Taiwan’s tricky place in the world

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

As global uncertainty increases, so the Republic of China’s future becomes more uncertain


Just after Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, not content with leading South Africa’s own reconciliation, he turned his attention to another seemingly intractable dispute. But even his powers of persuasion could not improve ­relations between the two governments that both claim sovereignty over China.

On the mainland, of course, is the People’s Republic of China, ruled by the Communist Party from Beijing. And on a large island off China’s eastern coast is the Republic of China, where Chiang Kai-Shek’s defeated Nationalists fled in 1949 to escape Mao Zedong’s advancing Red Army.
This second China is more commonly known as Taiwan, with its capital in Taipei.

At the entrance of the Taipei liaison office in Pretoria — the same building that used to be the Taiwanese embassy — a concerned security guard always checks that visitors are in the right place. “This is Taiwan, not Thailand,” he says. Yes. “It’s the Republic of China. That’s not the same as China China.”

Matthew Chou is the head of the liaison office. He is used to this kind of confusion. Thanks to Beijing’s strict “One China” policy, most of the world does not recognise Taiwan as a country, which complicates his job immensely.

This is Chou’s second stint in South Africa. Things have changed a lot since he first arrived in 1988. “I used to deal with the high-ranking officials though I was a junior diplomat here. With that kind of status we can communicate with your officials freely and with no restrictions. Now as a representative of the office here there are some difficulties to reach the high-level officials here because we don’t have diplomatic ties.”

Recognition and realpolitik

Before the end of apartheid, South Africa and Taiwan were firm friends. Not because they had much in common, but because the international community treated both as pariah states. But as apartheid ended and South Africa was welcomed back into the fold, the relationship changed — and not even Mandela could do anything about it.

His party, the ANC, owed a debt of gratitude to each government. Beijing had provided financial and logistical support to the party ­during the long struggle years. Taipei, despite its ties with the apartheid government, had donated ­$10-million to the party’s election campaign ahead of the 1994 vote, according to Christopher Bradlow of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

So Mandela tried to recognise them both, thinking he could force through some kind of rapprochement. He failed. This “dual recognition” policy lasted two and a half years, but eventually realpolitik prevailed. With little fanfare, South Africa broke off relations with Taiwan, and has exclusively recognised the People’s Republic as China’s legitimate government ever since.

The same decision was reached in capitals around the world, as Beijing began to flex its political and economic muscles. In Africa the trend was especially pronounced: from a peak of 33 African allies, Taiwan today enjoys diplomatic relations with just one country on the continent. And that may be only because the Kingdom of eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland) has so little to offer that Beijing has not yet been especially bothered to tempt it away.

“Frankly speaking, there’s only national interest,” said Chou. “When Taiwan’s economic powers were strong, we could do more to help those countries develop their ­economy in many fields. But after the year 2000, the economic power switched to China’s side.

In Africa, especially, China is able to offer investment packages valued in the hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, of dollars. In comparison, Taiwan’s offer is paltry: a few scholarships, a few development projects, some seeds for a strain of high-quality rice.

China recently offered South Africa a $25-billion loan. Taiwan’s entire development budget, on the other hand, is only $30-million.

Changing priorities

In the absence of cold, hard cash, Taiwan is forced to talk up its other assets: its functioning democracy, a high standard of living and cutting-edge technology. This year, it invited 21 journalists from 20 countries to Taipei to do exactly that. “No matter how much money we put on the table, we cannot compete with China,” said Timothy Tsiang, secretary general of Taiwan’s International Co-operation and Development Fund. The invitation to journalists seemed designed less to reverse Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation — that’s a lost cause — and more just to remind the world that Taiwan still exists, and is different from China. From Taiwan’s perspective, that distinction is more important than ever.

When the Republic of China relocated to Taiwan nearly seven decades ago, the intention was always to reunify China under the nationalist banner. In reality, that dream died several decades ago when it became clear that the communists were not going anywhere.

Taiwan’s new dream is more limited in its ambition: simply to prevent itself from being subsumed into China.

Political parties are divided on how best to achieve this. The previous government favoured closer relations with Beijing, reasoning that open communication and a strong trading relationship would deter potential aggression. The new government, led by President Tsai Ing-Wen, is much more hostile to the mainland. The president’s party favours a declaration of independence, which would also involve renouncing Taiwan’s claims on China proper. This proposal is not as controversial as it once was.

“There’s no party that says the two should be reunified. There’s no support for reunification. And we are a government that listens to its people,” said Chui-Cheng Chiu, deputy minister of Taiwan’s mainland affairs council. “Our policy is best understood as maintaining the status quo. This isn’t easy. It’s dynamic and ever-changing. We cannot do it by ourselves.”

Double 10

On a rain-soaked Wednesday, Taiwan celebrated its national day, known as Double 10. This is a ­reference to the date — October  10. As the president reviews the soldiers and the marching bands and a parade of colourful floats, she is flanked by the remnants of Taiwan’s international support.

There is the president of Paraguay. There is the governor of St Kitts and Nevis. And there is none other than FW de Klerk, a not entirely welcome reminder of Taiwan’s past association with the apartheid government, visiting Taiwan for the ninth time and dishing out advice that sits uneasily with its democratic tradition.

“The task of leaders is not to listen to the people and do what they say,” the former South African president told a high-level forum in Taipei the next day. “The task of real leaders is to convince the people what is best for them.”

But the lack of formal diplomatic representation masks that fact that little Taiwan is far from isolated on the world stage. Significantly, it enjoys strong support from the United States, which has hinted previously that it would come to Taiwan’s aid if China tried to invade.

Taiwan desperately does not want the situation to come to that. It knows that the only way it can survive is if China’s political calculus stays exactly the same.

Tsai summed it up best in her national day address: “Some people have wanted the government to adopt a more confrontational stance. Others believe that we should give in and compromise. But, ladies and gentlemen, the more dramatically things change, the more Taiwan has to maintain stability, remain composed to reduce pressure, and calmly find our survival niche.”

The Mail & Guardian was a guest of the Taiwanese government

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