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CHECKBOOK DIPLOMACY

Taiwan now has diplomatic relations with fewer than 20 countries

Reuters/Ricardo Rojas
Allies no more.
By Josh Horwitz
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The Dominican Republic announced today (May 1) that it will establish diplomatic relations with China, dropping ties with Taiwan. The decision whittles Taiwan’s formal allies down to 19, even as the US takes steps toward providing more support to the self-governing island.

China offered the Dominican Republic loans and investments worth $3.1 billion to get it to switch its allegiance, an official with Taiwan’s foreign ministry told Reuters today, while Beijing said no economic pre-conditions were involved.

Speaking at a press conference (link in Spanish), Flavio Darío Espinal, legal adviser to the Dominican president, cited “history and socioeconomic reality” as the reason for the change. 

“In the following months and years, enormous opportunities for cooperation will gradually open up, not only in the commercial area, but also in the financial, technological, tourist, educational or energy fields,” he said. “To take just one example, more than 135 million Chinese tourists visit international destinations annually. The establishment of these diplomatic relations will allow part of that tourism to flow into our country in the near future. And that is just one of the things that will improve.”

Despite Taiwan’s status as an independently functioning democracy, Beijing forces the international community to establish diplomatic ties with either the People’s Republic of China or Taiwan (formally known as the Republic of China), under the “One China” principle, which insists Taiwan is part of China. The schism between the two dates back to China’s civil war when the Nationalist, or Kuomintang, forces retreated to Taiwan in the late 1940s after being routed by China’s communist troops.

Many countries formally hold diplomatic relationships with China while maintaining political ties with Taiwan through informal offices. The United States, for example, has a formal diplomatic mission in China but maintains a de facto embassy in Taiwan known as the American Institute of Taiwan.

The countries that have maintained formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan have been ones that are relatively small in population and marginal to the global economy. Money is often the reason they remain loyal—critics have accused Taiwan of engaging in “checkbook diplomacy,” or in essence, obtaining formal diplomatic recognition in exchange for investment. Last October, for example, Taiwan donated $30 million in military equipment to the Dominican Republic.

Beijing has increasingly engaged in this tactic as well. In November, China announced it would spend $820 million to fund public projects in the Dominican Republic. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs took aim at China’s spending in its statement this morning (May 1) on the Dominican Republic’s decision.

“We strongly condemn China’s objectionable decision to use dollar diplomacy to convert Taiwan’s diplomatic allies,” the ministry writes. ”Beijing’s attempts at foreign policy have only served to drive a wedge between the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, erode mutual trust, and further harm the feelings of the people of Taiwan.”

Donald Trump, who drew China’s ire by accepting an unexpected phone call from Taiwan’s leader while still US president-elect, appeared more conciliatory over Taiwan after his first call in office with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But recently, as trade and other tensions with China have grown, the Trump administration has made several gestures and remarks supporting Taiwan. In March, for example, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which eased restrictions on diplomatic visits between the US and Taiwan.

Yet US support has done little to stop Taiwan’s formal allies from abandoning it. Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican ambassador to China, tells Quartz that the Dominican Republic’s break, coupled with rumors that the Vatican will also switch allegiances, “will open the floodgates at a time when Taiwan was feeling emboldened by Trump.” In December 2016, São Tomé and Príncipe switched its allegiance to China. In June 2017, Panama followed suit.

“Before, countries like Nicaragua and Paraguay wanted to go with China but China didn’t take them,” adds Guajardo. “Now it signals that there’s a green light to come over, and I suppose there will be a race not to be the last one siding with Taiwan.”

This story has been updated. 

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