June 29, 2017 10:00 am JST

Isolating Taiwan will backfire on China, island's premier says

Lin Chuan argues stealing allies will only hurt cross-strait ties

DEBBY WU, Nikkei staff writer

Taiwanese Premier Lin Chuan speaks during an interview in Taipei on June 23. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

TAIPEI China's efforts to steal Taiwan's diplomatic allies will only hurt cross-strait relations, Taiwanese Premier Lin Chuan told the Nikkei Asian Review in an exclusive interview.

Lin's comments come after Panama cut ties with Taiwan in mid-June and forged relations with China instead. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela's decision shocked many in Taiwan, as the Central American country had long been a key ally.

Though Taiwan and China split amid a civil war in 1949, Beijing still claims the island as its own and strongly opposes any diplomatic relations between Taipei and other governments. Due to China's rising political and economic clout, Taiwan is now left with only 20 diplomatic allies, mostly small, poor states in Africa and Latin America.

BAD TACTICS "It is not a smart move by [China], if it is trying to achieve unification with Taiwan by terminating our diplomatic relations with other countries," Lin said.

Beijing's position, the premier said, is that Panama's move amounts to "enacting" the "One China" principle. "In other words, [China] aims to wipe out the Republic of China with its 'One China' principle ... and most people in Taiwan will not accept that."

Taiwan's official moniker is the Republic of China.

"Many people in Taiwan, no matter whether they support the '1992 Consensus' or not, feel that mainland China's actions based on its 'One China' principle are harmful to cross-strait relations," Lin said. The 1992 Consensus refers to a contentious political directive that China sees as Taiwan's commitment to eventual unification.

Still, Lin acknowledged that maintaining diplomatic allies under growing Chinese pressure will be difficult, and perhaps even risky.

Relations between Taipei and Beijing have cooled significantly since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who Chinese officials regard as a staunch supporter of Taiwan's independence, took office in May 2016. Tsai has refused to recognize the 1992 Consensus, much to Beijing's displeasure.

Tsai's predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, forged friendly relations with China. But the former leader led his party to defeat at the polls last year, as many voters felt close ties with the mainland were hurting the economy and eroding the independence of the democratic, self-governing island.

Chinese officials have said Tsai will not be able to move cross-strait relations forward without recognizing the 1992 Consensus. But despite losing two diplomatic allies recently -- first the African nation of Sao Tome and Principe in December, and then Panama -- she refuses to change her stance.

ECONOMIC OUTREACH While acknowledging that Taiwan faces grave diplomatic challenges, Lin said the island hopes to foster strong economic ties with all countries, including China.

"We want to be open to all other countries, to build multifaceted economic relations with countries all around the globe," he said. "We are a small economy, and we have achieved prosperity through opening our economy, and we are more than happy to forge good economic relations with [China]."

Given past fears of excessive reliance on China, he stressed the government is seeking a balanced approach.

"We are willing to continue talks with [China] to reduce economic barriers, and become more open with each other," Lin said. "At the same time, we are also willing to form good economic relations and reduce trade barriers with other countries, including Japan, those in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S. and the European Union."

He also expressed Taiwan's continuing interest in joining the TPP free trade pact, even though the U.S. has withdrawn. He said Taipei would be "happy" if Japan, as a key TPP proponent, were to "invite Taiwan to come on board" when the partnership expands in the future. "We'll be happy to have opportunities to join multinational trade agreements and make our market more open," Lin said.

"We believe our membership will help the TPP carry out its goal of pushing for fairer trade, and not relying on the exploitation of workers and the environment to achieve economic prosperity."

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