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International Relations

Taiwan seeks to boost standing by exploiting China belligerence

Island seeks stronger ties with large democracies as it loses formal allies

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, right, and Legislative Yuan Speaker Su Chia-chyuan wave during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei on Wednesday   © AP

TAIPEI -- Taiwan is seeking to capitalize on international condemnation of China's growing belligerence to boost the island's global standing, even as it continues to lose formal diplomatic allies to Beijing.

President Tsai Ing-wen used a speech on Wednesday to make the case for Taiwan as beacon of democracy in a region that she sees as increasingly falling under China's shadow.

"A responsible country should be playing a positive role in the region and in the world rather than be a source of conflict," Tsai said in a National Day address in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei.

Spending 15 of her allotted 25 minutes on China, Tsai ramped up the rhetoric from last year's address when she talked about trying to find new ways to interact with Beijing. Her harsh language was reminiscent of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's criticism of China in Washington last week, when he blasted the world's second-biggest economy for meddling in U.S. elections and its expansionist plans in the South China Sea.

Pan Chao-min, a professor at Tunghai University's Graduate Institute of Political Science in Taiwan, said Tsai was emboldened by Pence and President Donald Trump's recent attacks on Beijing.

"She is leveraging the tensions between U.S. and China over the last one year as an opportunity to bolster Taiwan's irreplaceability in the regional and international order," Pan said. "She mentioned the U.S., Japan and the European Union during her speech, which indicates the Tsai administration's attempt to forge closer ties with democracies that are also worried about China's growing influence."

Cross-strait relations have deteriorated since Tsai was elected in May 2016. China sees the president and her Democratic Progressive Party as seeking independence for Taiwan -- a red line for Beijing.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, left, U.S. President Donald Trump, center, and Chinese President Xi Jinping    © AP

The tide turned sharply immediately after Trump's election win in November 2016, when Tsai and the then president-elect held the first direct phone call between leaders of the two countries in the 37 years since Washington severed ties with Taipei in 1979.

In February this year, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to allow regular and high-level exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwanese officials. And last month, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of spare parts for military aircraft worth up to $330 million -- a move condemned by Beijing.

Relations between Taipei and Washington have never been better, a lawmaker in Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party told the Nikkei Asian Review under condition of anonymity.

Tsai's government has also held talks with unofficial representatives of countries including the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, according to the Financial Times.

J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham in the U.K., said the world's major democracies are worried about China's recent moves.

"All of them have tightened their relations with democratic Taiwan as a response to that growing threat to our way of life," said Cole, who is also editor-in-chief of the Taiwan Sentinel website. "Closer ties are good for Taiwan, and equally good for those large democracies that need a free and safe Taiwan."

The island has lost five diplomatic allies over the past two years, and now has formal ties with just 17 nations. The latest loss was in August when El Salvador severed ties with Taiwan.

"China's unilateral diplomatic offensive and military coercion have not only harmed cross-strait relations. They have also seriously challenged the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," Tsai said Wednesday.

She pledged to enhance Taiwan's national security footing and boost the island's defense budget every year she is in power. But added that her military would act responsibly.

Her speech came as ties between Beijing and Washington grow increasingly frosty. At a news conference last week, Trump suggested that his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping may no longer be one of friendship.

Vice President Pence noted that the Chinese Communist Party had used an array of policies that were inconsistent with free and fair trade, including "tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial subsidies that are handed out like candy to foreign investment."

Pence said that Beijing was "using its power like never before," criticizing the country's actions in surrounding waters. In the South China Sea, the vice president said China had reneged on a previous declaration of having "no intention to militarize" the sea.

Nottingham University's Cole said Tsai has been very consistent on the need to defend Taiwan's democracy and way of life, but added that the tone has changed gradually, "largely because Beijing has been intensifying its assault on Taiwan."

"Taiwan is at the front lines of an ideological battle that affects us all," Cole added. Western democracies "now understand that the Taiwan Strait issue is not just about Taiwan and China: it's now about the entire world."

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