The ‘Guyana incident’ and lessons for Taiwan’s international space

Asia Uncategorized World

Author: Zhiqun Zhu, Bucknell University

On 4 February 2021, the Taiwanese government announced the establishment of a ‘Taiwan Office’ in Guyana. Within 24 hours, Guyana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared its continued adherence to the ‘one China’ policy and terminated the agreement with Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration in Taipei reacted angrily, accusing Beijing of bullying and suppressing Taiwan’s international space.

Tri-Service Honour (Honor) Guards raise Taiwan?s national flag in the morning, amidst the spread of the global pandemic disease covid-19, at Liberty Square, in Taipei, Taiwan, on November 15, 2020. With escalated tensions with China and successful containment of the coronavirus, Taiwan?s flag raising ceremony remains unchanged and daily life amongst the general public remains normal (Photo: Reuters/Ceng Shou Yi).

Tri-Service Honour (Honor) Guards raise Taiwan?s national flag in the morning, amidst the spread of the global pandemic disease covid-19, at Liberty Square, in Taipei, Taiwan, on November 15, 2020. With escalated tensions with China and successful containment of the coronavirus, Taiwan?s flag raising ceremony remains unchanged and daily life amongst the general public remains normal (Photo: Reuters/Ceng Shou Yi).

The ‘Guyana incident’ offers some important lessons.

First, it was the DPP government that botched the deal with Guyana. Officials in Guyana thought the Office would be an unofficial institution to promote trade and economic exchange — Guyana’s Foreign Minister Hugh Todd said in an interview that the ‘economic, trade and investment office’ was set up to create space for cooperation between private organisations. He emphasised that Guyana would maintain diplomatic relations with China and not recognise Taiwan as an independent country. Guyana’s Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo stated that the Taiwan Office was never approved by the Cabinet.

Interestingly, Elizabeth Harper, Permanent Secretary of Guyana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview that China actually ‘knew’ about Taiwan’s decision to establish an unofficial trade office in Guyana, but did not mention whether China tried to block it.

Taiwan might have been testing the waters in Guyana to see how far it could go before China reacted. If Taipei were a little more low-key, Beijing might not have intervened. After all, China has not opposed Taiwan’s development of economic, trade and cultural relations with other countries, such as the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s signing of a Taiwan–New Zealand free trade agreement in 2013.

But this time Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly announced that Guyana’s ‘Taiwan Office’ had official functions and was equivalent to a ‘representative office’. Pro-independence media called this a ‘diplomatic breakthrough’. Taiwan’s high-profile self-promotion provoked China and embarrassed Guyana.

Second, this incident reflects the expanding China–US rivalry. The US Department of State and the American Institute in Taiwan immediately issued press releases applauding the establishment of the ‘Taiwan Office’ in Guyana after its announcement and encouraging other countries to develop relations with Taiwan. Regardless of whether the United States played a role in establishing the Office, Beijing was obviously alarmed and felt compelled to fight back.

Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai noted that the Three Joint Communiqués form the cornerstone of China–US relations. But in recent years, the US Congress has passed legislation in support of Taiwan, including the 2019 TAIPEI Act that assists Taiwan in maintaining and expanding its international presence. As China–US tensions intensified, cross-Strait relations plummeted, and the DPP government became a voluntary pawn in the Trump administration’s confrontation with China.

With the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese trade and investment in Latin America and the Caribbean has grown rapidly. The United States, which views the region as its backyard, is becoming worried about China’s increasing influence. In September 2020, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first high-ranking US official to visit Guyana.

There is no doubt that China–US competition in Latin America will continue. This is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan also wishes to consolidate and expand its presence in the region — of the 15 countries that have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, nine are in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Third, cross-Strait relations continue to be stuck in a vicious circle, with no end in sight. When the Kuomintang was in power, Beijing had little issue with Taiwan’s international activities because it had a tacit understanding and mutual trust with Taipei. Now the DPP administration is challenging the ‘one China’ consensus. In Beijing’s view, it must exert pressure on Taipei to maintain the status quo. But the greater the pressure from Beijing, the less willing the DPP is to hold dialogue and compromise. Instead, it is determined to highlight Taiwan’s de facto independence through diplomatic breakthroughs.

Jie Wen-Chieh, former representative of the Republic of China (ROC) in New Zealand, stated that the DPP deliberately created diplomatic setbacks to fan anti-China propaganda in Taiwan. It is unfortunate for Taiwan that diplomacy has become a tool of domestic politics; it is a tragedy for both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The reality is that Taiwan’s foreign relations cannot be decoupled from cross-Strait relations. The expansion of Taiwan’s international space is possible with cross-Strait agreement and understanding, as the Ma administration demonstrated. Therefore, improving cross-Strait relations, which requires effort from both sides, is the key to ending the vicious circle.

Fredrick Chien, former ROC Foreign Minister, stated long ago that for Taiwan cross-Strait relations are more important than foreign relations. But now the ruling party and public opinion in Taiwan have changed, and hostility across the Strait has grown. Unless either Taipei or Beijing changes its mind, the cross-Strait stalemate will not be broken any time soon.

Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University.