Tsai’s Latin America Tour and the New Wildcard in Cross-Strait Relations

Tsai’s Latin America Tour and the New Wildcard in Cross-Strait Relations
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

It is a new year and possibly a new era in cross-Strait relations.

In January 2017, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) completed her second tour of Latin America, visiting four diplomatic allies: Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. Tsai described the visit as "steadfast diplomacy based on mutual assistance for mutual benefits."

The last few years of fighting for diplomatic recognition have been difficult for the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan). In 2013, Gambia cut diplomatic ties with the ROC, formalizing relations with China by March 2016. In 2014, the former president of Guatemala admitted to accepting US$2.5 million in bribes in exchange for continued diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. This form of chequebook diplomacy was supposedly ended under former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). More recently, in December 2016, the African nation of Sao Tome and Principe severed formal relations with the ROC in favor of establishing diplomatic ties with China.

As Dennis Hickey has previously argued, such visits fulfill three purposes. First, they serve as a reminder that a "better than nothing" number of states recognize the sovereign status of the ROC. Second, these meetings appeal to Taipei’s few remaining diplomatic allies to present Taiwanese perspectives in international organizations. Third, and most importantly, they provide a strategic opportunity for transiting through major cities in the United States. Approval for U.S. stopovers must come from Washington, and such visits are a big source of contention from Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry claimed that allowing Tsai to transit through the United States would send "the wrong signal to Taiwanese independence forces."

Moreover, where the Taiwanese president is allowed to stopover is often a signal of Washington’s approval of Taipei’s management of cross-Strait relations. In 2006, Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was denied transiting through San Francisco, New York or Houston by the Bush administration, and was instead given a limited refueling stop in Alaska.

When Tsai’s second Latin American tour was announced, reports surfaced that she would transit through New York in an effort to meet U.S. President Donald Trump’s then-transition team. In the end, Tsai made two stops, in Texas and California.

The Houston stopover en route to Latin America involved meeting with senior Republicans, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott. Cruz confirmed that they discussed "arms sales, diplomatic exchanges and economic relations," as well as the prospect of increasing trade between Texas and Taiwan. The Republican Party has historically been a supporter of regular arms sales to Taiwan.

The return stopover through San Francisco involved Tsai visiting the Twitter offices, and was publicized with Tsai’s first tweet in two years, and her first in English. After Trump’s inauguration, Tsai congratulated him, stating, "Democracy is what ties Taiwan and the US together. Look forward to advancing our friendship & partnership." Twitter is banned in China and using the popular social media platform emphasizes the marked distinction between freedom of expression and democratic principles in Taiwan and China. Twitter is also Trump’s preferred medium of communication and will become a significant outreach tool for Taipei.

The San Francisco stopover also included a lunch with 800 people from the Taiwanese community, as well as several phone calls to U.S. "friends" of the island nation. The only name revealed was Colorado Senator Cory Garnder, who told Tsai he had requested that the Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, reaffirm the US security commitment to Taiwan.

The U.S. stopovers come at a sensitive point in U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. The November 2016 phone call from Trump to Tsai recast the cross-Strait status quo. Traditionally, Washington’s strategic ambiguity has guaranteed Taiwan does not unilaterally declare formal independence, and China does not unilaterally force (re)unification. But Trump and his team have been unafraid of upsetting the golden rules of U.S. foreign policy.

In contrast, China’s response was measured, with its state-owned newspaper headlining, "No Need to Over-interpret Tsai-Trump Phone Call" and arguing that "[f]or Trump, it exposed nothing but his and his transition team’s inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs. If he could make the unusual action due to lack of proper understanding of Sino-U.S. relations and cross-Straits ties he will have to recognize the significance of prudently and appropriately addressing these sensitive issues after being inaugurated."

As Taiwan and China’s objectives of maintaining the fragile status quo remain, the United States has become the wildcard. While previous leadership changes have heralded shifts in the cross-Strait dynamic, it is now uncertain whether the U.S. domestic political environment will upset the delicate balance. For Tsai, this presents a dangerous future. Taiwan is gradually losing its diplomatic allies, and the one China policy has become a political pawn for Trump’s aggressive China policy.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White