Does Taiwan want more ‘checkbook diplomacy’?

The China Post

By Joseph Yeh — It has been years since observers speculated that Taiwan could gain diplomatic allies — a drought broken after foreign media reported earlier this month that the island is moving closer to the Sovereign Order of Malta. Ralph Jennings, a contributor for Forbes, wrote on March 13 that Taiwan and the Sovereign Order of Malta, a tiny European government inside Rome, could form official ties even though both governments had given no formal indication of their intention to do so, having only stressing further cooperation between the two sides. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry did not directly confirm or deny the report. But a senior diplomatic source later told The China Post that this is a “nonissue” since the order’s international status is debatable given the U.N. sees it as “sovereign entity” and not a “sovereign state.” Though forming official ties with the Sovereign Order of Malta could be a nonissue, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, in power since last May, is showing signs that it is open to the possibility of making new friends. In a move that could signal that the DPP government is seeking new diplomatic allies, Foreign Minister David Lee (李大維) previously disclosed that Taiwan has a list of countries it “could consider” forming official diplomatic relations with. “The question is not whether we are capable of (forming diplomatic relations with new allies), but whether we want to,” Lee said during an interpellation on March 6.

He refused, however, to disclose any of the countries he was referring to.

The issue is a thorny one as forming diplomatic relations with any new countries is likely to anger Beijing, which has resumed trying to lure Taiwan’s remaining allies into breaking official ties amid the worsening state of cross-strait relations since the start of Tsai’s presidency. The comes only three months after the R.O.C. lost the West African island nation Sao Tome and Principe to Beijing last December, the first country to sever ties with Taiwan since President Tsai assumed office, leaving Taiwan with only 21 diplomatic allies remaining. Losing Sao Tome was seen by many as a sign that the other side of the Taiwan Strait could be re-launching cross-strait diplomatic war following a period of relative stability during the eight years of former President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration. The last time Taiwan formed an official tie was with St. Lucia in April 2007. During the Ma administration from 2008 to 2016, the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) adopted the so-called “viable diplomacy” or “diplomatic truce” with China, which was reportedly a mutual consensus based on the assumption that China will not try to take any of Taiwan’s remaining allies as long as Taiwan does not seek new ones.

Checkbook Diplomacy Leads to Scandal The approach was taken as a corrective measure following the so-called “checkbook” or “scorched-earth” diplomacy of the previous DPP administration from 2000 to 2008 when then president Chen Shui-bian spent millions fighting for diplomatic allies with Beijing. During Chen’s presidency, Taipei gained three diplomatic allies yet lost nine to Beijing. Since Ma assumed office, Taiwan has only lost one. Such cross-strait diplomatic war not only caused the nation millions of dollars but also led to scandals.