On 13 June, Panama announced it will establish formal diplomatic relations with China, and break ties with Taiwan’s Republic of China (ROC) government. This abruptly ends a relationship that began even before the ROC was founded, and a relationship that served as a cornerstone for Taiwan’s international status as a sovereign state against China’s claim that Taiwan is a “renegade province.”  

In recent days, we saw an avalanche of diplomatic setbacks for Taiwan, sounding alarms for a possible complete international isolation, orchestrated by Beijing’s increased aggressiveness to assert its claim over Taiwan.

Only six months ago, São Tomé & Príncipe abandoned Taiwan and pledged its diplomatic allegiance to Beijing. In May, the World Health Organization declined to invite Taiwan to attend the World Health Assembly, the first time in eight years. The pressure is also felt by Taiwan’s non-diplomatic allies; this week an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) reportedly said that China has exerted pressure to have the names of Taiwanese representative offices in five countries changed.  

Only 19 countries and the Vatican now formally recognise the Republic of China regime currently ruling Taiwan. As China steps up pressure on Taiwan, politicians from both the pro-Taiwan and Beijing-friendly camps within Taiwan warned of a possible “domino effect” on the diplomatic front. To ease the pressure facing Taiwan, Taipei-based National Chengchi University (NCCU) professor of diplomacy Huang Kwei-bo (黃奎博) reportedly suggested that President Tsai Ing-wen should take Taiwan-China relations into account first. Opposition Nationalist Party  (KMT) caucus whip Sufin Siluko (廖國棟) further noted, “cross-Strait relations are the cornerstone of our international relations. If the cross-Strait relations are bad, (Taiwan’s) international relations will further deteriorate.”

Are cross-Strait relations really the only key to unlock Taiwan’s constrained international space? If Tsai accepts Beijing’s assertion that Taiwan is part of China (known as the “1992 Consensus”), will that bring back Taiwan’s diplomatic allies? Is Panama’s cutting off its over-a-century diplomatic ties with Taiwan’s government a death knell for Tsai’s presidency?

On 16 December 1978, then US President Jimmy Carter announced that the US would establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China, and cease to recognise the Taiwan’s Republic of China government. Ten days later, when US Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in Taipei for a post-mortem arrangement, he was greeted by over ten thousand of Taiwanese protesters who broke his car windows and tried to punch him in the face.

To some extent, the Panama’s switch is as significant as the US’s switch. But now, the mood is anything but inflamed rage. The Economist commented that “the concern among Taiwanese is that Panama’s change of heart will spur further defections in the region,” but that  might only be half right. After Panama decided to cut off its over-a-century diplomatic ties with Taiwan, there was no demonstration or even a small scale social movement protesting Panama’s move or Beijing’s wooing.

(There was, interestingly, a demonstration with about thousands of retired public servants, public-school teachers, and military personnel gathering in front of the Parliament, to protest Tsai’s proposed pension reform and guarding their pension fund.)

A Forbes commentary said cynically: “Taiwan had grown so numb watching its powerful rival China pay off its diplomatic allies to switch sides that people in Taiwan cynically bet on which country is next to go.” Losing more allies to Beijing, to a lot of Taiwanese people, is just a matter of time, something that is  no longer a surprise.

As the Washington DC-based think tank Global Taiwan Institute Executive Director Russell Hsiao commented, “(Panama’s switch) was only a matter of time before Beijing pulled the trigger, despite the Tsai’ administration’s pledge to maintain the ‘status quo’ in cross-Strait relations.”

When the decline of the number of diplomatic allies becomes something anticipated by the Taiwanese people, what else can they do to maintain Taiwan’s international space? The answer lies in another arena altogether.

The international community, regardless of the mangled legal status of Taiwan, already sees Taiwan simply as Taiwan. In the last couple of decades since the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies hovered around twenty, Taiwan’s international space has not been demonstrated by its formal relations with other countries, but by its liberal values.

That Taiwan upholds its belief in the values of freedom and democracy is already recognised by the like-minded groups, particularly the non-governmental agencies, in the international community:

  • Just last month, British paper the Guardian named Taiwan “Asia’s liberal beacon” after the island’s top court made a landmark ruling in favour of marriage equality.
  • In April this year, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) chose to open its first Asia bureau in Taipei rather than in Hong Kong, as the latter “lack of legal certainty” for the entity and activities for the RSF.
  • Before the World Health Organisation (WHO) slammed the door on Taiwan this year, Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) last year already came to open a branch in Taipei, in a nod to Taiwan’s role in the Medecins Sans Frontiers’ operations in the world.

In the past ten years, social movements in Taiwan have proved that the Taiwanese civil society, particularly invigorated by the millennial generation, are taking action to steer the direction of the polity, moving towards a more open, democratic, and inclusive society.

The people of Taiwan, and any democratically formed state representing them, deserve to be formally, legally recognised by the world’s nations. Intentionally pretending they don’t exist is ludicrous and must stop. But beyond that, Taiwan is already building itself as a brand that goes beyond the traditional definition of “state,” and may even become a symbol of a set of values in the world. Taiwan’s diplomatic status may still be constrained by China’s bullying, but the world should certainly pay more attention to the changing nature of the society and people that is Taiwan today.  

(Feature image of President Tsai Ing-wen addressing an event, from Flickr, CC BY 2.0)


Gwenyth Wang

Gwen is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Warwick. She has a Master’s degree in democracy and democratisation from the University College London. She has previously worked in Taipei, Los Angeles and London – in fields ranging from think tanks to academia. She is currently based in Taipei and tweets at @GwenythWR.