Nicaragua severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan on Dec. 10 last year. It was the eighth country lost to China under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the second time Nicaragua had let go of Taiwan under a Daniel Ortega presidency.
Being financially outmuscled by the economic allure of the world’s second-largest economy has whittled Taipei’s list of diplomatic allies down to 14.
This raises the question: Does Taiwan even need diplomatic allies? Public opinion appears to be shifting to “no.”
“I don’t even know where Nicaragua is,” said Cheng Hui-ying, an elementary-school teacher in Taipei.
As many as 60 percent of those polled by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation two months ago said they are not bothered by the country’s dwindling number of allies.
Only 32 percent said they were concerned about the issue.
That compares with 40 percent in 2019.
Liao Yu-hung, a Taoyuan bank employee in his 40s, said he does not have an opinion about cutting ties with allies, as it does not affect Taiwan’s economy.
International law specialist and Taiwanese independence advocate Raymond Sung (宋承恩) said that rising apathy toward lost diplomatic allies can be attributed to overall indifference toward global affairs among Taiwanese.
This sentiment is also present in political circles.
Legislative Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) said in 2016, in response to Taipei losing Sao Tome and Principe to Beijing, that “even if Taiwan ended up with no diplomatic allies in its present form as the Republic of China, it could gain allies as an independent Taiwan.”
However, former minister of foreign affairs Chen Chien-jen (程建人), for one, said that a sovereign nation needs official recognition by other countries to maintain its statehood.
“If no other countries officially recognize Taiwan, we will become further isolated in the international arena, and the legitimacy and the very existence of the country will become questionable,” he said.
One diplomatic source said that if Taiwan lost all of its allies, the lack of any recognition of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan, would make it easy for China to pressure other countries into recognizing Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China.
Sung disagrees, saying that statehood does not require diplomatic recognition from other countries.
He also said that although diplomatic allies can make proposals for Taiwan’s participation in the UN, the results over the past decades have been far from successful.
Losing allies is becoming less devastating than it once was, particularly as major powers such as the EU, the US, Japan and others have voiced support for the country and deepened unofficial cooperation, Sung said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) said that the loss of Nicaragua was less about the deterioration of a bilateral relationship and driven more by a wider ideological battle between the US and China.
As Ortega’s administration faces sanctions from the US and other Western democracies, he decided to ally himself with the authoritarian camps of China and Russia to distance Nicaragua from Washington, Wu said.
Another reason Taiwan is making fewer efforts to maintain ties with diplomatic allies is the cost to the taxpayer, Sung said, adding that Wu has said it is not his ministry’s priority to forge official relations with more countries.
Such reasoning is driven by Taiwan gaining ground in its unofficial relations with world powers.
Late last year, Wu visited Slovakia and the Czech Republic, two countries with which Taiwan has no official diplomatic relations.
In November, a Taiwanese Representative Office opened in Vilnius, Lithuania, the first office in Europe to bear the name “Taiwanese.”
Wu said during a legislative session last month that while it is important to maintain diplomatic relations, it is equally important to deepen unofficial ties with like-minded countries.
The view is also shared by Jessica Drun, a Taiwan expert at the Atlantic Council.
“I personally believe that Taiwan’s unofficial relationships are more critical than its official ones,” Drun said.
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