Taipei, Taiwan – Hundreds of foreign delegates were in Taipei last month to watch William Lai Ching-te sworn in as Taiwan’s fifth elected president.

Beijing, which claims the democratic island as its own, has branded Lai a “separatist” and “troublemaker” but that did not stop as many as 508 foreign delegates from attending the ceremony where they had front-row seats to the colourful parade and flypast.

But while there were some from countries like Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, only a few were actual heads of state or high-ranking officials.

They came from Taiwan’s 12 remaining formal diplomatic allies and included the king of Eswatini, the prime minister of Tuvalu and the president of Paraguay. The flags of their countries were on display all around the site of the inauguration alongside Taiwan’s flag, and there was a special round of applause for each leader during the ceremony.

The day before the inauguration, soon-to-be President Lai and Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim had also taken the foreign leaders fishing for prawns.

“The Taiwanese government values its diplomatic allies,” assistant professor Fang-Yu Chen from the Department of Political Science at Soochow University in Taipei told Al Jazeera.

Flags of Taiwan's remaining diplomatic allies on display outside the island's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It's dark but the flags are illuminated. There is a Taiwan flag on top of the building.
The flags of the diplomatic delegations displayed in front of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the eve of Lai’s inauguration ceremony [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Since 2016, when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took the presidency under Tsai Ing-wen, Beijing has turned up the heat on the island, which at that time had 22 formal allies. Its officials rejected all overtures for talks and stepped up efforts to woo the island’s then-22 diplomatic allies.

Lai’s victory in January brought more of the same, with the Pacific island of Nauru switching sides just days later and Beijing criticising countries such as the Philippines that congratulated Lai on his win.

Amid continued pressure from China, Taiwan has sought to hold onto its formal allies by highlighting their common values and shared principles of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights, but according to Brian Hioe, a political commentator and founder of Taiwan-focused magazine New Bloom, the reality is more complicated.

“It is about geopolitics,” Hioe told Al Jazeera.

Geopolitics at play

That geopolitics was on full display last April when Tsai stopped over in the US on her way to, and from, Central America where she visited diplomatic allies Belize and Guatemala.

During her US transit, she met several US officials, including then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy.

A few months later, Lai, who was then vice president, also made stopovers in the US to meet American officials during a trip to Paraguay in South America.

Although the US maintains formal ties with China, it is Taiwan’s most important political and military partner and bound by law to provide the means for the island to defend itself, maintaining a policy of what it calls “strategic ambiguity“.

Meetings between officials from Taiwan and the US have often drawn anger in Beijing, which has not out the use of force to take control of Taiwan.

When then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui officially visited Cornell University in the US to give a speech in 1995, Beijing responded by firing missiles into the water around Taiwan in what would later be known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.

It was a similar story when then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022 and Beijing responded by launching military drills of an unprecedented scale around and across the island.

William Lai and King Mswati III of Eswatini fishing for prawns at a shrimp farm in Taiwan. Lai has just caught a prawn and it's dangling from the rod. The king is clapping. They look happy and relaxed.
Lai took King Mswati III of Eswatini, left, and other dignitaries who were in Taipei for the inauguration on a fishing expedition to the Zhishan Shrimp Fishing Farm [Aden Hsu/Pool via AFP]

For Taiwan, “transit diplomacy” is an important, discreet way to maintain relations with the US without triggering a furious Chinese response, according to Chen.

“That is part of the reason why Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are very important even if they are all quite small economically and demographically,” he said.

Another reason is the voice that these countries have in various international forums.

Taiwan’s seat at the United Nations was transferred to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1971, and in the years that followed, the island likewise lost its membership in other international organisations to Beijing.

“But Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have a seat at the table in these organisations which they can use to speak on behalf of Taiwan and propose resolutions supporting Taiwan,” Chen said.

In May, for example, during the opening of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Switzerland, which is under the UN’s World Health Organization, several formal allies spoke for the inclusion of Taiwan.

Despite Beijing’s claim on Taiwan, Taiwanese leaders often refer to Taiwan as the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) to highlight their position that the island exists as a territory separate from the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, which was founded in 1949 at the end of the civil war.

New Bloom’s Hioe says the island’s formal allies help boost that narrative.

“One of the definitions of statehood is diplomatic recognition by other states,” he said. “So, as long as Taiwan has diplomatic allies, it can fulfil the definition of statehood to some extent.”

Pragmatism over ideology

Such a pragmatic approach can leave so-called shared values, like human rights, left wanting, according to Hioe.

Taiwan has had formal diplomatic relations with Haiti since 1956.

The Caribbean nation has been torn apart by gang violence and domestic unrest ever since President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in 2021, and its human rights situation has deteriorated sharply, according to a UN report from March.

“Despite all this talk about the diplomatic allies, there isn’t much attention being paid to the domestic human rights situation in many of these countries,” Hioe said.

Taiwan condemned Moise’s killing as “cruel and barbaric” but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has focused primarily on the safety of its diplomatic staff – following the assassination, a group of armed men broke into the island’s embassy building.

A Taiwanese diplomat expressed confidence in March that diplomatic ties between Haiti and Taiwan would remain stable “given cordial relations between Taiwan’s embassy and Haitian groups across the political spectrum”.

Taipei has likewise made a priority of stable relations with Eswatini, its only formal partner in Africa, and provides substantial foreign aid to the country despite human rights violations and a lack of legitimate democratic institutions.

Eswatini is one of the continent’s last absolute monarchies.

Its government cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in 2021 leading to the deaths of 46 people.

Last year, a prominent opposition politician and human rights lawyer was killed by unknown gunmen in his home.

His widow subsequently said that Taiwan’s aid supported a dictator and that “if Taiwan claims to be a democracy, if Taiwan supports and values the rule of law, then Taiwan will help the people of Swaziland”, referring to the country by its official name until 2018.

Following her criticism, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that bilateral cooperation would continue with the Eswatini government and its people.

According to associate professor Yao-Yuan Yeh, who teaches Chinese Studies at the University of St Thomas in the US, Taipei is aware of the democratic deficiencies of some of its diplomatic allies.

“But Taiwan’s relations with its allies are more defined by pragmatism than by ideology,” he told Al Jazeera. “It only has a few allies left, so the thinking goes that it cannot afford to push any of them away and risk losing them to China.”

‘Dollar diplomacy’

The DPP’s pragmatic approach, however, has so far failed to stop countries from changing sides.

Sao Tome and Principe was the first to switch allegiance to Beijing following Tsai’s 2016 election.

As the years passed, more went over to Beijing. In January, just days after Lai’s election victory, it was Nauru’s turn.

Mao Ning, the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, referenced “the one China principle” when she was asked about the decision in a regular press conference.

“There is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China,” she said.

Analysts talk in more prosaic terms.

“Money,” Yeh said. “The price has to be right.”

Taiwan calls it “dollar diplomacy”, a characterisation Beijing rejects.

Last year, the government of Honduras reportedly approached the Taiwanese government requesting $2.5bn in aid.

At the time, the Honduran government was comparing assistance programmes offered by Taipei and Beijing, according to then Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. Taipei did not grant the aid request and a few weeks later, the Honduran government switched ties to Beijing.

“China is a lot bigger than Taiwan and Taiwan cannot write a blank cheque for a country in the same way that China can,” Yeh noted.

With Lai set to continue the policies of his predecessor – as key members of the DPP both argue that the people of Taiwan should decide their own future – the pressure is likely to continue.

“Poaching diplomatic allies has been a way to punish the Taiwanese government for following a China-policy that China opposes,” Chen, the assistant professor, said.

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