What Trump's Taiwan travails mean for Arabs

What Trump's Taiwan travails mean for Arabs
Comment: Donald Trump's brash approach may force Middle East nations to choose between business with China and Taiwan, upsetting a delicate diplomatic and economic balance.
8 min read
20 Dec, 2016
Relations between Arab nations, China and Taiwan have always called for delicate diplomacy [Getty]

Donald Trump's call with Taiwan's leader marked a sharp turn not just from Washington's traditional artful politic on East Asia, as Arab nations tread a similar fine line on Beijing and Taipei. For now.

The schism between the two Chinas - the People's Republic of China, or "the mainland", and the Republic of China, or Taiwan - has historically demanded diplomatic delicacy and doublespeak, not just in the West, but internationally.

Trump, however, is broadly accepted as more of a firebrand than a wordsmith.

Where the United States has teetered artfully between Beijing and Taipei at times to avoid international armed conflict, for Arab nations, the numbers show it pays to also deal in diplomatic finesse. But now that may all change in the US and the Arab World, as the tycoon-television-personality-cum-US-president-elect shakes the foundations of foreign policy before even taking office.

And it may not just upset global stability; it may cost some sectors of the Arab World diplomatic choices imperative to the region's effective self-determination and prosperity.

Just after his election last month, Trump adviser Edwin Feulner - of conservative Washington think-tank The Heritage Foundation, which has deep ties to Taiwan's government - travelled to Taipei to meet with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen.

Trump would speak to Tsai on the phone just a few weeks later on December 2, rattling international observers and Beijing alike.

And then Trump said outright what these developments had suggested.


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of Trump's march to the White House

"I fully understand the One-China policy, but… I don't know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China - having to do with other things, including trade," he said in an interview with US right-leaning broadcaster Fox News, referring to Beijing's policy of Taiwan's reunification with the Chinese mainland.

US analysts offered Trump a resounding response to this call for clarification. The US "risks war [with China] by turning the One-China question into a bargaining chip", said oneWashington Post analysis, echoing many others.

Beijing, meanwhile, offered measured expressions of concern over these developments - and also blamed Taipei in what seemed like an apparent attempt to de-fuse what had been interpreted as a lightning rod for Beijing's ire.

The US - like the entire Arab League and indeed most of the world and the United Nations - officially recognises Beijing as the only Chinese government, and has been, at least officially, committed to Beijing's plans for "reunification".

But both the US and Arab states have continued to prop up an effectively separate Taiwan while toeing the line with Beijing. 

The US continues to lend financial and technical support to Taiwan's military. In fact, were it not for US support, the Chinese government may well have full authority over Taipei. But - as in Washington's support of Tel Aviv - Taiwan offers the US a strategic regional foothold.

A different story

For the Arab states, the Beijing-Taipei balancing act is more economic than geopolitical. This perhaps reflects a kind of diplomacy of political non-interference that China has often championed, particularly in its dealings with emerging post-colonial states.

China remains Saudi Arabia's top trade partner; Riyadh is also one of Taiwan's largest trade partners - beating out neighbouring economic powerhouse Indonesia and also the United Kingdom. The lion's share of that trade is in energy imports.

The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait come a close second and third on Taiwan's roster of Arab business partners. Like Riyadh, both also maintain more robust trade with the much larger People's Republic.

Perhaps one of the reasons Beijing overlooks this strategic double-dipping is that trade with mainland China makes up more than a fifth of the entire Taiwanese economy. Beijing arguably needs the Taiwanese to maintain a robust GDP because a large number of Taiwanese companies manufacture on the mainland; Taiwan's economic prosperity alleviates some of the pressure on China's oft-overcapacity production sector.

There are no Taiwanese embassies in the US, but that's not to say there is no diplomacy between the two

But how does this work? How can world governments - in the Arab World and the West - continue to two-time the Chinas? And how hasn't this already caused a diplomatic catastrophe in East Asia?

How the US gets around the fact that, on the books, it can't receive Taiwanese diplomats involves one of the most blatant acts of political pussyfooting - one that often went smoothly until Trump's pre-inaugural controversies over Taiwan.

There are no Taiwanese embassies in the US, but that's not to say there is no diplomacy between the two. Instead of embassies, Taiwan has "Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Offices" in major US cities that spend millions of dollars annually lobbying US officials in the interest of Taiwanese sovereignty.

Instead of ambassadors, consul and attaches, those facilities employ representatives.

The Arab World boasts similar Taiwanese para-diplomats. There are "Commercial Offices" that fulfil pseudo-ambassadorial functions in Riyadh, Mecca, Dubai, Kuwait, Muscat and - beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council - Amman.

On this list of recipients of Taiwan's shadow diplomacy, Jordan stands apart as the only nation whose relationship with Taipei isn't mostly premised on energy trade. Jordan also isn't especially important to Taiwan's economy; this year, it ranked as Taipei's 62nd-largest trading partner.  

Jordan-Taiwan trade amounted to more than $420 million, a middling amount given the size of both parties, in 2015 - more than 80 percent of which was in imports of low-cost goods from Taiwan. To import from Taiwan, though, is also to do business with China, where many Taiwanese goods are produced.

The trade isn't a major draw and yet the Hashemite Kingdom is important enough to have its own Taiwanese para-diplomacy. Jordan stands at the physical and figurative centre of the Arab World - between the Levant and the Gulf - and enjoys a relatively robust diplomatic relationship with most Arab States and the US, particularly as it continues to receive refugees from the devastating conflagrations on nearly all of its borders.

Amman is also the recipient of relatively frequent Taiwanese aid. In May, the Taiwanese government donated 3,900 metric tonnes of rice to Jordanian charities to help alleviate a food shortage among refugees. The previous year, it gave a $100,000 grant to a medical charity in Jordan to aid with an unprecedented influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Note that the donations in both cases were not state-to-state but state-to-charity or state-to-other informal actor. There's an element of the clandestine in the negotiations. It's not that Beijing isn't aware of what Amman is doing; it's that as long there was no brash slight to China's sovereignty, business could continue as usual.

Interactions have not all been entirely under-the-table.

Taiwanese representatives have on occasion in recent years attended Jordanian royal functions - in at least one case, while reporters from mainland state-owned broadcaster CCTV was in attendance, which expressed that the situation was "interesting".

While all this transpires, China has been watching. And unlike its ominous expressions of concern over Trump's overtures to Taiwan, Beijing has enthusiastically embraced Amman with open arms - and pockets. 

Jordan was one of three nations - besides Palestine and Somalia - mentioned in Beijing's lacklustre white paper on its Arab World policy in January, and the only nation where Beijing championed one of its token infrastructure projects in the region: a pending Sino-Jordanian University.

China's bid to build this educational facility in Amman emerged in January 2014. A few months later, Taiwan donated 90 new projectors to Jordanian schools, according to The Jordan Times.

Amid Beijing and Taipei's duelling bids for hearts and minds, some international states have become like children of divorce

Amid Beijing and Taipei's duelling bids for hearts and minds, some international states have become like children of divorce; in the way such a child might receive sets of toys from each parent, so too have countries like Jordan received two competing sets of Chinese aid and business.

Jordan and the rest of the Arab World aren't alone in this - In faraway Haiti, Port-au-Prince is one of few governments that actually still acknowledges Taipei as the Chinese government. But after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, China made huge inroads with costly aid to the beleaguered nation.

Last year, after Beijing had established a crucial aid presence there, Taipei reportedly offered Haiti 14 instructors to teach Taiwanese dialect - as opposed to mainland - Mandarin at Haitian schools, in a rather blatant soft power push.

"Taiwan's coming to teach us Mandarin," Haitian news said of the offer.

But now it's uncertain whether what had once been a boon to the Arab World and beyond - the ability to deal with both Beijing and Taiwan, playing one off against the other - will last.

Since Trump's proto-presidential forays into the region's power politics, China has been on its guard about its international partners bolstering Taiwan's military. In late November, Hong Kong seized Singaporean military equipment from Taiwan. Singapore has deep ties to both Beijing and Taipei.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, warned against "any form of official exchanges, including military exchanges and cooperation, between countries with which we have diplomatic relations and the Taiwan region", Reuters reported

It seemed, at least from this statement, that as tensions build over regional questions of sovereignty, Arab states may soon be forced to choose between Beijing and Taipei.

There is always some confusion over whether China is already the world's largest economy - but even if it were the second-largest, in the event of an ultimatum, what degree of choice Arab nations would have in their international allegiances remains - like many things - uncertain.

Massoud Hayoum is a freelance journalist and analyst who has reported for Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, AFP and the South China Morning Post.

Follow him on Twitter: @mhayoun

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.