Taiwan is feeling the squeeze of China’s campaign to snatch its few diplomatic allies and restrict its foreign-policy action. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said on Thursday that relations with the 17 states that still have formal ties with Taipei were relatively stable. However, Matthew Lee, the island’s ambassador to the Holy See, sounded a more negative note two days earlier when he said Communist China was committed to making his country irrelevant in the international community.

It is highly unlikely that Taipei will maintain formal diplomatic relationships without Beijing’ acquiescence, as occurred between 2008 and 2016 during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang.

China restarted wresting diplomatic allies from Taiwan – which it considers a rebel province and threatens to recapture by force – after President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party took office in May 2016. Since then, the Chinese have persuaded Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, Burkina Faso, Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador to cut ties with Taipei and switch recognition to the mainland.

At the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, which concluded on Monday, 16 diplomatic allies of Taipei supported its bid for more involvement in the organization’s affairs.

Taiwan lost its UN seat to China in 1971 and Beijing has so far been successful in opposing the island’s re-entry into the organization. At the moment, the Taiwanese government is not pursuing full membership, but is seeking participation in the UN specialized bodies such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Guatemala and the Holy See under scrutiny

Many countries have expressed their unwavering commitment to Taiwan in the past, only to change their minds later. So recent history proves official statements in support of the island’s independence status are not worth the paper they are written on.

Speculations are rife that other diplomatic allies of Taiwan might recognize China anytime soon. Guatemala did not speak out in favor of the island during the UN General Assembly meeting and is likely to be the next ally in line to break. Honduras, which could benefit from possible Chinese projects in the Salvadoran’s section of the Gulf of Fonseca, and Haiti might follow suit.

The Holy See, probably the most precious formal ally of Taiwan, is also under scrutiny. After it signed a “pastoral” agreement with China on the appointment of Chinese bishops last month, an issue that has marred bilateral relations between the two parties for decades, the Vatican is rumored to be working to establish full diplomatic relations with Beijing – the Holy See has had no formal ties with Communist China since 1951.

Vatican authorities pointed out that the recent accord had no political value and did not affect diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The leadership in Taipei has confirmed the Holy See’s position. In fact, Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen will attend a ceremony to canonize Pope Paul VI in the Vatican on October 14, while a delegation of papal officials will visit the island later this month for an interreligious seminar.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of the Catholic news agency Asia News, said it was positive that the agreement between the Holy See and China was signed without the Chinese “demanding the breaking of diplomatic relations with Taiwan as a precondition.”

It remains to be seen whether China’s granting of a waiver to the Holy See for its relationship with Taiwan will stand the test of time, as refusal of the island’s formal statehood has always been a cornerstone of China’s diplomatic strategy. Exceptions to this rule could set a dangerous precedent for Beijing, as it could mean that it is ready to negotiate on its core interests.

Upgrading relations with other democracies

Taiwan cannot match the mainland’s political and economic strength, which enables the Chinese to lure and “buy” new friends and partners. The Taiwanese should actually change their foreign-policy paradigm if they want to survive Beijing’s diplomatic challenge.

Taiwan would grow stronger in the world stage if other like-minded countries, be it a formal or an informal diplomatic ally, upgraded their bilateral ties with it. According to Richard D. Fisher, a senior fellow with the US-based International Assessment and Strategy, the island’s relationship with the United States, as defined under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the Six Assurances and the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act, could serve as a template for the Taiwanese leadership to strengthen state-to-state relations with other democracies.

Taiwan exists as a state because it exerts a de facto and independent power on a territorial community, not because it has gained formal recognition by other countries. The US does not formally recognize the island as a sovereign state, but is equally its staunchest ally. Moreover, US Congress is pressing ahead with the approval of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, a bipartisan bill calling on the US government to enforce all its obligations toward Taipei.

So the elevation of relations with “informal” democratic allies to a new level could be Taiwan’s best weapon against China’s attempts to isolate it diplomatically and weaken its position in case of a future conflict. The Taiwanese navy has confirmed that seven foreign shipbuilders have submitted bids for joining the island’s indigenous submarine program. This is a sign that countries other than the US are willing to open a new chapter in their relationship with Taipei.