Meet the Monarchs and Dictators of Tsai Ing-wen’s ‘Alliance of Democratic Values’

Meet the Monarchs and Dictators of Tsai Ing-wen’s ‘Alliance of Democratic Values’
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

How can Tsai Ing-wen possibly rope her 18 remaining diplomatic allies into a 'democratic coalition' to oppose China when they themselves are hardly functioning democracies?

On Jan. 27, 2018, Honduras, one of Taiwan’s 18 remaining diplomatic allies, swore in President Juan Orlando Hernandez for a second term as international observers slammed the election’s validity and called for a new vote.

The inauguration ceremony was kept low-key to discourage protestors and only ambassadors were invited, depriving Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) a chance to make her presence felt on the international stage. She has missed few opportunities since then, hosting the leaders of allied Haiti and eSwatini earlier this year and visiting Belize and Paraguay last week, sandwiched by two high-profile stopovers in the United States.

Tsai’s diplomatic strategy is reaping rewards for partner states like Paraguay, but observers are worried about its long-term viability. At a May 15 U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee hearing, Republican Senator Marco Rubio openly worried that Paraguay could be next to jump ship and switch its recognition from the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China) – concerns quickly dismissed by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). However, the principles behind Tsai’s strategy remained unaddressed.

Photo Credit: Presidential Palace @Flickr CC BY 2.0
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on one of her overseas visits to diplomatic allies.

In recent weeks, Tsai has spoken about creating an “Alliance of Democratic Values” (民主價值同盟) to stand in opposition to an increasingly overbearing China. However, her remaining allies consist of an eclectic mix of dictators and monarchs who are not exactly being swayed by their moral convictions. Former allies Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic defected to China in May 2018, and Tsai may have reason to worry that her remaining global friends are holding Taiwan for ransom.

Tsai’s recent moves to position Taiwan closer to the U.S. also risk blowback, as President Donald Trump may be using Taiwan as a bargaining chip, according to cross-Strait expert Shelley Rigger, Professor of Political Science at Davidson University. Taiwan’s desire to move away from China, through alliances and democratic signaling, may have a dangerous endgame.

Panama and Tsai’s alignment with Trump

On June 26, 2016, Tsai made one of her first foreign trips and attended the opening ceremony of the expanded Panama Canal. She was immediately met by an ominous sign as she watched the first container ship pass through the canal locks: the 366 meter “COSCO Shipping Panama,” operated by the Chinese shipping giant of the same name.

One year later, on June 12, 2017, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez announced the immediate severance of diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of the PRC. “China has always played an important role in Panama’s economic development,” Varela said in a speech. “Panama has also become an important gateway for many large Chinese corporations wanting to enter the American market.”

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
People wave at a Chinese COSCO container vessel during its first transit of the expanded Panama Canal. Panama switched its allegiance from the ROC to the PRC one year later.

After ties with Panama were severed, Tsai accused Beijing of suppressing Taiwan’s international breathing space and threatened to reevaluate the cross-Strait situation. This reorientation has seen Tsai, since the May defections of the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso, grow closer to the U.S. amidst its ongoing trade war with China.

Tsai also redecorated her vision of Taiwan’s small-country diplomacy by announcing an “Alliance of Democratic Values,” piggybacking off Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and attempting to orient her allies away from the expansionist PRC. But it is unlikely that moral arguments will prevent an impending diplomatic avalanche, and there is little indication that Trump will be there to save her.

During the 7th World Peace Forum, held in Beijing on July 16, 2018, former U.S. ambassador to China J. Stapleton Roy said the most fundamental problem influencing Sino-U.S. relations is not trade, but rather differences in policy approaches towards places like Taiwan. Roy also echoed the common belief that the U.S. has failed in its China policy because, rather than attempting to turn China into a Western democracy, it has focused on developing U.S. interests.

At the forum, Rigger warned Taiwan that the U.S. is not a reliable ally, saying Trump treats Taiwan as a disposable “compounded risk” – a pawn in a larger game. Should the U.S. find space to reach a better deal with China, it may not prioritize its tacit support for Taiwan’s democracy.

Taiwan, unfortunately, hardly makes the case for its diplomatic purity on its own. Aside from dubious actions like cooperating with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in a drug war which has seen up to 20,000 people become victims of extrajudicial killings, a quick look at its international friends shows a clear victory of pragmatism over morality.

eSwatini: Hardly a model of democracy

In April, Tsai visited Taiwan’s last African ally, eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland). eSwatini’s King Mswati III returned the favor in June, visiting Taiwan to celebrate 50 years of ties between the two countries. The king attended his son’s graduation from Taipei’s Shih Chien University and, during the ceremony, received an honorary degree of his own.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
King Mswati III of eSwatini disembarks a plane with his wife in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

At the time, Tsai expressed her deepest gratitude to eSwatini “for speaking up for Taiwan, and always being by our side.” The country, entirely landlocked by South Africa, has seen pressure from China to change its diplomatic recognition which has thus far been brushed off.

But eSwatini is not sticking with Taiwan out of a love for democracy. King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch. According to the 2018 World Report for eSwatini by Human Rights Watch, political dissent remains repressed, and critics of the king or the eSwatini government now face prosecution and imprisonment. Independent watchdog Freedom House gave eSwatini a composite “freedom score” of 16 out of 100, labeling the country as “Not Free.”

Haiti’s ultimatum to Taiwan

Haiti has stayed close to Taiwan for 62 years, ever since first establishing a diplomatic relationship with the ROC in 1956. The current Haiti Embassy in the U.S. is actually the former ROC Embassy, vacated when the U.S. switched its own recognition to the PRC in 1979. The ROC transferred the building to Haiti to ensure that none of Taiwan’s assets wound up in the hands of China.

However, there is cause for concern these days. The Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola, switched its allegiance in May after China allegedly offered a US$3.1 billion (NT$95.3 billion) investment package, according to an anonymous MoFA official. “There is no way we can commit to offering the same amount of money” as China, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) said at a news conference.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Read More: Taiwan Seeks to Pioneer ODA Financing Model with Haitian Power Grid Contract

Haiti, the poorest country in Latin America, has thus far stayed at Taiwan’s side. But when Haitian President Jovenel Moïse visited Taiwan on May 30, he was quick to lay out his terms. “After my foreign minister returned from his last visit to Taiwan, he told me that your nation was willing to assist Haiti’s development,” he said. “I have visited this time in order to discuss with you the specifics of the plans for the cooperative development between our two countries in the future.”

Moïse assumed office in February 2017, overseeing a country with a failing education system, overcrowded prisons, and endemic violence against women and Haiti’s LGBT population. He moved to reestablish Haiti’s army – disbanded in 1995 due to human rights violations – and LGBT rights have deteriorated under his watch.

None of this excludes Haiti from Taiwan’s “democratic alliance,” of course. Tsai and Moïse signed a joint communiqué in May, pledging to draft terms of cooperative efforts to develop and improve Haiti’s economy and infrastructure. Taiwan is pioneering an Official Development Assistance (ODA) model in Haiti, supporting the construction of an electricity distribution network in a country where less than one-third of the population has access to electricity.

But it may only be a matter of time before China presents a better offer. Once again, Tsai should not think Haiti is partnering with Taiwan due to its belief in democracy. Haiti, like the Dominican Republic before it, is practicing an effective form of blackmail.

Supporting a ‘tyrant’ in Nicaragua

Nicaragua, ruled by President Daniel Ortega, is no paragon of democratic values. The Central American country and Taiwanese ally has spent this year paralyzed by anti-Ortega protests which have been met by a brutal government crackdown. In 2016, the New York Times editorial board published “Dynasty, the Nicaragua Version,” nothing that the nomination of his wife, Rosario Murillo, as the vice-presidential candidate signaled his intention to establish authoritarian, dynastic rule.

On April 18, 2018, Ortega attempted to change the national social security system, sparking large-scale protests which continue today, marred by violent clashes between demonstrators and police. The reform bill was withdrawn, but students and young people continued to protest, vowing to overthrow the “tyrant” president. The Organization of American States (OAS) said on August 2 that 317 people had lost their lives in the demonstrations. The Economist accused Nicaragua of following “the script of Venezuela.”

The United States – which has a dubious history in Nicaragua – responded by slapping Nicaraguan officials with sanctions. On July 12, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs condemned the Ortega regime for destroying democracy and violating human rights. There were no objections.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a meeting with businessmen in Managua, Nicaragua on Jan. 10, 2017.

Taiwan, however, has remained silent. On April 22 and June 5, MoFA issued warnings to Taiwanese visitors and expats in Nicaragua to stay vigilant and avoid demonstrations. However, Tsai has otherwise said little about her Central American ally since her March meeting with a top Nicaraguan general, in which she said she anticipated an expansion of relations.

Taiwan should be wary of Paraguay

Tsai’s recent visit to Paraguay, where she attended the inauguration of incoming President Mario Abdo Benitez, should also raise concerns, as Paraguay has shown indications of inching closer to China.

Soybean is the most exported agricultural product to China from the United States. However, in response to recent U.S. tariff hikes on Chinese imports, China has countered by imposing a 25 percent tax on U.S. soybeans, which has affected nearly 3 million tons of the product.

Paraguay has expressed an interest in filling the gap. Its Ministry of Industry and Commerce stated that although the two countries have not yet “established formal diplomatic relations,” Paraguay has started exporting soybeans to China through both Argentina and Uruguay.

If the new Paraguayan President, Mario Abdo Benitez, is willing to enter into a trade agreement with China through the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc, it may indicate that he is willing to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Taiwan, of course, will never compete with China’s potential to singlehandedly prop up the Paraguayan economy. If the U.S.-China trade war encourages Taiwan’s remaining allies to fill China’s gap in U.S.-based imports, don’t count on the U.S. swooping in to save the day – or on Taiwan’s allies to choose a commitment to democracy over a better economic future. After all, Tsai has failed to do so herself.

Tsai’s strategy still marred by questions

In July, during her speech at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) National Congress, Tsai asked who from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) left the country in this political mess. “Who was it that threw aside Taiwan’s dignity by allowing comprador groups to lead cross-Strait relations when governing the country?” she asked.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Read More: Rights Groups Urge Taiwan to Suspend Deadly Philippines Drug Deportations

However, after watching the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso sever ties in quick succession, Tsai should be questioning herself. If she is truly able to safeguard her country’s dignity, she should clearly answer the following three questions:

1. Can Haiti guarantee Taiwan that they will not sever diplomatic relations, and for what period of time? May’s joint communiqué promised a signed agreement by the end of the year, but Tsai should clarify the focus and progress of the discussions to the public.

2. Can states like Nicaragua, Honduras, and eSwatini really be considered a part of Taiwan’s “Alliance of Democratic Values”? Should Taiwan not express its commitment to human rights? Taiwan’s deserved pride in its own democracy takes a significant hit when it props up dictators, monarchs, and the human rights violations of partners in Tsai's New Southbound Policy (NSP), an initiative to build economic ties with southern neighbors like the Duterte-led Philippines.

3. As Tsai returns from the United States after a high-profile visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center – her first visit to a U.S. federal building – can she guarantee that Taiwan will not become a sacrificial offering from Trump to China? Despite the recent cementing of the U.S.-Taiwan defense alliance, the Trump administration is famously volatile – and, if his own top economic advisers are to be believed, the U.S. may feel the pain of its trade war with China sooner than later.

Tsai must find a way to prove that, when the U.S. and China eventually hash out their differences, Taiwan will not be on the table.

Read Next: US Defense Act Angers China, Reaffirms Status Quo for Taiwan

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more like it in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.