Taiwan Is Losing Allies. What Should Taipei (and D.C.) Do?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In a single week in September, the two Pacific nations of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, reducing the number of countries that still recognize Taiwan to 14 (and the Vatican). Growing international support for the view that Beijing controls Taiwan, a People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) foreign ministry spokesman recently said, “is unstoppable.”

Since the then President-elect Donald Trump spoke on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016, his administration has approved five different arms sales to Taiwan. The two sides initiated an annual high-level dialogue in March. And after the Solomon Islands’ decision, Vice President Mike Pence cancelled plans to meet with the country’s prime minister. U.S.-Taiwan relations, Taiwan’s foreign minister said in August, are “probably better than at any time before.”

And yet, Taiwan’s space to maneuver globally seems to grow more and more limited. How should the U.S. handle its relationship with Taiwan? And how should Taiwan deal with the Trump administration? —The Editors


The number of countries that recognize Taiwan is not 14, it is zero. That the formal entity is still called the “Republic of China” (R.O.C.) may seem like a law professor quibble, but this point matters. The phrasing of this conversation’s prompt solely in terms of “Taiwan” reflects the unmooring from historical R.O.C. roots in favor of a national identity that is unabashedly Taiwanese. The U.S. and Taiwan would benefit from creative thinking regarding how this shift plays into their interactions.

As I have argued elsewhere, Taiwan is projecting soft power abroad while nurturing soft independence at home. Regarding the former, international attention on Taiwan is overwhelmingly framed in terms of cross-strait relations, often whether Taiwan has somehow raised the ire of Beijing. Likewise, pro-Taiwan sentiments in the U.S. tend toward enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend rhetoric rather than supporting Taiwan separate from the speaker’s views on China.

And there is so much to celebrate in Taiwan that has absolutely nothing to do with cross-strait relations. The May 2019 legalization of same-sex marriage, for example, was a triumph for human rights, separation of powers, and (at the risk of being sappy) love. The January 2020 elections will be shaped by voters’ views about the best path for navigating relations with Beijing, as well as by domestic issues such as energy policy, transitional justice, and a rapidly aging population. The more Taiwan can project its story globally, and the more that the U.S. can emphasize issues beyond arms sales, the more multifaceted and richer the relationship will become.

My recent experience as a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan underscored the need to support a complex web of ties, from a reinvigorated presence of American students studying Chinese there to a robust network of American and Taiwanese scholars working on issues ranging from preventing epidemics to environmental protection. Military hardware remains a core piece of U.S.-Taiwan ties, but it is far from the only component. Initiatives like the Global Cooperation and Training Framework add depth and texture to bilateral interactions. A broader U.S.-Taiwan relationship is a better U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

As for soft independence, President Tsai has cultivated a sense of Taiwanese identity, with outward markers of this angering both the opposition party the Kuomintang and Beijing. In July, for instance, she referred to herself as “President of Taiwan (R.O.C.)” as compared with “President of R.O.C. (Taiwan).” While it would be jaw-dropping if the Tsai administration jettisoned “R.O.C.” entirely, it has accelerated longer-term trends toward relegating the R.O.C. to a purely historical entity.

Of course, the U.S. has framed its relationship in terms of “Taiwan” since severing formal relations with the R.O.C. in 1979. The Taiwan Relations Act speaks of “relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.”

What is needed now is fresh thinking about how to emphasize a shift from “on Taiwan” to “of Taiwan.” Taiwan is not merely an island on which people stand, but a home that partially defines who they are.

In one week, two of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in the Pacific, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, switched to the People’s Republic of China’s (P.R.C.’s) camp. This should be a sobering wake-up call for both Taiwan and the U.S.

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (R.O.C.), has been losing diplomatic allies at a rapid pace since the Chen Shui-bian era (2000-2008). However, the speed and scale of these losses accelerated considerably since Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016; losing two allies in one week is unprecedented. Since after the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, Beijing has mostly refrained from using coercive diplomacy toward Taiwan during election periods, so as not to arouse unnecessary anti-China resentment in Taiwanese society. For Beijing to take such a high level of provocation toward Taiwan just four months before the 2020 presidential election suggests that a power struggle inside the Chinese Communist Party (and the challenges Xi Jinping faces) may be far more severe than previously thought. The Xi government shows signs of losing control. The status quo in the Taiwan Strait is unlikely to stabilize, even if the Kuomintang wins the election.

U.S. policymakers have probably recognized the uncomfortable reality that maintaining Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in the Tsai era is not a sustainable long-term strategy. It started with Panama in June 2017, then El Salvador in June 2019; now, two nations with critical geopolitical importance in the Pacific have changed their allegiance. The U.S. either did not receive proper prior information about the defections, or couldn’t prevent Taiwan’s allies from changing sides. Then National Security Advisor John Bolton warned the President of El Salvador not to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, while Vice President Mike Pence had planned to persuade the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands to change his plans to switch sides in person. The U.S.’s diplomatic tools under the current policy framework are increasingly ineffective in preventing Taiwan’s allies from abandoning Taiwan. To many U.S. officials’ surprise, Beijing’s influence on those remaining allies of Taiwan is much wider and stronger than they previously thought. The P.R.C. can evidently control the level as well as the timing that it poaches Taiwan’s allies, even in the face of strong U.S. intervention.

This event may force Taiwan and U.S. policymakers to change their strategy from passive defense to active offensive in this diplomatic war. If Taiwan’s diplomatic allies eventually drop from 15 to zero and no country in the world recognizes the R.O.C., then both the U.S. and Taiwanese governments will face a thorny situation in which most Taiwanese ask to change the name of their country from the R.O.C. to Taiwan—something both governments have been trying to avoid for decades. Some timely diplomatic victories are needed, such as the U.S. approving an act supporting Taiwan’s global allies, or Taiwan establishing diplomatic relations with Malta. Those victories would also help Tsai consolidate domestic support and win the upcoming presidential election.

After the Solomon Islands and Kiribati both switched recognition to the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) in the same week, some suspected coordinated moves by the Chinese government, which may want to to pressure Taiwan by prying away more of its 15 remaining diplomatic allies before the 2020 elections.

Taiwan’s economy and population is larger than any of its remaining diplomatic allies, whose primary role for Taiwan is to speak up for it in international organizations. Taiwan’s diplomatic allies do not play any role beyond this, and so losing them does not substantively affect Taiwan geopolitically.

That said, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies occupy a significant place in Republic of China nationalism. By prying away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, the P.R.C. gives the Kuomintang (KMT) ammunition with which to criticize the Tsai administration. On this basis, the KMT will attempt to claim that it is the only party in Taiwan capable of maintaining stable cross-strait relations, whereas having the Democratic Progressive Party in power will result in retaliations against Taiwan from the P.R.C.

As such, the effects of Taiwan’s loss of diplomatic allies like the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are more influential in terms of Taiwanese domestic politics. The loss of diplomatic allies contributes to the sense that the P.R.C.’s pressure increasingly constrains Taiwan’s diplomatic space.

At the same time, Beijing actually risks provoking blowback against itself through poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Chinese threats against Taiwan have led to upticks in public support for Tsai Ing-wen’s administration: After Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping stated in a January speech that force was not off the table if Taiwan resisted attempts at unification, Tsai’s approval rating increased.

Republican senators hawkish towards the P.R.C., like Marco Rubio and Cory Gardner, have proposed punishing countries that break ties with Taiwan. Likewise, Vice President Mike Pence cancelled a planned meeting with the prime minister of the Solomon Islands after his country switched ties.

The Trump administration has taken up Taiwan’s loss of diplomatic allies as a wedge issue against the P.R.C., amidst the U.S.-China trade war. However, such views are ironic, considering that in 1979 America acted similarly to the way the Solomon Islands or Kiribati have and switched recognition from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s geopolitical relationship with the United States far exceeds the importance of its relationships with any of its remaining diplomatic allies.

In other words, while the United States is willing to condemn far smaller countries for breaking ties with Taiwan, recognizing Taiwan as a country as a way to counter the shrinking international space for Taiwan does not yet seem to be on the table. Without any significant escalation in tensions between the U.S. and the P.R.C., this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Beijing’s luring of two of Taipei’s official allies last week has rekindled the debate over how long Taiwan can continue to exist as a sovereign entity as the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) intensifies its efforts to constrain its international presence and visibility.

With the “loss” of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, Taipei is now left with only 15 official allies. Displeased with the Taiwan-centric Tsai Ing-wen administration, Beijing has warned that if Tsai wins reelection in January 2020—which seems increasingly likely—it could convince all of Taiwan’s remaining allies to switch relations, leaving Taipei with zero official ties. Since Tsai took office in May 2016, Taiwan has seen seven allies embrace the P.R.C. From that angle, Taiwan’s situation indeed seems precarious.

While Beijing is using diplomatic de-recognition to isolate Taiwan, pressure a recalcitrant Taipei, and psychologically harm the Taiwanese, its efforts to compel states to recognize Beijing are also part of its larger geostrategic ambitions. Panama, which switched recognition in June 2017, offered an entryway into the Americas’ Southern hemisphere. The Solomon Islands, which has had deep-water port facilities since World War II that could accommodate large-displacement vessels, has been the object of growing interest by the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) Navy. A P.L.A. Navy presence there could pose a serious threat to the U.S. military posture in the Indo-Pacific as well as to neighboring Australia.

More than an internal matter limited to the Taiwan Strait, Beijing’s efforts to isolate Taiwan are part of a global ideological clash, one that pits the U.S.-led alliance of democracies on one side and revisionist, authoritarian regimes on the other. In recognition of this, since 2016 the U.S. has worked closely with Taiwan on a variety of issues, among them religious freedom, media literacy, and law enforcement, often through a program called the Global Cooperation and Training Framework. At the same time, and often with Washington’s blessing, Taipei has deepened its engagement with significant democracies, like Japan, Australia, and several countries in the European Union, and these efforts have arguably compensated for the loss of small, often impoverished, official allies.

This explains why, despite Beijing’s punishments, Taiwan’s economy has continued to grow and why the public has not descended into panic. Moreover, the potential for Beijing’s strategy to backfire is also very real, and could end up helping President Tsai.

Taiwan’s continued independence is beyond doubt in the U.S. interest and that of like-minded partners, both because it is a vibrant democracy and because it is situated along the First Island Chain. Consequently, for every move Beijing makes to undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty, Taipei’s unofficial allies should enact countervailing measures that reinforce Taiwan’s engagement elsewhere (hence my view that Taiwan could lose all its official allies and still continue to prosper). Arms sales and security assistance, diplomatic efforts to include Taiwan in multilateral efforts at or outside the U.N., and strategies to solidify Taiwan’s economic resilience (e.g., FTAs) should all be part of Washington’s Taiwan strategy.

I do not believe Taiwan’s space to maneuver globally is growing more limited. Instead, Taiwan’s foreign relationships, especially with democracies with shared values, are becoming more substantive. Meanwhile, Beijing’s influence operations around the world are becoming increasingly aggressive, triggering backlashes in democracies.

Although Taiwan lost two diplomatic allies recently, it was a long time coming. For example, in July, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said Taiwan’s politics and economy are “completely useless to us.”

Moreover, Beijing’s method of poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies is very opaque. For example, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) invited Solomon Islands politicians to visit the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) in August, while a separate task force from the island nation’s government was also reportedly visiting on a research trip. According to a Solomon Islands newspaper, CPAFFC paid for the travel and accommodation for the politicians. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) called the task force report full of “distorted, selfish, incorrect and boastful statements,” as the Taipei Times reported.

As Beijing exacerbates its effort to isolate Taiwan, Taiwan is garnering more support from the United States and other democracies. U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (Republican, Florida), and Cory Gardener (Republican, Colorado) recently condemned the P.R.C.’s “bullying” and “hostile actions” toward Taiwan. In late September, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations passed a draft of the TAIPEI Act, which will encourage international support of Taiwan. U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Sandra Oudkirk will visit Taiwan in October. Moreover, the U.S. permitted Taiwan’s representative in New York to attend the Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom, an event hosted by President Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly—a gesture seen as showing support for Taiwan.

Over the past three years, Taiwan has engaged the Indo-Pacific Region through the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), a program jointly sponsored by Taipei and D.C. Hundreds of participants came to Taiwan for workshops on topics such as public health, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, law enforcement, media literacy, and women’s leadership and empowerment. And in September, the two governments held the first meeting of the Indo-Pacific Democratic Governance Consultation, which explores ways to increase U.S.-Taiwan exchanges and pursue joint projects to assist regional partners.

Programs like GCTF and the Democratic Consultation show how the U.S. and Taiwan could work together for Taiwan to contribute to the Indo-Pacific region and form solid bonds with democracies globally, despite Beijing’s increasing attempts to subvert Taiwan.

In the third week of September, the two southern Pacific countries Kiribati and the Solomon Islands terminated their diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established formal relationships with the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.). The number of Taiwan’s foreign allies was reduced to 15. This continues what Beijing has been doing since the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen entered office in May 2016. Back then, Taiwan had 22 diplomatic allies; among them, Panama, Dominica, and Burkina Faso have since switched sides.

The renewed poaching is part of Beijing’s coercive strategy toward Taiwan, which heads for a national election in January 2020. President Tsai is seeking a second term, and since mid-July polls have shown her with a consistent lead over the Kuomintang nominee Han Kuo-yu. In August, Beijing banned its tourists from taking solo trips to Taiwan, and its film professionals from participating in Taiwan’s Golden Horse film awards. More hostile acts from Beijing can be expected in the next several months leading up to the election. The question is whether these bare-knuckle offensives will help defeat Tsai, or strengthen her.

If this diplomatic squeeze is aimed at dissuading Taiwanese from voting for Tsai, a public opinion poll released on September 24 does not show this intended effect. 52.9 percent of respondents are “somewhat unworried” or “not worried at all” about the loss of the two Pacific allies, whereas 42.8 percent are “somewhat worried” or “very worried.” When Panama severed relations with Taiwan in 2017, the figures were 47.6 percent and 46.6 percent, respectively. Indeed, the majority of Taiwanese citizens are increasingly unconcerned about the P.R.C.’s international muscle-flexing.

Why are Taiwanese growing immune to these diplomatic setbacks? As the number of countries that maintain diplomatic relationships with Taiwan shrinks, Beijing’s success appears smaller because its gains are not household names for the Taiwanese. Panama is recognizable because of its world-famous canal, but how many Taiwanese can locate the Solomon Islands and Kiribati on a map? Here exists the paradox of Beijing’s diplomatic game: The more the P.R.C. is capable of stealing Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, the less reward it receives.

As a world power, the P.R.C. possesses a rich arsenal to use to intervene in Taiwan’s election. Successful diplomatic warfare might help consolidate Xi Jinping’s position within the Party by shielding him from criticisms of not being tough on Taiwan. But it runs the risk of further alienating Taiwanese voters. The 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis, where Beijing conducted missile exercises into the waters between the two countries before the 1996 elections, and Premier Zhu Rongji’s threat before the 2000 elections both helped elect candidates critical of the P.R.C. and showed that Beijing’s high-profile interventions backfired. Since then, Beijing has increasingly honed its ability to influence Taiwan’s election result without wielding a big baton. It remains to be seen whether the P.R.C. will revert to its old playbook.

Does a de facto independent country actually need formal allies? There is no indication that Taiwan hitting zero allies would affect its unofficial relations with every major country in the world. Even with a small number of formal diplomatic partners remaining, Taiwan losing another ally doesn’t change its ability to function as a normal democracy, both domestically and globally. Taiwan still trades like a normal country, measuring as the 11th largest trading partner with the United States, and it is included in the United States Visa Waiver program. Tourism even hit record-breaking highs under the Tsai administration, despite Xi’s attempts to punish the Democratic Progressive Party by limiting Chinese tourism to Taiwan. Military support from the United States, despite its controversies, continues.

Taiwan’s current strategy of growing informal relations around the world does not need to change—and that includes its relationship with the United States. Tsai’s strategy is proving to be a productive way for Taiwan to fight for its right to self-determination, despite China’s constant attempts to marginalize the country into non-official existence. The rest of the world, however, can help Taiwan in a number of practical ways that do not threaten the cross-strait status quo. The United States in particular can and should do much more.

Every democracy at the U.N. should advocate for Taiwan’s inclusion in not just critical organs like the World Health Organization, but also for Taiwan to serve as a participating member of the U.N. assembly, or at the very least, as a non-state observer. Second, the democratic institutions of the United States and Taiwan both face a dire threat: information warfare and electoral interference. More cooperation on how to detect and combat this is an easy way for both of them to not just strengthen their own democratic institutions, but to push the U.S.-Taiwan relationship beyond just a strategic military partnership.

Finally, whenever a diplomatic ally leaves Taiwan, there is always a disconnect between international responses and domestic responses. No one in Taiwan was paying particularly close attention to the Solomon Islands news. Instead, they focused on Terry Gou’s announcement that same day, where he stated that he would not run as an independent in January’s presidential race. Even after Kiribati broke relations, a poll indicated that most Taiwanese people are not worried about losing diplomatic allies. Meanwhile, some regional observers in America panicked and worried about what this means for U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. Although the Kuomintang will likely try to use Taiwan’s falling number of formal partners to smear Tsai, it is unlikely to become a major issue.

Some Americans see the loss of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies as existential, but most Taiwanese seem to not particularly care. Pay attention to Taiwanese domestic reactions. The Taiwanese are the ones who vote on the island’s future.