Republic of China (Taiwan) President Tsai Ing-wen, who takes pride in her Austronesian heritage through her paternal grandmother, made an 8-day voyage called “Oceans of Democracy” at the end of March to three Micronesian allies and Hawaii. This westward journey was culturally significant, since Taiwan was, about 3,500 years ago, the origin of the migration that brought Austronesian peoples to Palau, the Mariana and Carolina islands, and then across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The Indigenous peoples of Taiwan and other Pacific islanders, who share related languages and cultures, meet often in people-to-people events such as the Austronesian Forum and the Pacific Arts Festival. Tsai’s visit was more political in nature, allowing her to visit three of the seventeen states that still maintain official diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC). Some in Taiwan may think that official visits to these tiny states are insignificant but this micro-diplomacy reveals much about Taiwan’s place in the world.
Palau (March 21–24). Tsai met with Palau President Tommy Remembasau, Jr., and signed an agreement on coast guard co-operation. She also promised to encourage Taiwanese tourism to Palau, which has suffered financially since China cut charter flights as punishment for maintaining relations with Taiwan. She also met twice in public with United States Ambassador Amy Hyatt, who was Tsai’s guest of honour at a banquet on Saturday evening. Since ambassadors from countries that have relations with the People’s Republic of China usually avoid Taiwan-sponsored events, these meetings demonstrate warming ties between the US and Taiwan as well as US support for Taiwan’s Pacific island allies.
Nauru (March 24–26). This tiny nation-state of just over 10,000 people living on 21 km2 may seem like an insignificant dot on a map of the Pacific, but this member state of the United Nations may have made the most historic step of Tsai’s journey. Nauru, which in February was one of six Pacific island nations to call for China and Taiwan to receive equal diplomatic recognition by regional states, took a concrete step in that direction. On the second day of Tsai’s visit, the Nauruan parliament passed a resolution rejecting Beijing’s “One China” principle and the “one country, two system” framework and recognized Taiwan as a sovereign and independent nation.
This makes Nauru the first nation in the world to recognize Taiwan as an independent state rather than as the avatar of some imagined historical China. This opens up the possibility of dual recognition of both China and Taiwan — an option unacceptable to Beijing. Tsai and Nauru President Baron Waqa also signed an agreement on coast guard co-operation. These coast guard agreements give Taiwan a de facto role in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Marshall Islands (March 26–27). Tsai highlighted her role as a woman leader by embracing President Hilda Heine at the airport and giving the keynote address at the Pacific Women Leaders’ Coalition Conference. She also signed an agreement between Taiwan and the Marshall Islands on micro-finance for women entrepreneurs.
Hawaii (March 27–28). Tsai capped off her Pacific tour with a brief stop in Honolulu, where she was greeted by James Moriarty, Chairman of the American Institute in Taipei (and thus de facto US Ambassador to Taiwan). She attended the opening ceremony at the East–West Center of an exhibit about the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act. She also participated in a videoconference with the Washington DC-based Heritage Foundation, including US Senator Cory Garner and Congress Representative Ted Yoho. China, aware that Tsai could have clandestine meetings with US officials, protested this visit, which China perceives as a threat to their “one China” ambitions. Tsai asked for more arms purchases in light of increased Chinese military pressure on Taiwan. This trip publicly brought Tsai closer to the US, as well as to America’s closest Pacific allies.
Tsai may be proud of her Austronesian grandmother, like some 2% of Taiwan’s population who have Indigenous heritage with cultural and linguistic ties to other Pacific islanders. But Tsai’s other grandparents, like the vast majority of Taiwan’s population, share cultural and linguistic affinities with China. Few Taiwanese understand the importance of the Pacific to Taiwan; far more Taiwanese hope for the economic benefits of a friendly relationship with China. The challenge for Taiwanese leaders is to maintain their country’s autonomy, while avoiding any zero-sum games that would force Taiwan to choose between China and the rest of the world.
Tsai has borne the brunt of increased Chinese pressure because, safeguarding the status quo, she has refused to say that Taiwan is part of China. Since she was elected in 2016, China has only selectively implemented the 23 agreements signed between the two sides during her predecessor’s mandate.
Beijing has convinced five of the ROC’s allies so far to break diplomatic relations with Taipei. There is concern that the Solomon Islands might be next on that list. China has been openly flexing its military might, even holding large-scale “encirclement” exercises off the island’s east coast. Chinese President Xi Jinping seems determined to annex Taiwan, by military means if necessary, thus leading the US to upgrade its relations with Taiwan. Bipartisan efforts in both the Senate and House of Representatives will likely lead to the passage of a Taiwan Assurance Act.
Not everyone in Taiwan is impressed with Tsai’s outreach to the world. Whereas Tsai thinks she can best protect Taiwan’s democracy by reaching out to democratic allies, the opposition KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) supports closer ties with China. The KMT has long promoted the “1992 Consensus” in Taiwan, arguing that ROC existence on Taiwan is secure under the “One China, Different Interpretations” formula. While leading KMT politicians propose a cross-straits peace treaty, the KMT is still signalling to Washington their commitment to strong relations with the West. With presidential and legislative elections approaching in January 2020, only the Taiwanese can determine the destination of their next voyage.
Scott Simon, Ph.D., is Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies, Co-holder of the Chair in Taiwan Studies, and Researcher at CIPS, University of Ottawa. Proficient in both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, he has conducted research on various social and political issues in China, Taiwan, and Japan. He is the author of three books about Taiwan.