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Politics

In China's shadow, Taiwan's Ma struggles for diplomatic wiggle room

TAIPEI -- During his campaign for Taiwan's presidency six years ago, Ma Ying-jeou vowed to reach a truce with Beijing, foster closer ties with the mainland and expand the island's presence on the global diplomatic scene. Today, Taiwan remains very much in China's shadow.

     President Ma's overseas trips remain mostly limited to Taiwan's small, impoverished allies in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific. A visit to the Vatican and some stopovers in the U.S. stand out as exceptions. Just last week, Ma completed a weeklong visit to Panama and El Salvador.

     Speaking to reporters upon his return home late Saturday, Ma described his 10th trip abroad as satisfactory and said allies were seeking broader economic exchanges with Taiwan. "Both Panama and El Salvador said they want to increase bilateral trade with Taiwan, and we were able to respond to their requests promptly," the president said without going into detail.

     While in Panama, Ma also met with Haitian President Michel Martelly to discuss disaster prevention and reconstruction programs, according to a statement on Martelly's Facebook page.

     Taiwan frequently emphasizes the financial incentives and aid packages it can provide to friendly nations. This reflects the "checkbook diplomacy" Taipei and Beijing have long used to vie for allegiances since they split amid a civil war in 1949. Given China's rising economic and political clout, most countries recognize Beijing, while only 22 have formal relations with Taipei.

     Since Ma took office in 2008, he has aggressively sought to improve ties with China. Ma has said better cross-strait relations would create more space for Taiwan in the international arena.

     Yet Ma's gestures are not always reciprocated, and for some allies, the Chinese economy's allure is simply too hard to resist.

     Former African partner Gambia cut ties with Taipei last November. It reportedly hoped to establish relations with Beijing, though that has yet to happen.

     About a month ago, Manuel Pinto da Costa, the president of Taiwan's tiny West African ally Sao Tome and Principe, visited Beijing and Shanghai. Officials in Taiwan characterized the trip as a "private visit."

"Vassal state"

The Ma administration has made some progress in terms of participation in international organizations -- but only with China's consent. In 2009, Taiwan was allowed to become an observer in the World Health Assembly, a United Nations body. In 2013, it was invited to the International Civil Aviation Organization assembly as a guest.

     Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor at National Taipei University's Department of Public Administration and Policy, said Ma's diplomatic approach is reducing Taiwan to "a vassal state of China's."

     "Ma's way to participate in international organizations will make it very difficult for Taiwan to safeguard its sovereignty," Chen said.

     Yen Chen-shen, a research fellow at National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations in Taipei, said that while Ma's detente with Beijing may help Taiwan maintain most of its existing relationships, China is still not giving the island much leeway.

     "With the diplomatic ceasefire, Beijing is not actively trying to snatch allies from Taiwan, as demonstrated by the fact that it has not established ties with Gambia," Yen said. "Beijing, however, is not allowing major breakthroughs for Taiwan with international organizations."

     Yen suggested this may be because China fears that Taiwan's main opposition group, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, could return to power down the road.

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