Will the Diplomatic Truce Endure Beyond 2016?

Threatening to end the diplomatic truce is one of many options in Beijing’s toolbox. Taiwanese leaders should develop a contingency plan on how to respond
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Timothy Rich

Since 2008, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have maintained a diplomatic truce, ending a decades-long competition over formal diplomatic recognition. For much of the Cold War, both sides competed for recognition largely from newly independent countries as a means of bolstering their claims regarding who was the legitimate government of all of China. With democratization, Taiwan (the Republic of China, ROC) attempted to expand formal recognition, flirting with the possibility that a country could recognize both the ROC and PRC (dual recognition), a policy quickly dismissed by the PRC. Throughout both periods, critics frequently charged the ROC with “checkbook diplomacy,” enticing poor countries with aid packages in exchange for formal diplomatic relations. However, the PRC’s growing economic clout by the late 1990s allowed for similar aid-for-recognition exchanges.

The diplomatic truce attempted to end a frequently overlooked factor in cross-strait relations: that poor countries could exacerbate cross-strait tensions by threatening to switch recognition if greater assistance was not provided. Whereas the revocation of diplomatic recognition elsewhere remains rare, cross-strait competition created numerous cases of countries switching between both sides. For example, since 1962, the Central African Republic and Senegal have switched five times each. Each diplomatic ally lost by one side simply encouraged the losing side to seek to lure another. Furthermore, despite claims to the contrary, many of these countries had little incentive to develop deeper substantive relations with either side, as that would potentially undermine their aid extraction abilities. My research shows that as exports as a percentage of GDP increased, a country was more likely to recognize the PRC over the ROC.

The 2008 truce benefits the PRC and ROC both in terms of reducing aid requests but also in terms of maintaining the diplomatic status quo. The ROC maintains its few formal relations while the PRC does not have to maintain the fiction that losing recognition from a microstate threatens its claims of sovereignty nor does it risk further isolating Taiwan to the point where leaders may consider more controversial means to assert their claims as a sovereign state. However, the truce relies heavily on the actions of third parties. For example, although the PRC and ROC may no longer expend time and resources trying to sway countries to their side, other countries could unilaterally drop recognition. In 2013, the Gambia did just that: breaking relations with the ROC with the expectation that the PRC would respond. Surprisingly the PRC did not offer recognition, leaving the Gambia one of only a few countries recognizing neither the PRC nor the ROC (e.g. Bhutan, Kosovo).

The diplomatic truce remains in the interests of both sides, but its maintenance may be more difficult under a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration. Evidence from Wikileaks shows Taipei’s awareness of the fragility of many of their diplomatic relations, relations that could be undermined if the PRC chose to end the truce. Although DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has stated her commitment to the “status quo” regarding cross-strait relations, the PRC remains suspicious that her presidency will mirror that of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Under the Chen presidency, the ROC used diplomatic allies to promote Taiwan’s efforts, albeit unsuccessfully, to re-enter the United Nations. Meanwhile, in part due to increased incentives from the PRC, the ROC lost six diplomatic allies during Chen’s time in office.

If the PRC feels that Taiwan is not moving toward unification, threatening to end the diplomatic truce is one of many options in Beijing’s toolbox. The new administration in Taipei could not simply ignore any reduction in the ROC’s formal diplomatic relations, even if informal relations with major powers remain far more important to Taiwan’s political and economic interests. Furthermore, during the diplomatic truce, the PRC’s informal relations with the ROC’s diplomatic partners have grown while the ROC has largely failed to do the same. If the DPP fails to win a majority in the legislature, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and its allies could both emphasize a perceived shrinking diplomatic space for their own political gain and limit the resources necessary to maintain or expand diplomatic relations.

Although cooler heads may prevail, Taiwanese leaders should develop a contingency plan on how to respond in the case that the diplomatic truce ends, learning from the pitfalls of “checkbook diplomacy” without handing over diplomatic allies to Beijing.


Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems (e.g. Germany, New Zealand). His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.

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