Barely four years after its hard-won victory over Japan, Republic of China (ROC) Government lost the Chinese mainland to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. But it continued to govern Taiwan and exercise its rights in the UN system as one of its founding members and one of the permanent members of the Security Council. With the support of the US, the ROC represented the entire China in the UN for the duration of 22 years, even though the mainland remained beyond its jurisdiction. After the change of the international as well as domestic factors, ROC withdrew from the UN in 1971.
The ROC fell into a long period of isolation after it left the UN. When the US decided to derecognize the ROC in 1979 and many other countries severed diplomatic ties with the ROC, then President Chiang Ching-kuo realized the tide was turned against Taiwan – even its participation in athletic competitions was no exception. So he sought to compromise on his steadfast “Three Nos” policy.
His successor Lee Teng-hui was at once bolder and more flexible than Chiang Ching-kuo in his pursuit of greater international space. Taking advantage of Taiwan’s new found economic prowess, he began to adopt what he called “Pragmatic Diplomacy,” coupled with generous foreign aid to diplomatic allies. After Chen Shui-bian took over power in 2000, following a short period of caution, Chen embarked on a bold path, setting fire everywhere in the international arena, and earning for himself the title of “trouble-maker.”
After ascension to the Presidency in 2008, Ma Ying-jeou abandoned Chen Shui-bian’s “Setting-Fire Diplomacy” completely. Instead, he sought to show goodwill to Mainland China by proposing to stop the long-standing practice of stealing diplomatic allies from each other. He dropped the “check-book diplomacy” - a long repugnant policy at home, and replaced it with continued, but reasonable and verifiable aid to ROC’s diplomatic allies. He believed that Taiwan’s foreign relations and cross-Taiwan Strait relations are two sides of the same coin. Only when the cross-strait relations thawed, could the country’s foreign relations expand. He dubbed this policy, “Huo-lu Wai-jiao” – a term still lacking a proper English translation. To the extent that Beijing went along with Ma’s initiatives, Taiwan managed to expand its international space somewhat, with notable limitations. Although Taiwan acceded to GPA, for instance, and improved its substantive relations with the US, Japan and some other countries, Taiwan remains outside most of the international organizations, especially those whose membership is based on sovereignty.
For the ROC to survive internationally, it has to break out of its isolation. To do that, Mainland China’s goodwill is nearly essential. With Beijing blocking its path, the ROC would continue to face enormous difficulties. But other than the China factor, it also behooves the major parties inside Taiwan to reach consensus on this crucial issue.