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 www.tajvan.si