Monday May 29, 2017

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The View from Copenhagen
Michael Keldsen
View from Copenhagen

The Taiwan Incident

Greenland is becoming more independent diplomatically. That means plenty of chances to make mistakes it can learn from
You are cordially invited to a controversy (Photo: Naalakkersuisut)

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Invitation to Greenland Day in Taiwan

Diplomacy is one of the hardest arts of all to master. It requires those who practise it to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the written and unwritten rules for how individual countries relate to each other. Diplomats must also know be aware of where each and every countrys’ sore points are.

The consequences of not mastering the art of diplomacy can be an international incident, as was nearly this case this past November, when Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Greenland’s foreign minister, nearly made the mistake of visiting Taiwan.

Nuuk, most will know, almost makes it government policy to woo Chinese investments. At the same time, China is a major export market for Greenlandic prawns and fish (China is Greenland’s third largest export market overall.) The problem in this situation is that there are, at least unofficially, two Chinas, the one of which does not accept the other’s existence.

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After the Second World War, and the Japanese occupation, China found itself in the final stages of its bloody civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang and Mao Zedong’s Communists. After initially starting hostilities in 1927, the fighting ended in 1949, when the Kuomintang retreated to the island of Taiwan, then known as Formosa.

Initially, Chiang and the Kuomintang continued to be recognised internationally as the official Chinese government. This, however, came to an end in the 1970s as the US and other countries, one by one, began accepting that the Beijing government was the official representative of the Chinese people, and that the real China was not Taiwan’s Republic of China, but the mainland’s People’s Republic of China.

The vast majority of countries have by now shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei government to Beijing. About 15 or 20 countries have official ties with Taipei, but all of them are diplomatic small fry who receive economic assistance in exchange. Although Denmark has no ties at the diplomatic level with the Republic of China, it has significant economic interests there, even if they are dwarfed in volume by the amount of trade it does with the People’s Republic of China.

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This is where things start getting tricky. Because while Beijing allows foreign firms do business with Taiwan, it maintains a strict one-China policy that does not let governments that recognise People’s Republic of China to also have dealings with the Republic of China. Anything that would appear to convey an element of recognition – including diplomatic visits or other form of official contact – is strictly forbidden. Any country that does so anyway invokes China’s wrath.

So, that brings us to this past autumn, when Mr Qujaukitsoq, during one of his frequent visits to China, was to deliver the opening speech at an event in Taipei titled ‘Greenland Day’, a type of event Nuuk has held previously in places like Perth and Brussels. (See inivitation at right.) After repeated requests from the Chinese embassy in Copenhagen and the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Nuuk removed the Taiwan leg from Mr Qujaukitsoq’s itinerary, giving him an extra day on the mainland.

We can only assume that all ended well. But, what should Nuuk’s take-away be? Well, firstly, that Beijing means it when it says it has a one-China policy. Perhaps more importantly, it also means that China takes Greenland seriously, given that Beijing saw Mr Qujaukitsoq’s actions as representative of not just his country’s foreign policy, but for the entire Kingdom of Denmark.

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Thirdly, Nuuk has hopefully managed to reassure Beijing that the episode won’t repeat itself. Fourthly, that we can forget any sort of Greenland-Taiwan ties – which, on the other hand, would seem to indicate that Beijing expects also to be the one and only China when it comes to investing in Greenland.

Lastly, Mr Qujaukitsoq (and any other current or future members of Greenland’s cabinet) should wait to visit Taiwan until after they leave office.

One last thing – which I bring up separately because I don't know whether Greenland Day in Taiwan was something Nuuk cooked up on its own or whether they asked the Danish Foreign Ministry or the embassy in Beijing for guidance – but, they should think carefully the next time they consider doing something that would jeopardise a market that currently consumes 600 million kroner ($85 million) in Greenlandic fish each year.

So, to sum up: One, don’t mess with China. Two, diplomacy isn’t a natural-born talent; it is a skill that you must learn.

The author is a Danish barrister and a columnist for Sermtisiaq newspaper, which is owned by this website’s parent company.