The Ma-Xi Meeting and the Future of Taiwan’s Relations with its Pacific Allies

Given the high likelihood of continuity in the Taiwan Strait after the 2016 elections, there is no reason for Taipei’s six allies in the Pacific to shift recognition
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Mcfaddean Aoraunisaka
By

The Nov. 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in Singapore was a highly symbolic and historic event in cross-strait relations. China and cross-strait experts, political pundits and commentators all threw in their opinions regarding the significance of the event, its domestic implications for the two sides and its regional and international implications. However, missing from the analysis was commentary on the impact, if any, that the meeting could have on the rivalry between China and Taiwan concerning allies in the Pacific Islands, in particular Taiwan’s six allies the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Palau.

Regardless of how the island nations and their policy analysts interpret this event and intentions to map their future relations with Taiwan and China, it would be reasonable for the six Pacific Islands nations to retain their official ties with Taiwan. It is at such junctures that Taiwan will need its friends by its side.

Background

It is a known fact that until 2008 the competition between Taipei and Beijing for allies in the Pacific was fierce and, to the extent that they fueled instability in the domestic politics of the island nations, farce. The struggle was fierce in the sense that the diplomatic rivalry that ensured permeated both sides, which resorted to “checkbook diplomacy” that did little good for the island nations. And it was farce in the sense that it led the small island states into confusion and unwise diplomatic decisions resulting in some flip-flopping between Taiwan and China. The rivalry was subdued when President Ma assumed office in 2008 and build closer ties with Beijing; one of the results was the compromise, or “diplomatic truce,” reached between Beijing and Taipei whereby they would respect each other’s allies in the region. The relative calm and stability that ensued led to Tuvalu and Kiribati opening embassies in Taipei in 2013.

Taiwan’s Pacific allies

As mentioned earlier, Taiwan’s six Pacific island allies should stick with Taiwan — in fact, they should strengthen and deepened their ties with Taipei. They can benefit a lot from the relationship in terms of trade and investment, foreign assistance by Taipei, scholarships, training, workshops and partnership towards meeting their Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Also, as Taipei is slowly ascending into the international scene — for example its acceptance into the World Health Assemble (WHA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — it is also actively fulfilling its international obligations on climate change, which happens to be the priority security and livelihood concern for those six allies. These allies can greatly benefit from Taiwan’s input on the subject and must support Taipei in its bid to join bodies such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other multilateral organizations. After all, Taiwan needs international friends, and no man (or nation) is an island.

Hence the 2008 compromise reached between Taipei and Beijing must be upheld and respected by Taiwan’s six diplomatic friends. Lessons must be drawn from the Gambia’s arguably irrational decision to sever ties with Taipei in 2013, only to be snubbed by Beijing. This shows the level of respect the two sides have reached with regards to normalized relations. The Ma-Xi handshake in Singapore highlighted efforts by the leaders over the years to improve their relationship, and as such Taiwan’s allies should recognize this effort by staying true to Taiwan — there still is room for morality in international relations.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s fledgling democracy is about to go through yet another milestone in the coming presidential election in January 2016. The election result will have huge implications for cross-strait relations, and presumably for China and Taiwan’s relations with Pacific nations.

After 2016

Analysts with an optimistic view of the current state of cross-strait relations are hoping that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will retain the presidential seat as this would mean that the normalized situation between Taipei and Beijing would continue. On the other hand, the pessimists fear how China would react to a victory by the “pro independence” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). With various polls suggesting a likely victory by the DPP in 2016, we must ask whether such a turn of events would chill relations between Beijing and Taipei and reignite the diplomatic tug of war between the two sides.

The answer to that question remains to be seen. Nonetheless, DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文) clearly stated her China policy intentions in her speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in June. In that speech, Tsai stated her commitment to maintaining a peaceful and stable relationship with China that is consistent, predictable, and sustainable through constructive exchanges and dialogues. Such a policy should encourage the pessimists to take their finger off the alarm button.

Furthermore, this same line of thinking should be upheld by Taiwan’s six allies in the Pacific. It is in times like these — during elections and the uncertainty that will follow — that Taiwan will need its true friends. Yes, the future is unknown, but we can nevertheless make an educated guess based on what we know so far. And that means a high likelihood that the status quo will prevail.

For the Solomon Islands in particular, Taipei can rest assured of its support. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has himself reaffirmed his government’s continued commitment to bilateral and international support for the people and government of Taiwan. Examples of such support occurred on numerous occasions. The most important of all was his speech at the 70th United Nations General Assemble debate in October, during which he called on the international community to allow Taiwan’s “meaningful participation in UN specialized bodies” and to “welcome Taiwan’s interest to participate as an equal.” Days later at the Double Ten (Oct. 10) celebrations in Honiara, he again expressed his support for Taiwan. The Solomon Islands are therefore set to remain with Taiwan for the foreseeable future.

The Ma-Xi meeting should not be used as a basis for Taiwan’s Pacific allies to make irrational policy choices learning toward China and abandoning Taipei, especially not when the policy intentions of the DPP presidential candidate point to likely continuity in the status quo. Given the complex nature of cross-strait relations, the foreign policies of Taiwan’s allies should therefore be consistent with Taipei and avoid rushed and unreasonable decisions such as the Gambia’s a few years ago.

 

Mcfaddean Aoraunisaka is a master degree candidate at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies. He is a native of the Solomon Islands, one of Taipei’s six diplomatic allies in the Pacific.

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