Last month, the Philippines deported 14 Taiwanese citizens suspected of fraud to China, a move largely seen in the international community as legally justified but diplomatically tone-deaf. The Philippines justified the decision by claiming that the 14 were Chinese, not Taiwanese, in a de facto denial of Taiwan's separate sovereignty from the mainland. Manila's snub of Taipei, its longtime friend and partner, speaks to an Asian region increasingly willing to accede to Beijing on issues touching on Taiwan's sovereignty.
Legal issues aside, the row has exposed how much the self-ruled island's already minimal global leverage has dwindled beside that of China, which still views Taiwan as a renegade province and often blocks its participation in international forums. Beijing has never been in a better position to throw its weight around. China overtook Japan last year as the world's secondly largest economy, and the country's recent announcement that it has developed its own stealth-aircraft technology sent shockwaves through the global defense community. Emboldened by its growing wealth and military muscle, China has suddenly begun reasserting old claims on disputed areas such as the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Countries in the region must now think twice before getting too cozy with Taiwan.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, however, takes a different tack, viewing China as a gateway to the world, rather than a barrier. Ma has conducted his cross-strait exchanges on a platform of improving economic and cultural ties between the two sides while pushing uncomfortable political issues onto the backburner. The tacit assumption is that if Ma knits Taiwan into the Chinese economy and tamps down Taiwanese rhetoric on independence, Beijing will in turn grant the island greater latitude to carve out its own international niche. But while that policy has indeed bought Taiwan -- which lost its U.N. seat to Beijing in 1971 -- a little more breathing room, it has not stopped the sovereignty issue from obtruding onto the international stage.