President Tsai Ing-wen's 'checkbook diplomacy' a waste of money: The China Post Columnist

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen leaves a luncheon in Burlingame, California on Jan 14, 2017.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen leaves a luncheon in Burlingame, California on Jan 14, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

Joe hung

TAIPEI (THE CHINA POST/ANN) - One well-known political quip in the United States is: When facing a domestic trouble, the president goes abroad. President Richard M. Nixon did so quite often, but finally he had to resign in the face of almost certain impeachment and removal from office because of Watergate.

President Tsai Ing-wen has also gone abroad twice since she was sworn on May 20 2016. She first visited Panama and Paraguay from June 24 to July 2 last year. Her second nine-day trip ended yesterday (Jan 15).

President Tsai has faced constant domestic trouble since her inauguration. Tsai's problems at home were not that serious when she decided to make her state visits to Panama and Paraguay, two of Taiwan's 22 remaining diplomatic allies, last year.

The goal of latest tour, at a time when she was deeper in trouble, was to consolidate diplomatic relations with another four allies - Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Speaking at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport before departing for Honduras on Jan 7, Tsai reaffirmed her administration's untiring efforts to improve Taiwan's foreign relations based on her "steadfast diplomacy," unlike the "checkbook diplomacy" previous Kuomintang (KMT) governments had practiced.

Her aim is only to create mutually beneficial relations with Taiwan's diplomatic allies. One more important purpose of her whirlwind visits she left unsaid was to meet, if possible, US President-elect Donald Trump and talk with him during her stopover in Houston on her way to Tegucigalpa. She wished she could, because they talked on the phone on Dec 3.

"Checkbook diplomacy" is used to describe a foreign policy which openly uses economic aid and investment between countries to curry diplomatic favour. It characterises the competition between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China in Taiwan to gain "recognition" from other countries or retain diplomatic relations with them. President Lee Teng-hui's KMT administration went for it and his successor Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party followed suit. It was KMT President Ma Ying-jeou who declared a "diplomatic truce" between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to end the competition with Beijing's tacit consent.

Tsai's state visits to Honduras and Nicaragua were successful. She met and talked with President Juan Orland Hernandes in Tagucigalpa and attended the inauguration of President Jose Daniel Ortega in Managua, where he introduced her as president of the Republic of Taiwan (Republica de Taiwan) in his inaugural speech. Both countries reaffirmed their diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

So was her trip to El Salvador where President Sanchez Caren reiterated Salvadoran support for the Republic of China just one day before she started to return to Taipei via San Francisco, California. During Tsai's stay in Guatemala City, however, she assured President Jimmy Morales of Taiwan's assistance in the fourth stage of Guatemala's CA-9 highway expansion project. She resumed the checkbook diplomacy.

Construction began on the CA-9 highway in 2008. Taiwan financed the construction of "Ruta al Atlantico," a cross-country highway from its Pacific to Atlantic coasts via Guatemala City. Taipei has to pay altogether more than US$100 million (S$143 million). Taiwan, now in a severe financial stringency, cannot afford to buy its friendship with Guatemala, of course.

The Central American visits came only less than a fortnight after Sao Tome and Principe cut off diplomatic ties with Taiwan because of Taipei's refusal to meet its demand for financial aid. Sao Tome resumed diplomatic relations with China a week later. The incident forced Tsai to continue financing the CA-9 highway expansion.

Despite the success in keeping the four diplomatic allies in Central America, Tsai's second diplomatic sally, like her first one, is a wasteful and distressed failure. It simply is a waste of money. Yes, all four countries promised to remain loyal. But they can and will, if Beijing offers them a better deal, switch recognition from Taipei, before you can say Jack Robinson. It is distressful, because Tsai has only made China angrier. As a result, Beijing will continue to further squeeze Taiwan's lebensraum internationally.

Nigeria was the first domino to fall. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met and talked with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, and Nigeria cut official ties with Taiwan on last Thursday, ordering Taipei's trade commission move to Lagos from the Nigerian capital and pledging never to recognise the Republic of China. Swaziland may soon follow.

Tsai failed to talk face to face with a mercurial Trump, who had a telephone talk with her to exchange belated congratulations for their respective elections. This friendly attitude from Trump may change after his inauguration. It is possible he may forsake Taiwan as a partner as a means of containing China together with Japan, if and when it serves American interests.

In a nutshell, Tsai's state visits to Central America are a love's labour's lost.