives. However, has Ma’s historic deviation in his foreign policy approach towards China significantly improved Taiwan’s international status?

Undoubtedly, cross-Strait politics marked by reduction of tensions and stabilization has been highly supported by all countries and all parties involved. Nevertheless, stability is not enough for improving Taiwan’s international standing and the frustration of Taiwanese people has not been lessened. In order to meet Beijing’s demands, Taiwanese continue to compromise on their nation’s name, flag, and anthem. China continues to be the arbiter of the scope of Taiwan’s international participation. Furthermore, unrealized FTAs coupled with the PLA’s steadfast military threat and hence growing uncertainty regarding Taiwan’s future status are naturally not well received in Taiwan. Therefore, in the final weeks of campaign it is crucial for Ma to prove to his citizens that his ‘flexible diplomacy’ will not fail in convincing the Chinese leaders to stop isolating Taipei in the world community and give Taiwan adequate ‘international space’; that is, allow Taiwan to participate in various international organizations and let Taipei continue diplomatic ties with other countries. Likewise, Ma’s main opponent Tsai Ing-wen will need to come up with a better explanation on how her ‘Taiwan consensus’ approach will engage rather than disengage China and help to enhance Taiwan’s access to international arena.

So far, contrary to speculations, Beijing has not yet offered any significant carrots on this issue to facilitate Ma’s re-election. However, as the core problem that hinders progress in relations between Beijing and Taipei continues to be the disagreement over Taiwan’s sovereignty, forging a compromise is not easy. As long as the two sides avoid the issue or “agree on disagreeing” over the interpretation of “one China” as embodied in the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’ which forms the basis of the KMT’s China policy, the relations will proceed smoothly. However, such flexibility in the international arena where Taiwan’s manoeuvrability depends on a clear interpretation of Taiwan’s status is unrealistic. As long as the government in Beijing refuses to recognize the legitimate existence of the ROC, and maintains that Taipei has no legal right to establish diplomatic relations with foreign governments or to participate in any international organizations with statehood as a membership requirement, there will be no significant progress for the position of Taiwan in the international arena. Yet, in order make Taiwanese people, who increasingly define themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese”, more willing to see Cross-Strait relations deepen, Beijing will need to provide a more sensible approach to Taipei’s demands.

Saša Istenič is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and African Studies at University of Ljubljana, Slovenia and President of the Slovenian Taiwan Research Center

Published inInternational PoliticsTaiwan 2012


  1. There are several problems here I am dismayed to see coming from yet another person we’re supposed to perceive (President of the Slovenian Taiwan Research Center) as a “Taiwan expert.”

    Taipei didn’t “los[e] its UN membership in 1971.” Chiang Kai-shek actually rejected “dual recognition” (which would see both the PRC and the ROC in the United Nations) and withdrew. The phrasing sounds almost right, yet it distorts what actually happened.

    The author then contrasts the Chen and Ma administrations by saying that “during the eight-year period under the previous administration Taiwan had lost six diplomatic allies” but that “since Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 inauguration, the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies has remained constant.” When Ma’s hero CKS (upon whose tomb Ma lays a wreath every year) withdrew from the UN, he lost 43 diplomatic allies in just seven years.

    The discussion of “reduction of tensions” without mentioning that those “tensions” exist only because Beijing chooses to create them (~2,000 missiles targeting Taiwan, a so-called “anti-secession” law, a precondition of accepting “one China which includes Taiwan” before any talks with Taiwan can occur, etc.) obscures some very important information. Surrender does not equal peace for anybody.

    The idea that China can or will “allow” Taiwan participation in international organizations is naïve. And “Taiwanese” aren’t the ones compromising on matters such as the “nation’s name, flag, and anthem.” The ones who are doing that are known as the “Chinese KMT.”

    Sinocentric thinking continues to flow through the author’s writing. Why should Tsai Ing-wen, for example, “need to come up with a better explanation on how her ‘Taiwan consensus’ approach will engage rather than disengage China”? And look at how that’s worded. This consensus is not Tsai’s alone—it is supposed to reflect a publicly-developed situation that a vast majority of Taiwanese can accept. Is that so difficult for the author to understand?

    The author claims that “Beijing has not yet offered any significant carrots on this issue to facilitate Ma’s re-election.” This is also rather naïve. Just yesterday, the Taipei Times reported DPP claims that “Beijing was interfering with the elections by helping President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) — its favored candidate in the three-way presidential race — get re-elected.” Anybody who has been paying attention should be able to see this.

    It’s also pretty common knowledge that China “allowed” Ma’s government to keep diplomatic allies such as Panama. That’s a pretty “significant carrot.”

    Today’s Taipei Times editorial cartoon makes the point in a more humorous way.

    I bet some observant readers will also be aware that Ma support associations exist among Taiwanese businesspeople in China, but that it would be impossible for groups supporting Tsai to exist there. This is both a carrot and a (significant) stick.

  2. Jonathan Sullivan Jonathan Sullivan

    What follows is a reply from Dr. Sasa Istenic:

    I find your comment rather surprising because I consider my piece quite neutral and nonpartisan. At least that is my academic position.
    I admit, English is not my native language but I know “lost”
    does not equal “expelled”, which Taipei indeed was not because it had a choice to withdraw. But it did “lose” its seat in terms of “was forced to” leave the UN. That was my point. The ROC was forced to leave all UN organizations after it had lost its seat in the UN. Should Chiang Kai-shek not have been so resolute in his “one China” policy and accept the principle of “dual recognition”, there would most probably be no “Taiwan problem” today. But I did not talk about 1970s. Comparing the number of diplomatic allies in the last two terms was not a critique but simply a fact. And by Taiwanese having to compromise the nation’s name, flag, and anthem you’ve also missed my point. Of course, it is a common sense that alleging presidential candidates’ names does not imply that they are the solo thinkers. In summary, it seems you are picking bones from eggs and I’ll leave it here.

    • Taryn Hsiao Taryn Hsiao

      I don’t think Tim is picking any bones from eggs. I am a Taiwanese and I do see your neutral position. But many of points you mentioned here is truely native. For one you clearly don’t see how Beijing tried to help Ma’s re-election, this is not being partisan. I suppose you can’t be well observant if you don’t live in Taiwan.

      • Michal Thim Michal Thim

        Indeed, it may be disadvantage to be outside Taiwan, yet I can also se that many Taiwanese are lacking the ability to try to look at the issue as it appears from outside. The result is a tendency to resort to exaggerated claims if not conspiracy theories. I must agree with prof. Istenič that Beijing could do much more to help Ma (e.g. withdraw missiles unconditionally) but for some reason it is not willing to do.

  3. Saša Istenič Saša Istenič

    Beijing’s concessions to Taiwan during President Ma’s term are clear and obvious and I do not deny them. However, they are in fact small and not as generous as many observers have expected, as their aim was foremost to appease the Taiwanese society (especially in economic terms). The argument that I wanted to make was, that on the key issues of Taiwan’s sovereignty and status, Beijing has actually not moved an inch.

    • While it may not be on the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty, limiting your statement like that (especially after emphasizing that “since Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 inauguration, the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies has remained constant”) obscures the bigger picture that Beijing is indeed “facilitat[ing] Ma’s re-election.”

      Here’s something from the latest Wealth Magazine (財訊雜誌):
      – – –
      王毅「四個不容」的背後…… 馬牧原


      (Translation mine:)
      Behind Wang Yi’s “Four ‘Won’t Tolerates'”… Ma Mu-yuan (ph)

      Help hosting parties, providing money, and stumping for votes
      – – –

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