TAIPEI - China is expected to use its economic strength to counter any U.S. actions aimed at helping Chinese political rival Taiwan regain a world diplomatic foothold after losing much of it under pressure from Beijing.
The Beijing government, which sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of Chinese territory rather than as a country entitled to foreign diplomacy, could handily increase development aid to lock in relations with third countries that the United States punishes for breaking ties with Taipei, experts say.
China is pushing those countries to switch sides so it can squelch Taiwan’s international profile, officials in Taipei say.
The U.S. Department of State said Friday it had called back envoys to three Latin American countries that have cut ties with Taiwan since 2017 in favor of China. Last week, four senators proposed a bill authorizing a downgrade in U.S. relations with countries that switch. China will offset any such measures, experts say.
“If anything economic, it would be easily offset or compensated for by the Chinese, and I think the Chinese will make sure that these countries will be compensated for their punishment,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
“If it appears that the U.S. punishes these countries and China does nothing, then no other countries in the future would have the same level of incentive to sever their diplomatic ties with Taiwan,” she said.
Pushback in Washington
Five countries have switched sides from Taiwan to China since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taipei in 2016. China resents Tsai for snubbing its dialogue precondition that both sides belong to one country. The two sides have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, but China insists that they eventually unify.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s government has already taken steps to improve relations with Taiwan amid a widening U.S. trade dispute with China.
Envoys to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama were called back to “discuss ways in which the United States can support strong, independent, democratic institutions and economies throughout Central America and the Caribbean,” the State Department website said Friday.
Separately, four U.S. senators introduced on September 3 the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act to strengthen Taiwan's standing in the world. The act authorizes the State Department to downgrade U.S. relations with third countries that switch from Taiwan to China, meaning possible suspension of aid such as military financing.
Trump could use the bill as a “card” against China, said Gratiana Jung, senior political researcher, Yuanta-Polaris Research Institute think tank, Taipei.
“In the final analysis, it’s something the administrative units need to decide whether to carry out,” Jung said. “(Those units) might consider the president’s ideas and we don’t know what Trump will do.”
China will watch, then act
China is expected to say little but offer money as needed to convince Taiwan’s remaining 17 allies – compared to more than 170 that recognize China – of its position that a shift in allegiance is worth the wrath of Washington.
“I think Beijing behind the scene would continue and probably even strengthen the economic lures and diplomatic interactions with those countries that still recognize Taiwan despite what Washington is now saying,” said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. “That’s the most likely course Beijing will take.”
Countermeasures from Beijing to incentivize breaks with Taipei would depend on U.S. influence in the third country being targeted, said Huang Kwei-bo, international affairs college vice dean at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
American influence in Latin America goes back decades, including development aid and military support. Most of Taiwan's allies are poor nations that look to it, and sometimes later to China, for economic aid.
China already offers development aid in much of the world. It has the second largest economy after the United States, and the Communist government can allocate money quickly, if needed. Its 65-nation Belt-and-Road infrastructure building campaign will cost about $1 trillion, to name the best known example.
Since the African nation of Sao Tome and Principe left Taiwan for China in 2016, Beijing has pledged $146 million for the modernization of its international airport and construction of a deep-sea container port to facilitate Chinese trade in Africa. Last week, China pledged $60 billion in financial support to Africa and promised to forgive some African governments' interest-free loans that are due this year.
“If the law passes (the U.S. Congress), I think there’s a possibility that mainland China would steal away another ally to express that your American effort is basically useless,” Huang said. “It’s hard to say whether this law’s passage would stoke Beijing to act faster in taking away yet another friend of Taiwan.”