Taipei was damp and cold last week. It still is this week, when thousands of Filipinos will visit, the Holy Week respite being quite long and hot.
Taiwan is very much in the news these days, as the tension between the mainland and the island to its east rises with the former raising the decibels of protest against what it perceives to be the aggressive “deterrence” of the latter’s go-to protector, the US of A.
When I left Taipei, President Tsai Ing-wen embarked on a trip to Guatemala and Belize, two Central American states still with full diplomatic ties to it, after Honduras junked Taiwan for the PRC the week before.
Only 13 sovereign states recognize Taiwan as of this writing: the Holy See in Europe; Paraguay in South America; Haiti, Guatemala and Belize in Central America; the Carribean’s tiny touristic islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Sta. Lucia; the South Pacific island states of Tuvalu, Palau, Nauru, Marshall Islands; and the lone African state of E’Swatini, formerly named Swaziland.
When I took over as Philippine resident representative in Taipei in 2016, there were yet 22 states recognizing Taiwan as an independent state instead of the PRC.
In less than seven years, nine flags were taken down from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ketagalan Boulevard in central Taipei.
The cost of “dollar diplomacy” has become too high for Taiwan, while the mainland has kept raising the ante in its bid to isolate the island it considers its “renegade” province from the rest of the world.
Note that most of the remaining diplomatic allies are sparsely-populated countries whose ways and means are adequate enough and could suffice with less financial and technical assistance from Taiwan.
Others could sooner or later be enticed to disengage and fall into the waiting arms of Beijing.
In the forthcoming elections in Paraguay, the issue of whether to shift alliance to Beijing over Taipei is a central issue.
Haiti and Guatemala are always in need of foreign assistance and could fall prey to the enticements of Beijing.
Will the Pacific islands of Tuvalu, Nauru and the Marshall Islands fall into the web of the PRC, just like Kiribati and the Solomon’s have?
If Beijing softens on its demand to have veto power over the naming of Roman Catholic bishops in the PRC, will the Vatican likewise switch, considering that even if it is able to convert just one percent of China’s population into its fold, that would be several multiples of the number of Catholics in Taiwan?
After Honduras last week ditched Taipei for Beijing, the DPP announced an end to “dollar diplomacy,” describing the practice as a “meaningless contest,”
Instead, Tsai flew to Guatemala and Belize, passing by New York on her seventh trip to the US in seven years as president, and on the way back, she plans to meet with Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles.
If this tete-a-tete materializes, Beijing is likely to go into yet another round of tantrums in the Taiwan Strait, as it did when former Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei last year.
Meanwhile, former president Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang upped the “One China-Two Systems” card as he visited China.
In a trip to Nanjing last week, he chokingly described the infamous “Rape of Nanjing” by Japanese invaders more than a century ago as “animalistic brutality rarely seen in human history.”
That event always rekindles resentment by the Chinese race against Japan.
Today, Japan has formed alliances with those countries which confront the PRC claiming “deterrence,” among them the US, UK and Australia (AUKUS), or the QUAD among the US, Japan, India and Australia.
The “defense” of Taiwan against a military invasion by the People’s Liberation Army ostensibly binds these nations, to “preserve the peace” in the region and to ensure “freedom of navigation” in the South and East China seas.
And in New York, Pres. Tsai declared that the US and Taiwan are now “closer than ever.”
Meanwhile, our president has pushed the envelope of EDCA, granting four more strategic locations for visiting American forces.
Albeit clad in “non-permanent” status, the US can now pre-position arms and munitions in all nine sites, the most strategic of which are in Palawan, Zambales, Isabela and Cagayan facing the West Philippine Sea or the Bashi Channel that separates Batanes from Taiwan.
In no uncertain terms, Beijing has warned the Philippines about involving itself in the conflict over Taiwan, which it vows to reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary.
Observers here and abroad see the expansion of EDCA as announced by our president as “magnets for attack” in case the US, as it has expressed, gets into a war with China over Taiwan.
Former President Rodrigo Duterte himself unequivocally stated that we have no quarrel with China or the US, nor even Taiwan.
Thus, he said, those EDCA sites serve no purpose for us; they only serve the interest of the US in its desire to prevent China’s swift ascent as a world power.
Even Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong has stated the West must come to terms with China’s increasing economic and military power, and that it is best for both sides to work together in harmony, rather than to be in conflict.
For now, we can only witness tensions escalating, with the hope these do not graduate into the realm of military conflict. .
If the DPP wins in 2024 and hardens its pro-independence stand, expect China to harden its position as well. It will impose economic sanctions on the island, tightening the screws on an economy interdependent to a large extent on the mainland.
It can increase its cyber-attacks; it could ban more and more exports, hoping to cripple the Taiwanese economy. Will the West absorb the losses?
Further, the mainland could go to the extreme of imposing a blockade in the Taiwan Strait, which is just 100 miles – 160 kilometers, or the distance between Manila and San Manuel, Tarlac – at the narrowest point from Fujian, and which China claims to be part of its territorial waters.
That would be the fuse to ignite a war.
And if the US attacks Chinese PLA vessels or even its militia to force through the blockade, China could very well attack Cagayan and Isabela, Subic and Palawan where the US, through EDCA, is pre-positioning armaments of “deterrence” for use “in case” hostilities erupt.
Later this year, some 16,400 US, Philippine, Australian and Japanese troops will undertake the largest “balikatan” exercises in the Ilocos region, the president’s home turf.
That will be a clear sign to China that we have taken the side of the US and its other allies, even as countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have staunchly maintained that they will never allow foreign powers to use their territory as staging ground for hostilities.
Meanwhile, coinciding with Tsai’s sojourn to the West, her predecessor, KMT’s Ma, in what detractors from even his own party describe as a private trip borne out of vainglory, met with Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office Director Song Tao in Wuhan, where he reaffirmed the importance of the “1992 Consensus,” where both sides of the Taiwan Strait recognize there is only “One China” with each having its own interpretation of what China means.
The DPP has resolutely refused to accept the 1992 Consensus, and while it has not declared independence that would provoke war, it maintains that Taiwan, which it officially calls the Republic of China, is a self-governed state with a democratic system.
It remains to be seen how these moves by the DPP and KMT, the latter maintaining an ambiguity due to the current unpopularity of being perceived as pro-assimilation, will impact on the January 2024 presidential election in Taiwan.
It is not easy to read the shifting mind of the Taiwanese electorate.
In the recent mid-terms, the KMT swept most of the local posts.
Including the all-important Taipei City mayoralty, where it fielded Chiang Wan-an, a great grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, who won over Tsai’s popular former health minister and a third candidate endorsed by two-term Mayor Kho Wen-je, himself touted as a future candidate for president.
A KMT president would likely stay the hand of Xi, who is anxious to make good before the Politburo and the PLA on his promise of the “great rejuvenation” and re-unification” before his third term ends in 2027.
Conversely, a DPP victory could hasten the Xi itch to recover Taiwan.
Those elections are a scant nine months away, and, meanwhile, the suspense and the tensions escalate.
Factor in the US elections later in 2024, with China and the Taiwan issue becoming a major foreign policy issue, along with the continuing war in the Ukraine.
The geo-political brew is not only heady; it can be explosive.
But our country, instead of being a negotiator with both sides for peace, has, with the EDCA expansion, joined the fray and chosen sides.
Sure we have many issues with China over the rocks and islets in the West Philippine Sea and the frequent incursions into our fishing areas, but these are issues that could be resolved with firm diplomacy wisely negotiated.
In 1941, we were an American colony, with scores of military bases utilized by the Americans all over the country. The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, the enemy was in our door.
We are now an independent sovereign state but a magnet, even a target, for attack by the PLA should hostilities erupt after 2024 and likely before 2027.
We live in dangerous times.