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Taiwan sags under unrelenting Chinese diplomatic pressure

Diminishing list of allies has Tsai administration mulling foreign policy shift

Panama's Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo, left, poses with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi during a June 13 joint news conference in Beijing to announce the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. The move is a significant blow to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

TAIPEI -- China is on a relentless drive in ramping up diplomatic pressure on Taiwan by chipping away at the island's small remaining network of allies. 

China's latest move in a strategic soft power offensive against what it sees as a renegade province bore fruit on June 13, when Panama announced its decision to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan and establish formal ties with Beijing.

The announcement delivered another heavy blow to the pro-independence administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Since her inauguration in May last year Tsai has sought dialogue with China and avoided any actions that might ruffle the feathers of Chinese leaders -- all to no avail. 

The Tsai administration is sinking deeper into a diplomatic predicament as China has been successful in shutting Taiwan out of some international conferences and persuaded countries with formal diplomatic ties with the island to defect. 

Strong ground game

After Panama's decision, Tsai indicated that she will review her strategy on China, raising the possibility of a major change in Taipei's diplomatic stance toward Beijing.

On June 13, Tsai, reading a prepared text, said, "Taiwan has already upheld our responsibility for maintaining cross-strait peace and stability. In contrast, China's actions have challenged the cross-strait status quo. This is unacceptable to the people of Taiwan."

Taiwan's presidential office also released a statement that said China's behavior is "a dangerous provocation to the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait and the region at large," and added, "We strongly condemn such behavior."

On that day, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo in Beijing to sign a joint communique establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries.

It has been reported that Taiwan was not notified of Panama's decision until immediately before the meeting, with the loss of this long-standing relationship coming as a shock to the island. 

Panama was Taiwan's oldest diplomatic ally, with the bilateral ties dating back to the era of the Qing Dynasty, which was succeeded by the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan.

In a flurry of responses, Taiwan's presidential office and Foreign Ministry held separate news conferences. 

Joseph Wu, the secretary-general of the presidential office, criticized Beijing, and said Beijing should immediately stop taking actions that hurt the people of Taiwan.

Wu also said Taiwan will not use money to compete on the diplomatic stage, suggesting that China has been dangling economic aid and other financial means to win over Taiwan's friends.

Taiwan's foreign minister, David Lee, expressed indignation at Panama, which he said had succumbed to Beijing because of economic interests and deceived Taiwan.

China's official "One China" policy requires foreign countries to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan if they want to have a formal relationship with Beijing.

Limited options

China and Taiwan have long been locked in diplomatic war, trying to poach each other's allies to win formal recognition.

But during the presidency of Tsai's predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, who came to office promising to improve cross-strait ties, there was a silent truce between Beijing and Taipei in the diplomatic wars. 

However, cross-strait relations have been rocky since Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party does not accept the "One China" policy, took office last year. Since then, China has been flexing its significant diplomatic muscle to isolate Taiwan.

Panama's move has reduced to 20 the number of countries that formally recognize Taiwan. Panama is the second country to switch recognition to Beijing since Tsai took office, following Sao Tome and Principe, which did so in December.

But the Central American nation's flip has caused far more serious damage to the Tsai administration and exposed her diplomatic agenda as ineffective. 

Tsai's pledge to reevaluate cross-strait relations has been seen by diplomats on both sides as a signal of an upcoming shift in her foreign policy. It was the first time she has indicated an intent to change her stance toward China.

To be sure, though, Tsai's options are limited. 

The previous DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian, who governed the island from 2000 to 2008, took some actions that were regarded by China as moves toward Taiwan's independence, including applying for U.N. membership as Taiwan.

Consequently, the bilateral relationship soured, prompting the U.S., which puts the priority on stability in the region, to express concerns.

It is hard to imagine Tsai, an expert in diplomacy, taking similar hard-line actions.

But there is growing discontent with Tsai's moderate diplomatic line among some party members and young Taiwanese who see her stance as "weak-kneed."

Taiwan cannot expect much support from the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump, who has abandoned his tough rhetoric toward China and sought to build a good working relationship with Beijing to secure its help in dealing with North Korea.

Tsai could see her political power base erode significantly if she continues ignoring discontented supporters while failing to present any new -- and convincing -- diplomatic strategy. 

For Tsai, any rapprochement with China could further alienate her proponents, but the flip side is a continuation of unrelenting Chinese pressure. 

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