by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

THE TSAI ADMINISTRATION announced earlier this week that Taiwan would be opening up a representative office in Guyana. Because Taiwan does not have formal diplomatic relations with the majority of the world’s countries, Taiwan instead opens representative offices, oftentimes referred to as the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office” or some variant thereof. With such trade offices, “Taipei” is usually used instead of “Taiwan” due to considerations of political sensitivity, much as how Taiwan is sometimes referred to as “Chinese Taipei” in international sporting competitions. The de facto diplomatic offices of other countries in Taiwan also usually go by the representative office label, instead of being referred to as embassies or consulates.

However, according to the Tsai administration, the planned representative trade office in Guyana would have instead used the word “Taiwan” in its name. Using the word “Taiwan” instead of the word “Taipei” has been framed as a sign of upgraded ties between Taiwan and countries that it has representative offices in or hosts the representative offices of. This is why Beijing responded with such anger to the Interchange Association, Tokyo’s representative office in Taiwan, changing its name to the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association in May 2017.

Guyana’s Parliament Building. Photo credit: Kevin Gabbert/Public Domain

To this extent, the representative office in Guyana would have been Taiwan’s second new representative office this year. The trend during the Tsai administration has been continued Chinese diplomatic poaching of Taiwan’s allies, with Taiwan having twenty-two diplomatic allies at the start of Tsai’s first term in 2016, but this having become reduced to just fourteen countries and the Holy See at present. Announcements of changes in diplomatic recognition sometimes seem timed to come at inconvenient moments for the Tsai administration, such with the aim of pressure the Tsai administration before January 2020 elections—this was the case when Taiwan lost two diplomatic allies in the same week in September 2020.

Taiwan is larger than all of its diplomatic allies in terms of the size of its population and economy, many of which are small islands in the Pacific or Caribbean, or countries in Latin America; this is no different with Guyana in South America, which has a population of 783,000 compared to Taiwan’s population of 23 million. The main purpose that Taiwan’s diplomatic allies serve for it are to speak up for Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations, though Taiwan has been accused of engaging in dollar diplomacy to do this—effectively paying off its allies, many of which have questionable human rights records, to maintain diplomatic ties. However, in an age of rising Chinese economic and political power, Taiwan cannot outspend its larger neighbor.

This was why the Tsai administration trumpeted the opening of a new diplomatic office in Somaliland last year. Though, like Taiwan, Somaliland is a de facto independent state that lacks de jure recognition of its independence, the Tsai administration sought to frame the two countries exchanging representatives offices as a diplomatic breakthrough, though this also led to speculation about whether the Tsai administration had opened the door for exchanging diplomatic offices with other unrecognized states. Taiwan and Somaliland did not establish formal diplomatic relations but merely exchanged representatives, yet this was seen as setting both countries down the path to mutual recognition. In a similar timeframe, the Trump administration sought to pressure diplomatic allies of Taiwan not to break ties with it through the TAIPEI Act, though it is less likely the Biden administration will act on it at present.

But where Somaliland shrugged off considerable Chinese pressure to establish diplomatic ties, this does not appear to be the case with Guyana, which eventually reneged due to Chinese pressure. While the Tsai administration had originally suggested that Guyana might follow suit with the opening of a Taiwan representative office by opening up its own representative office in Taipei, now this will not take place at all. Consequently, the Tsai administration has lashed out at “bullying” by China.

It is to be questioned, however, whether the scrutiny of the Chinese government turned toward the Guyana deal because the Tsai administration touted it in too high-profile a manner. This would fit with a broader pattern by which the Tsai administration undercuts foreign policy moves by announcing them as successes prematurely, resulting in such moves being undone.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen (center). Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

A similar example of this phenomenon may be the US-Taiwan economic dialogue that was originally supposed to be conducted during a visit to Taiwan by US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach in September. Taiwan trumpeting the US-Taiwan economic dialogue as leading to a bilateral trade agreement too loudly seems to have invited the displeasure of the US, which subsequently sought to keep a low-profile during the Krach visit and changed the official purpose of the visit to mourning the recently deceased Lee Teng-hui. Taiwan’s reputation as a “troublemaker” during the Chen Shui-bian presidency from 2000 to 2008, the first DPP presidency in Taiwanese history, followed from that Taiwan trumpeted too aggressively foreign policy moves aimed at expanding Taiwan’s diplomatic space internationally.

In effect, the Tsai administration may face an issue of touting foreign policy successes too loudly for the sake of domestic political credibility, which then undoes such foreign policy successes. This is not helped by the fact that the Tsai administration has to answer to the criticisms of the KMT and pan-Blue opposition in its diplomatic moves, with the KMT having criticized the Tsai administration for failing to maintain relations with diplomatic allies, while also having lashed out at the notion of opening representative offices in Somaliland and Guyana as wastes of expenditures. The KMT hopes to draw on cases of Chinese diplomatic poaching of Taiwanese allies to reinforce the narrative that it is the only political party in Taiwan capable of stabilizing diplomatic relations with China, since China refrained from poaching diplomatic allies of Taiwan under the Ma administration as a sign of goodwill. This would be a diplomatic challenge for the Tsai administration that has its roots in Taiwan’s international marginalization.

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