Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou is making one of his rare foreign trips. Only 22 countries currently maintain diplomatic ties with the island state. But the room for maneuver is narrowing.
Taiwan has its own territory, currency, administration and military - and hence shows all the characteristics of a sovereign state. Yet Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations and out of the 193 UN member states, only 22 maintain diplomatic relations with the "Republic of China," as Taiwan is officially called.
The name already points to the problem: Taiwan is considered by the People's Republic of China as a renegade province and not as an independent state. According the so-called Anti-Secession Law ratified in 2005, Beijing threatens to wage war on Taiwan should it formally declare its independence.
Taiwan thus finds itself internationally in a difficult terrain. Due to the small number of Taipei's diplomatic allies, official overseas trips of Taiwanese presidents are rare.
However, on January 23, President Ma Ying-jeou is set to embark on a three-nation tour. The head of state is scheduled to visit the African countries Burkina Faso, São Tomé and Príncipe and the Central American nation of Honduras, where Ma will attend the inauguration ceremony of President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
Taiwan recently lost one of its diplomatic allies in Africa when the West African nation of Gambia broke off relations with the East Asian island.
The Chinese government immediately announced that it had played no part in the Banjul's decision. "To date, Beijing has promised neither support nor diplomatic relations to Gambia," Taiwanese political scientist Yen Chen-sheng told DW.
Since Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, there has been some sort of unofficial truce on the diplomatic front. According to analyst Yen Chen-sheng, the Chinese government has been more interested in maintaining good relations with Taiwan than establishing ties with the island state's remaining allies.
This phenomenon could be witnessed in 2009, when the then-newly-elected president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, hinted that he would like to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. China's foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang politely rejected the offer. He was quoted as saying that the Chinese people have friendly feelings towards the people of El Salvador and "we are willing to engage in friendly exchanges with San Salvador, even without diplomatic ties."
However, as Gambia's example shows, the sheer size of China along with its economic and financial might remain attractive to Taiwan's allies. Against this backdrop, President Ma is set to embark on a diplomatic charm offensive with his three-nation tour. "President Ma does not take diplomatic relations with allies for granted and he wants to show that these ties are important for Taiwan," says political scientist Yen.
Politics and development aid
Diplomatic partnerships are important for Taiwan as they serve to underpin the island's status as a sovereign state. But the fewer the partners Taiwan is left with, the weaker this claim becomes. This is why Taiwan has resorted to development aid as a means to literally buy the support it longs for, China expert Gunter Schubert told DW. "Taiwan makes use of well-aimed development projects as a tool to rally political support from small and not very influential countries in the field of international politics."
The nation of São Tomé and Príncipe serves as a good example. The island state located in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa, is one of President Ma's three destinations. The two nations established diplomatic ties in 1997 and some 130 million dollars have made their way from Taipei to São Tomé ever since, amounting to almost half of the small island's GDP.
Arnaldo Pontes, an official in São Tomé's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development, told DW that the importance of the ongoing cooperation with Taiwan was "extremely important for us, as 36.5 percent of investments that flow into our agricultural sector stem from Taiwan."
The aid is welcomed by the population, said farmer Jaime Menezes, who has profited from nine agricultural projects financed by the Taiwanese. "The Ministry of Agriculture gave us land titles and we were assisted by a team of Taiwanese specialists. They provided us with the necessary work tools, corn and insecticides. They even built a warehouse and a drying facility for another project related to food safety.
In light of this, analyst Gunter Schubert argues that as long as the policies of countries such as São Tomé und Principé are guided by economic interests, Taiwan may be able to persuade them.