Written by Jing Sun.

In 2007, I published an article entitled Japan-Taiwan Relations: Unofficial in Name Only. In it, I argued that Japan and Taiwan had been engaging one another since the 1990s. A combination of colonial ties, shared democratic identity, and cultural admiration propelled their relations to an “unofficial-in-name-only” status. The article ended with a somewhat aspiring tone: although Taiwan was much less powerful than China, its giant and intimidating neighbour, by highlighting democratic values and cultural vibrancy, Taiwan had found a way to thrive diplomatically.

In politics a year can be eternity and a lot has happened to East Asian international relations since 2007. In these eight years, what has changed to China-Taiwan-Japan triangular interactions? Let me start with what I view as unchanged. Today, the economic, social, and cultural ties binding Japan and Taiwan remain as tight as ever. People maintain friendly perceptions of each other. With cold Seoul, confrontational Beijing, and erratic Pyongyang for comparison, Tokyo may find the Taiwanese public’s continued embrace particularly soothing. As long as Taiwan remains an emotional oasis, the Northeast Asian neighbourhood has not turned entirely against Japan.

Changes, however, are far-reaching. The past eight years have witnessed the further marginalization of Taiwan as a credible diplomatic player. Taiwan’s decline in international stature has been caused by several factors, external and internal, structural and contingent. Some of these reasons are simply beyond Taiwan’s control. Some, however, stem from shoddy political engineering. Taiwan’s leadership failings have stirred up much confusion about the island’s diplomatic strategy.

The biggest structural change is China’s continued global ascendancy. In 2004, China’s nominal GDP was the fifth biggest in the world. In the next three years, it would surpass France, Britain, and Germany one by one. In 2010, it overtook Japan. If one uses GDP at Purchasing Power Parity, by one calculation from the International Monetary Fund, China’s economy just overtook America’s economy in 2014. It is now more than three times the size of the Japanese one. To be sure, the Chinese economy is showing signs of slowing down. But with annual GDP growth rate of 7.3 percent in 2014, compared with Taiwan’s 3.17 percent and Japan’s -1.2 percent, the power gap between China and its neighbours kept widening.

Structural vicissitudes aside, key players in the region – China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Taiwan, witnessed leadership change. Leadership changes of foreign countries are beyond Taiwan’s control, and most of these changes are creating headwinds for the island. In Japan, the past eight years witnessed the coming and going of seven prime ministers, with Abe Shinzo finishing this dizzy loop. In China, Xi Jinping solidified his control with lightning speed. Many in the west came to perceive him as China’s strongest leader certainly since Deng Xiaoping and possibly since Mao Zedong.  Borrowing a line from the movie Spiderman, President Barack Obama once told Xi, then the vice president, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The world has much anxiety about Xi’s sense of responsibility. What the world does not doubt is his country’s power and Xi’s bluntness in throwing its weight around. After all, this is a leader that once chided America as a “well-fed hooligan with nothing better to do than to mess around.”

How about Taiwan’s leadership change? To call the Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency a disappointment would be an understatement. Riding on waves of popular discontent toward the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a clean Ma swept to a landslide victory in the islands’ 2008 presidential election. In retrospect, though, it probably marked the highest point of Ma’s political career.

As the leader of Taiwan, Ma turned out to be inept. Today, one year out from the end of his two terms, all the players – China, America, Japan, the DPP, and the Taiwanese public seem to be simply waiting for his lame duck presidency to end. Even Ma’s own party is showing signs of exhaustion, seeing Ma as political baggage. As a bad omen, Ma’s party suffered a crushing defeat in local elections in November 2014, losing nine of the 15 mayoral and county-head seats it had held, including that of Taipei.

How could such a popular candidate with great expectations end up disappointing everyone? Ma came to power by promising to improve relations with China. Today, tension has been much reduced. China and Taiwan’s ministers in charge of cross-Strait relations even realized official visits. However, the emotional gap between Taiwan and China remains as wide as ever, if not wider. In warming up to China, Ma inadvertently saw his administration suspected and despised by the Taiwanese public as better serving the interest of China than that of Taiwan. Closer material ties with China have actually agitated growing anxiety among the Taiwanese public, especially its youth. Such uneasiness became crystal clear during the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014. Massive numbers of protesters took to the street and occupied the legislative branch for three weeks. They challenged the content of the pending Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China, viewing the treaty as hurting the Taiwanese economy and making the island vulnerable to Beijing’s pressure. Protesters also condemned the Ma administration for its lack of transparency and consultation in passing the law.

The movement successfully postponed the ratification of the treaty indefinitely. It also offered inspiration to the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, a universal suffrage movement that greatly embarrassed Beijing. Ma, either due to his personal faith or attempting to echo popular sentiment, voiced his support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. This stance, along with the CSSTA debacle, led to Beijing’s disillusionment of him as well. Chinese leaders may have even entertained the possibility of a cross-Strait summit when Ma took power. Now, judged by the voices of China’s Taiwan specialists, Beijing simply gave up on him and is anticipating a KMT defeat in 2016.

Political relations between Japan and Taiwan also experienced a rocky phase, primarily over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute. The overwhelming might of China and Japan often makes observers forget that the dispute is in fact trilateral, with Taiwan being the third claimant of the islands. The previous DPP government largely forwent any confrontation with Japan. Ma took a more assertive approach by dispatching Taiwanese coast guard vessels to the contested area and engaging in water-canon shootout with the Japanese. Such a stance may not really surprise the Japanese. After all, Ma was once known as a young activist fighting for Taiwan’s sovereignty over the islands. Meanwhile, though, Ma was fully aware of Beijing’s effort of using the dispute to build a united front with Taiwan. He thus repeatedly announced that Taiwan would not cooperate with China in any way on the dispute. The result is that all the big players of the dispute, namely China, Japan, and America, chose to ignore Taiwan. Ma’s proposal of a “East China Sea Peace Initiative” remains his own pet slogan with no international consumption.

What lessons can we draw from Taiwan’s shrinking diplomatic leverage? If one accepts neo-realist precepts, Taiwan is simply doomed because of its proximity to China, a rising global power that views the island as its own property. Another strand of realism, though, rejects such a fatalistic conclusion and stresses the importance of political engineering. I concur with the latter view. Taiwan’s diplomatic space is indeed severely constrained. But how to make the best use of this space depends on leader’s wisdom and craft. In Taiwan, Ma has a nickname – Mr. Teflon, a term people use to describe his ability to maintain a clean reputation despite the prevalence of corruption. However, as years go by, the other side of being a Teflon politician has come to be exposed: blandness, timidity, and constant effort to balance and please all parties with feel-good but impractical ideas – or, to use a more colourful term by James R Holmes, a long time observer of the Taiwanese politics and former US Navy warfare officer, Ma’s diplomatic ideas are rather “sterile.”

However, it is also on this ground I am reasonably optimistic about the diplomatic improvement Taiwan can make in coming years. With Abe Shinzo winning two general elections, the revolving door for the office of the Japanese prime minister finally halted – at least for now. Abe has his own problems with Japan’s neighbours, mainly due to his views on wartime history. But the fact Abe is probably here to stay offers some predictability to regional diplomacy. Abe is also known for anchoring friendly perception of Taiwan, starting with his open admiration for the former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui.

On China-Taiwan relations, as another blogger on this forum noted, the dependence between the two has become truly mutual. Beijing would have as much to lose as Taipei if the relations go awry. One should also note that robust exchanges have made China-Taiwan relations become an institution in its own right. And, as an institution, it has its own staying power and acquired some ability to weather the ups and downs of government-to-government relations. This leads me to the final point – the island’s future greatly depends on the craft of its new leader, either from the DPP, which is clearly favoured now, or the embattled KMT. Taiwanese voters have increasingly shown their willingness to abandon rigid party affiliations. They cast their votes not based on party loyalty but on candidates’ practicality. The past fifteen years since the turn of the century may be viewed as people’s search for that ability.

With effort and wisdom, Taiwan has developed an affluent and democratic society. But it also remains undoubtedly the weakest in Northeast Asia.  To survive in a hostile jungle, it needs a nimble leader somewhere in the middle between the eccentric and corrupt Chen Shui-bian and the wimpish Teflon president Ma Ying-jeou. Taiwan’s real challenge is whether it can produce a leader who can live up to this expectation.

 Jing Sun is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, The University of Denver. Image Credit: CC by eliot./Flickr.