Taiwan’s breakup with Burkina Faso is unlikely to be its last, as China puts pressure on the world.
It’s been a dramatic couple of months for Taiwan. At the end of April, China went on what can be described as a blatant offensive against the tiny island nation. Military drills were held on its side of the Taiwan Straits, and the Liaoning – China’s sole operating aircraft carrier – sailed repeatedly – and ominously – through the hundred miles that separate Taiwan from the mainland. On 30 April, the next blow came from the Dominican Republic, which announced its decision to cut ties with Taiwan. Presidential Legal Advisor Flavio Dario Espinal was bluntly prosaic in his official statement, saying that while the Caribbean nation was deeply grateful to Taiwan, a combination of “history and socioeconomic reality” have “forced” the Republic to change its course.
On 24 May, Burkina Faso, one of Taiwan’s last allies in Africa, announced that it was cutting diplomatic ties with Taipei, in favor of Beijing. A communiqué on the fresh establishment of relations was jointly signed in Beijing by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and his counterpart, Alpha Barry. The communiqué acknowledges the existence of “only one China”, and Mr. Barry went one step further, stating (much as his Dominican counterpart had) that the socio-economic challenges of his country had forced Burkina Faso to “reconsider” its position. The African nation has also announced the immediate closure of Taiwan’s embassy in Ouagadougou and the repatriation of Burkina Faso’s diplomats from Taiwan.
The move left Taiwan with only 18 allies – mostly poor and underdeveloped countries – across the world, and one ally – Swaziland – in Africa itself. Beijing allowed Taiwan no breathing room to recover. On 25 May, fresh live-fire drills were held. This time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed its aerial muscle, sending two Xian H-6K bombers across the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan from the Philippines. According to a release from the island’s Ministry of Defense, the bombers then flew in opposite directions in Taiwanese airspace, via Japan’s Miyako Straits to the northeast side of the island. Taiwan promptly scrambled its own aircraft in response, sending two fighter jets to monitor the activities of China’s bombers. Taiwan has said that its citizens have no reason to fear, describing the PLA aircraft as being on a “long-range training mission.” In stark contrast, China has, perhaps the first time in recent memory, been more than blunt about its intentions. Speaking at a press conference, An Fengshan, the spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, said that these measures were a warning against any ideas that Taiwan might cherish about its independence. There was, he said, “no way out” for Taiwan.
The acrimony between the mainland and Taiwan is notorious. It has echoed through the halls of international institutions, with Beijing blocking Taiwan’s entry into the World Health Organisation. The two countries have attempted to poach each other’s international allies as well, with Beijing being undoubtedly more successful in these attempts than Taipei. But, under Xi Jinping, China has become palpably more confident about its presence on the global stage. Today, it does not mince any words when it comes to a global reinforcement of domestic perceptions of its territorial sovereignty. International hotel chains (JW Marriott) to airlines and designer clothing chains (Zara, Gap) have been handed stern warnings, for showing or projecting Taiwan as an independent country. Some have issued apologies, a few have stalled, and others – most recently Air Canada and the Royal Bank of Canada – have become the first international institutions to cave in, showing Taiwan as a “province” of China.
As China’s pockets deepen, so does its capability to offer the kind of financial aid and infrastructural promises that poor countries across the Pacific, Central America and Africa (the regions across which many of Taiwan’s allies are scattered) are gasping for. China is perfectly aware that power, especially when backed with a deep wallet, is appealing. It is equally aware that in a scenario where global geopolitics and economics are in a state of flux, it has the kind of opportunity that it has long waited for. In most cases, pragmatic requirements – infrastructure, loans, financial aid – are the need of the hour for many a country in the developing world. For many, it is the simpler and more realistic choice to sign a deal with a simple “One China” addendum, than it is to opt for a morally correct, diplomatically trickier path.
In the case of Africa, though Taiwan has been deeply influential on the continent since its own birth in 1949, the kind of aid that it was once able to offer is no longer enough. China has grown, silently and colossally, over the years, and is, today, Africa’s largest trading partner. In 2017, Taiwan gave about 100 military vehicles to the Dominican Republic, but this was no match for the reported 3 billion USD in investments, financial aid and low-interest loans that Beijing dangled in front of the Caribbean country this year. The package will cover a new freeway, a new natural gas power plant and roughly 1.6 billion USD worth of infrastructure projects. It is not an offer that Taipei – despite its own long-existent brand of dollar diplomacy on the African continent – could ever hope to match or surpass.
There is no love lost between Beijing and Taipei’s new President, Tsai Ing-wen, either. China has been squeezing Taiwan harder and harder since her election in 2016, which brought in the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The fear on the mainland appears to be that she will push for securing Taiwan’s formal independence, but so far, Tsai has maintained that she wants to ensure a status quo. She has been vocal about her openness about holding talks with Xi Jinping, but has been equally firm about the fact that she will not, under any circumstances, be pushed to do China’s bidding. Nor, in addition, will Taiwan ever give up its independence. In the face of the fresh diplomatic blows of the last two months, the official line from Taiwan – despite Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s shamefaced resignation – has been that though China has crossed a “red line”, Taipei will not give into any kind of pressure from the mainland.
Beijing’s reaction has been smug. It has applauded Burkina Faso for its decision to sever ties with Taipei and has urged Swaziland to do the same. An editorial, published in the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece The Global Times, on 27 May, warns that Taiwan’s brand of dollar diplomacy has a “gloomy future”. Despite these forebodings, Taiwan still remains the 22nd largest economy in the world, according to data released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In Africa, however, its clout is fading rapidly. Apart from Swaziland, it maintains informal relations with Nigeria and South Africa (incidentally, two of Africa’s largest economies). But in 2017, Nigerian officials asked the 27 year old Taiwanese mission to be moved from Abuja to Lagos – a move that could adversely impact diplomatic visibility and, therefore, diplomatic advantage.
China’s game here plays on the practicality of immediate and emergent requirement. Central American, African and Pacific countries are in sore need of the kind of largesse that Beijing is willing (and very much able) to provide. Last year, Panama joined hands with China. This year, the next target may well be the Holy See – Beijing has been busily negotiating an increase in the number of bishops that the Vatican sends to China.
Taiwan has furiously accused Beijing of being unable and unwilling to live up to the financial promises it has made to poorer countries, stopping just short of indicting China of blackmail. But Burkina Faso’s decision has only served to underscore the current trend – if it comes to a choice between sticking with Taiwan or gaining hugely from China, it is quite clearly the latter.