Written by Bruce Jacobs.

The presidential debates and other evidence suggest that many Taiwanese leaders do not understand international politics. For example, a leader emphasizing the importance of the nation’s remaining diplomatic allies betrays their failure to comprehend the true nature of Taiwan’s advantages and disadvantages in the international arena.

The most important international law on sovereignty is the Convention on Rights and Duties of States, signed in Montevideo, Uruguay, on Dec. 26, 1933. According to Article 1 of the convention, a state should have “a permanent population; a defined territory; government; and capacity to enter into relations with the other states,”

Taiwan meets all four criteria.

Also, Article 3 says: “The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states.”

Thus, even if no state gave Taiwan diplomatic recognition, it clearly would continue to be a state, as it meets the four criteria. Recognition itself, according to Article 3, is not important.

The nation’s difficulties arise from the Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) regime that fled China and imposed a colonial government in Taiwan, a colonial government that systematically discriminated against Taiwanese.

It was Chiang who emphasized “one China” and who refused to be seated alongside the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a UN member. Thus, Taiwan was forced to leave the UN in October 1971 even though several nations, including the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, advocated “dual representation.”

It was Chiang who broke relations with France in 1964 when Paris appeared ready to retain relations with the Republic of China even after France recognized the PRC. Clearly, many of Taiwan’s diplomatic problems stem from Chiang’s actions.

When President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government came to power in 2008, one of its aims was to strike a diplomatic truce with China. Beijing never said it accepted this proposal, while several nations that said they would recognize China continued their diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Clearly China could change this policy.

However, should all the nation’s 22 diplomatic allies recognize China, Taiwan would still continue to be an independent, sovereign state as recognized by the Convention on Rights and Duties of States.

Furthermore, diplomatic allies are not that important to Taiwan.

Taiwan’s important foreign relations are with nations like the US, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and European democracies. Taiwan has “officially unofficial” ties with all of these nations that pursue “one China, one Taiwan” policies, even though they would not admit it.

These nations send “representatives” to Taiwan who are in fact ambassadors and Taiwan does the same in return. Both sides have key privileges such as diplomatic bags to carry secret documents, various tax privileges and legal immunities.

Although all of these nations agree that China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, none of them have accepted that claim. A posting to Taiwan carries high prestige and can be an important part in the career of a successful diplomat.

For example, former Australian representative to Taiwan Kevin Magee went from being the Australian ambassador to Saudi Arabia — a notably important post — to Taipei. Now he is in Canberra in charge of relations with Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as part of the Middle East. Other nations have similar career patterns for their representatives to Taiwan.

Taiwan’s future lies with the democratic nations. These are the key links for the future. The 22 diplomatic allies offer little. If they are happy to remain diplomatic allies, Taiwan should treat them well, but they do not improve the nation’s international standing, only the links with the US and other democratic nations do.

It might be better for Taiwan if all of its allies were to recognize China, then it could re-emerge as a separate entity. Of course, China would provide obstacles, just as it is already doing, but Beijing’s expansionism has worried many nations, while an anti-China alliance can be seen rising in Asia and elsewhere. The close links between India, Japan, Australia and the US hint at such an alliance.

It is in Taiwan’s interest to join this democratic coalition as the important international middle power that it is. This is the way to a democratic and prosperous future. Trying to appease an ever-expansionist and dictatorial China would not work. It would simply say “thank you” and ask for more.

The international relations choices facing Taiwan are clear. Hopefully, the new government will reconsider the options that face the nation.

Bruce Jacobs is emeritus professor of Asian languages and studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. This article was first published on the Taipei Times and can be found here, reprinted with the author’s permission.