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September 24, 2017

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Taipei faces challenge in seeking foreign recognition

Chad's decision on Sunday to sever relations with Taipei in favor of recognizing Beijing underscored a growing challenge Taiwan is facing in its competition for diplomatic recognition with China — a challenge that is difficult for Taiwan to find an effective solution any time soon.

The north central African country is the seventh nation Taiwan has lost to China in the cross-strait battle for foreign recognition since 2000 when President Chen Shui-bian came to power, diminishing the number of countries that maintain official ties to this island to only 24.

Undoubtedly, Chen deserves blame for the fact that during the six years of his administration he has not only failed to broaden Taiwan's diplomatic space by winning over more countries, but even worse lost so many allies that he inherited from the previous KMT government.

Still, it would not be fair to put the blame squarely on the Chen administration. We must not neglect to note the factor of an increasingly powerful China, whose fast rise is placing Taiwan in a more disadvantageous position in competing for allies around the world.

China with its new-found financial wealth and its far-flung political influence now has become a country with which establishing relations is seen as more beneficial or more strategically important than maintaining political links with Taiwan.

Chad is but the latest example of this. N'Djamena took the initiative to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan and switch recognition to Beijing because it considered Chad can benefit more from such a policy change. First, Beijing can offer, and is willing to offer, more generous economic aid than has been provided by Taiwan.

Second, China as a permanent member in the Security Council of the United Nations and with its growing influence in Africa can play a key role in Chad's ongoing efforts to deal with domestic rebellions and ease tensions with Sudan. Clearly, Chad could not expect Taiwan to assume a role of this kind.

Chad's switch raises a concern that its action could have a domino effect on Taiwan's other allies. Yet the concern was dismissed by Foreign Minister James Huang, who said that "different countries have different circumstances."

However, Minister Huang did admit the need to take proactive measures. He said the Foreign Ministry will make an all-out effort to cement Taiwan's relations with its remaining diplomatic allies. Next week, Huang is going to travel to Panama where he will preside over a regional meeting of Taiwan's diplomatic mission chiefs in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It's a tough task for Huang. Almost all of the countries that have political relations with Taipei are relatively poor. They value their friendships with Taiwan, but they also attach great importance to the economic assistance it offers.

Yet with Taipei and Beijing's competition for recognition growing more intense, it seems to have become a trend that Taiwan must continuously raise its economic aid to ensure that its allies will not be lured away by Beijing.

But the practice of using the checkbook to build diplomatic ties is becoming increasingly more difficult in economic and political terms. Economically, Taiwan after years of slow growth that has considerably shrunk its wealth, can no longer afford to spend generously on diplomacy.

Politically, people in growing numbers now question the wisdom of the government investing so much in maintaining relations with countries which do little to help Taiwan break its diplomatic isolation.

Perhaps the only visible but symbolic help they render is to speak before the U.N. to defend Taiwan's annual bid to join the world body, and to host occasional visits by President Chen. While such support is appreciated, it contributes not much in raising Taiwan's international standing.

But the challenge is that Taiwan, as a self-ruled democracy or as an independent sovereign country as claimed by Chen and his pro-independence DPP, cannot effectively assert its political legitimacy without a significant number of foreign nations recognizing it. The current number of more than 24 allies is considered by many to be the minimum number that Taiwan must try all means to maintain after Chad's switching of recognition.

To the chairman of the main opposition KMT, Ma Ying-jeou, however, it is not so hard to find a solution to Taiwan's problem of promoting and sustaining diplomatic recognition. He suggested that Taipei should bring up the issue with Beijing and find a mutually acceptable solution. This way, he said, can avoid the current "cut-throat" competition between the two sides.

Beijing certainly would welcome such a proposal. But as a government which always claims Taiwan as part of its territory, it would be willing to make only conditional concessions. That is, Taiwan can only have non-political relations with other countries, like in the case of its U.S. relations. And Taiwan can only join world bodies that don't require statehood for membership.

Yet Ma's alternative won't have a chance unless he wins the presidency in the 2008 election. Until then, Taiwan under the rule of Chen and the DPP must continue to fight a difficult battle with the mainland government for diplomatic recognition.

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