Taiwan cannot afford to buy friends

By Joe hung

One well-known political quip in the United States is: When facing a domestic trouble, the president goes abroad. President Richard M. Nixon did so quite often, but finally he had to resign in the face of almost certain impeachment and removal from office because of Watergate. President Tsai Ing-wen has also gone abroad twice since she was sworn on May 20 2016. She first visited Panama and Paraguay from June 24 to July 2 last year. Her second nine-day trip ended yesterday. President Tsai has faced constant domestic trouble since her inauguration. Tsai problems at home were not that serious when she decided to make her state visits to Panama and Paraguay, two of Taiwan’s 22 remaining diplomatic allies, last year.

The goal of latest tour, at a time when she was deeper in trouble, was to consolidate diplomatic relations with another four allies — Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Speaking at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport before departing for Honduras on Jan. 7, Tsai reaffirmed her administration’s untiring efforts to improve Taiwan’s foreign relations based on her “steadfast diplomacy,” unlike the “checkbook diplomacy” previous Kuomintang (KMT) governments had practiced. Her aim is only to create mutually beneficial relations with Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. One more important purpose of her whirlwind visits she left unsaid was to meet, if possible, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and talk with him during her stopover in Houston on her way to Tegucigalpa. She wished she could, because they talked on the phone on Dec. 3.

“Checkbook diplomacy” is used to describe a foreign policy which openly uses economic aid and investment between countries to curry diplomatic favor. It characterizes the competition between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China in Taiwan to gain “recognition” from other countries or retain diplomatic relations with them. President Lee Teng-hui’s KMT administration went for it and his successor Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party followed suit. It was KMT President Ma Ying-jeou who declared a “diplomatic truce” between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to end the competition with Beijing’s tacit consent. Tsai’s state visits to Honduras and Nicaragua were successful. She met and talked with President Juan Orland Hernandes in Tagucigalpa and attended the inauguration of President Jose Daniel Ortega in Managua, where he introduced her as president of the Republic of Taiwan (Republica de Taiwan) in his inaugural speech. Both countries reaffirmed their diplomatic ties with Taiwan. So was her trip to El Salvador where President Sanchez Caren reiterated Salvadoran support for the Republic of China just one day before she started to return to Taipei via San Francisco, California.