Might Myanmar-Taiwan relations get trickier due to the current presidential race in Taiwan and the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen’s relationship with Beijing regarding the “One China Policy”?
Both Taiwan and Myanmar have elections in 2020 and for both countries, the outcome is important for different reasons and yet there is an underlying theme of democracies in development.
What could impinge on their bilateral relations in their respective relations with China?
The Myanmar government and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi are leaning towards China in part due to the international fallout from the “bad news” over the Rakhine crisis and the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya which has seen the Western embrace of Myanmar cool.
Beijing has been receptive in part because of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative that sees Myanmar a crucial player in terms of communications, trade, and development, under the rubric of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor.
Myanmar’s friendship with China directly affects how Nay Pyi Taw deals with its relations with Taiwan, a territory that Beijing views as its own but one that is currently governed by an administration that seeks to distance itself from the Mainland.
Looking back at Taiwan, the presidential campaign is fiercely competitive. Incumbent Tsai, who is from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has led her main opponent Han Kuo-yu, the presidential candidate of Kuomingtang (KMT), by more than 30 points according to the latest poll by Apple Daily.
Having been elected as the first female president in 2016 election, President Tsai is known for her China-sceptic position and her rejection of the 1992 Consensus, which is a critical agreement on the “One China” and “One Country, Two Systems”. During Tsai’s tenure, the China-Taiwan relationship has grown tense, with Beijing applying “big stick diplomacy” to isolate the island in many ways.
For instance, form August 2019 Beijing suspended issuing permits for independent tourists who want to visit Taiwan. In the same month, The 56th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards, which is like the Oscar festival in Chinese-language film industry, has missed all work from mainland Chinese filmmakers and actors because the Chinese authorities ordered a boycott in response to the growing advocacy for Taiwanese independence.
Another reason for the Taiwanese people to lean towards the DDP more than the KMT is the growing fear and distrust towards the Beijing government because of the nine-month unrest in Hong Kong and how the mainland government has been responding to this. Taiwan people are resonating with the Hong Kong protesters on social media and are generating negative sentiment towards the Beijing government. It is a very delicate moment for the Beijing government as both Taiwan and Hong Kong are edging away from the mainland’s authority.
With this as a backdrop, Myanmar is caught in a quandary as to how to deal with their diplomatic and business relations with Taiwan, in part because Nay Pyi Taw only officially recognizes the People’s Republic of China and not the Republic of China, Taiwan.
“We are still at the very beginning stage of Myanmar-Taiwan relationship,” Nyo Ohn Myint, a former spokesperson for State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said through a phone interview. “Even though we don’t have a central level relationship with Taiwan, there is still a state level, in other words, a government-to-government-level business relationship going on.”
Nyo Ohn Myint also emphasised that Myanmar government has been strictly sticking to the “One China Policy”. He said that the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), which is a government-appointed body that appraises domestic investment in Myanmar may not allow Taiwanese business openly because of the diplomatic ties with China. Therefore, they only do business on a division government and state government level, but not the central government.
The election of a president from a different party in Taiwan would affect the Myanmar-Taiwan relationship. Nyo Ohn Myint mentioned that President Tsai, in the past few years has been trying to establish a stronger diplomatic relationship with Myanmar because of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy.
President Tsai has put bets on Myanmar to stand up to China’s strategy of diplomatic isolation, but, according to Nyo Ohn Myint, during her last state visit to Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi was very reluctant to make a deal with her because of the existing relationship with China.
There are parallels when it comes to Taiwan and Myanmar when it comes to their democracy struggles and the “China factor” – how the two sovereign countries deal with Beijing.
Nyo Ohn Myint said that despite China’s request for certain rules when it comes to the Taiwan issue, the Myanmar government should be more flexible on the “One China Policy”.
“If we look at the Vietnamese government, it also has agreed on the ‘One China Policy’, yet it still has received technological support from Taiwan. That’s something the Myanmar government should be taking note of. We should be able to freely receive technology from Taiwan, and investment from China. We should be able to play a fair game,” he said.