Many observers were shocked by the news, but Trump’s call was apparently a long-planned strategic move by Taiwan supporters on his team. But if the president-elect was aiming to end Taiwan's international isolation, he may be facing an uphill struggle.
In the relatively brief time since Trump’s Taiwan call, the Republic of China has lost allies on the world stage rather than gained them. On Dec. 21, just weeks after the call, Sao Tome and Principe ended its diplomatic relationship with Taipei. After the small African island nation’s defection, only 21 nations hold a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan.
This week, another move showed that even countries without diplomatic ties to Taiwan could still isolate it further. On Wednesday, Nigeria ordered Taiwan to move a representative office in the country out of the political capital, Abuja, to Lagos, the country's commercial hub. Nigeria has not had official diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1971, so it doesn’t have an embassy in Abuja to move; instead, Taiwan was forced to move its trade mission, one of about 50 unofficial representative offices it has around the world.
Taiwan’s international isolation is long-standing. The countries that recognize it are a motley crew of mostly small nations with little international clout. (No members of the Group of 20 have an embassy in Taipei, for example.) The country does not have a seat at the United Nations, and its inclusion in other international bodies is limited — Taiwan competes at the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei” and does not use its official anthem or flag.
For decades, China and Taiwan have been engaged in a battle to not only gain their own diplomatic recognition from states but also to deny their rival the same recognition. As the movement to recognize Beijing’s government grew in the 1970s, Taipei actually cut off its own relationships with countries that recognized the PRC. Later, under the leadership of Lee Teng-hui from 1988 to 2000, it led an aggressive courting of countries, pushing the number with which it had diplomatic relations back up to 28 from the 21 it had dropped to by 1978.
In the ongoing tussle over recognition, some countries — most notably Senegal and the Central African Republic — switched their diplomatic recognition back and forth multiple times. The conflict can be embarrassingly expensive: Taiwan once admitted that it had lost almost $30 million in secret government funds designed to woo Papua New Guinea after two middlemen entrusted with the cash decided to keep it for themselves.
President Ma Ying-jeou came to power shortly after that scandal in 2008, helping to create something of a diplomatic detente between the two countries. Ma sought rapprochement with China during his eight years in office, and the two nations had signed a number of landmark trade agreements. In return, China put its diplomatic efforts on hold; notably, it did not form diplomatic relations with Gambia after the African nation severed ties with Taiwan in 2013.
But Ma was replaced in May 2016 by Tsai, the leader of a pro-independence party who was perceived to be pursuing policies less favorable to Beijing. The diplomatic detente soon disappeared — before Tsai even took office, China had resumed diplomatic ties with Gambia.
Beijing now has a clear advantage in the battle for recognition. Whereas the two countries once competed on a roughly equal economic pegging, China's economy is now almost 20 times bigger than Taiwan’s, and its recent moves were clearly enabled by its enormous financial heft. Beijing had opened a trade mission in Sao Tome in 2013 and aggressively expanded its exports to the country over the past few years. Nigeria’s decision this week followed a visit from the Chinese foreign minister, who pledged to invest $40 billion into infrastructure in the West African nation.
Other countries may follow the lead of Sao Tome and Nigeria. In 2013, a Chinese expert told Reuters that at least five countries had approached Beijing to ask whether they could switch their diplomatic recognition during Ma’s time in office. Among the possibilities are some of the more important diplomatic partners of Taiwan, including Panama and the Holy See, both of which are reported to be seeking relations with Beijing.
Beijing’s attempts to isolate Taiwan predate Trump’s newfound interest in the country, but can the divisive president really turn back the tide? That may be easier said than done.