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September 27, 2017

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With 21 allies left, foreign aid must be reevaluated

Politicians, pundits and experts weighed in Wednesday when Sao Tome and Principe became the latest of the Republic of China's diplomatic allies lost to Beijing's efforts to isolate Taipei on the international stage.

After eight years of a so-called diplomatic truce between both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing appears to have had enough and wants to show its displeasure like an irritated child. President Tsai Ing-wen's refusal to accept to the "1992 Consensus," the prospects of a Donald Trump presidency altering the dynamics of its cherished "One China" principle and of course the phone call that put Taiwan prominently on the world's radar have been cited as reasons.

But truth be told, the loss of one fickle (former) friend means little to Taiwan. The obsession with recognition epitomizes our government's inability to move away from antiquated conceptions of sovereignty. Battling Beijing in a zero-sum game for allies is not only unproductive and ineffective at promoting a positive image of Taiwan, it diverts valuable resources to a cause that is not bounded on principle but instead one tarnished by a lack of transparency and accountability. The government should not only reevaluate the effectiveness of foreign aid, but should also reconsider recognition-based diplomatic activities that yield little for Taiwan, and even less for ordinary people in recipient countries.

This latest episode should be a wake-up call for our diplomatic establishment. Our foreign policy has thus far been one headlong rush into diverting cherished tax dollars to prop up mostly dubious regimes, simply because they voice support for Taiwan internationally. As Tsai's call to Trump and the price tag involved to facilitate that action aptly demonstrate, there are a variety of means to put Taiwan on the map —- some of them more sustainable and advisable than others. It reminds us that Taiwanese soft power can transcend checkbook diplomacy should our leaders exercise a degree of self-dignity inherent in the hearts and minds of its citizens, and indeed within all of humanity itself.

The "classic" conception of sovereignty became customary when empires gave way to nation states in Europe in the 19th century. Sovereignty in this context was defined by a clear demarcation of a country's territory, an ability to regulate cross-border activity, an independent foreign policy and — crucially — recognition by one's peers.

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