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Tough Choices for the Tsai Ing-Wen Administration

Apr 12, 2023

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) is on a 10-day diplomatic trip to the Western hemisphere. Tsai first stopped in New York City before she headed to Guatemala to talk with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Taiwanese expatriates. She then traveled to Belize, met with Prime Minister Johnny Briceño, gave a speech to the Belizean Parliament, attended a state banquet hosted by Belizean Governor-General Froyla Tzalam, and toured an exhibition on women’s empowerment. Tsai will finish her diplomatic trip in Los Angeles and is expected to meet with U.S. House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy before returning to Taiwan.

The trip was supposed to be a significant expedition to reinforce relations. However, recent events have ensured this trip will yield limited successful results, contrary to  what Tsai Ing-Wen’s administration anticipated and hoped.

The first significant blow to the potential success of Tsai’s trip was Honduras’ recent decision to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. On March 24, the foreign ministers of Honduras and China signed a joint communiquein Beijing, solidifying the switch. The Honduran foreign minister also stated on Twitter that the Honduran government only recognizes China and that the Beijing government is the only legitimate representative of China. 

In response, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that Taiwan has officially terminated diplomatic relations with Honduras and ended all cooperative projects. The statement goes on to say that Honduran President Iris Xiomara Castro Sarmiento harbored illusions of the benefits a partnership with China would yield and that “China frequently makes ostentatious commitments… However, once China achieves its diplomatic objectives, it often fails to uphold its pledges, leaving some beneficiary countries mired in debt.” President Tsai also reiterated that Taiwan would not engage in dollar diplomacy.

The issue with this statement, though, is that Taiwan does not possess the capabilities to compete with Beijing in dollar diplomacy. Mitch Hayes, founder of The China Signal publication and a director at Veracity Worldwide, wrote in Latin America Advisor that “President Xiomara Castro’s decision is pragmatic, driven by internal pressure to improve the Honduran economy and a longer-term geopolitical hedge as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies.” Beijing’s capability to offer development is more extensive compared to that of Taiwan. Furthermore, Honduras marks the ninth diplomatic ally Tsai’s administration has lost since 2016. Even though Tsai and the Taiwanese government have rhetorically emphasized Beijing’s lack of follow-through on financial assistance and investment, it has not worked to stem the flood of diplomatic losses. 

The lack of success in preventing more countries from switching diplomatically to Beijing has emboldened the DPP’s political rivals—the Kuomintang (KMT). As then-president of Taiwan (2008-2016) and former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) foundation recently stated, the blame for the loss of Taiwan’s diplomatic ties with Honduras lies with Taiwan’s “wrong” policies, that have been implemented by the Tsai administration. Ma’s foundation and a tweet by the KMT both emphasize that the continued diplomatic losses enforce the perspective that better relations with Beijing are to the benefit of Taiwan. 

Ma Ying-jeou seeks to further legitimize the feasibility of this idea by visiting Beijing and meeting with Xi Jinping. Ma’s historic visit marks the first time that a sitting or former Taiwanese leader has visited China since the Nationalist government retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949. Ma has already embarked on his 12-day trip to the mainland accompanied by a delegation of Taiwanese students to promote cross-strait educational exchanges. He will also visit the graves of his ancestors in Hunan province. As Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, highlights, “Ma underlining his familial roots in China at the precise moment when Tsai is highlighting U.S.-Taiwan ties will provide very contrasting visuals, and influence Taiwanese voters’ perception of where Taiwan’s two main political parties stand on U.S.-China relations.” The KMT is taking this opportunity to provide proof of its ability to foster closer relations with China while dismaying Tsai and the DPP’s inability to maintain relations with its diplomatic allies. Although Ma’s trip to China was historically significant, it is just one of the many high-level KMT official visits over the past few years.

To the further detriment of the Tsai administration, Paraguay has also threatened to switch its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Recently, in an interview with Financial Times, Paraguay President Mario Abdo Benítez called on Taiwan to invest $1 billion in Paraguay, stating it would assist in making the argument about Taiwan’s strategic importance. However, due to Tsai’s persistence in not engaging in dollar diplomacy, this seems unlikely to occur and raises the possibility of Asunción switching its diplomatic allegiance to China. 

All this comes as Taiwan is preparing for its upcoming elections in 2024. Beijing has taken explicit action that undermines the DPP and highlights its failures on the international stage. At the same time, China has shown a willingness to work with the KMT. Additionally, as the Jamestown Foundation recently stated in a publication, “Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential election is wide open.” The DPP’s inability to retain international allies, the parties stumbling in the latter stages of the pandemic, and the KMT’s ability and willingness to cooperate with China helps to undermine the DPP heading into the presidential election.

Painting the DPP in a negative and ineffectual light is to the benefit of China, and Taiwan having a KMT leader who seeks more amicable relations with the mainland would be favorable to the CCP and could potentially change the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region. Ultimately, Beijing’s impact on Taiwan’s presidential election already looms large, and the aftermath will cast even more drama into the cross-strait relationship. 

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