For decades, Taiwan has been struggling for international recognition, becoming increasingly isolated politically. Yet its widely praised management of the COVID-19 crisis may have opened new doors for diplomatic ties. A year into the pandemic, we take a look at the background of Taiwan’s current international standing, and how new bilateral cooperation initiatives might lead to more political support for its independence.
A Comment by Sophie Bisping
With tensions growing in the Taiwan Strait and Beijing’s recent, threatening military displays towards Taipei, the international status of Taiwan’s Republic of China has once again gained widespread attention. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a new light on Cross-Strait relations. Similar to other East Asian countries, Taiwan has been applying lessons learned from the SARS trauma in 2002-2003 and has been praised as a model for countries struggling with the virus.
While its international reputation has gained momentum since the beginning of the outbreak, Taiwan had been working on its diplomatic status long before the pandemic. Looking at recent international cooperation initiatives highlights how its management of the pandemic has brought more support for its case for international recognition. A brief historical background helps understand its particular place in the international community.
Taiwan on the international stage: a balancing act
As of April 2021, only 14 countries and the Holy See have full official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Many other countries have unofficial partnerships beneath the diplomatic level, including most states of the European Union and the United States. About a hundred countries recognise only Beijing and have no relations with Taiwan whatsoever. From that standpoint, it may seem hopelessly isolated on the international stage. Yet the reality is far more complex, as the country pursues different diplomatic strategies depending on which party leads the Taiwanese government.
Since Taiwan – officially known as the Republic of China – lost its UN seat to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, it successively lost most of its diplomatic recognition to Beijing. The People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has pressured other states into cutting ties with Taipei. Taiwan’s subsequent governments have been clinging to the remaining international support for their official independence, an issue in which Beijing has claimed the right to use “non-peaceful means” to assert control.
In the early 1990s, with what has become known as the “92 consensus” ( 九二共识 )”, Beijing and Taipei agreed to a “One-China” policy (or One-China Principle 一 个中国政策 ), stating that there is one sovereign China, without defining its legitimate government. This enabled a new approach of dual recognition, allowing more nations to have official ties with Beijing and simultaneously engage in non-governmental relations with Taipei. Germany for example has no formal relations with the Republic of China, but the German Institute in Taipei represents German interests on the island. However this does not entail any support for Taiwan’s independence, as shown by Germany’s recent statements about its dedication to the One-China policy.
Between 2008 and 2016, Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou and his Kuomintang-led government established a diplomatic truce with Beijing. The national party of the Kuomintang, which originally invaded the island of Taiwan after having lost the civil war with the Communist Party in 1949, has made sure to not drift too far away from Beijing and their shared heritage. Until 2008, Taipei and Beijing regularly blamed each other for engaging in a costly chequebook-diplomacy to win over new allies through financial incentives, which resulted in great losses for the Taiwanese.
In stark contrast to the Kuomintang, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which first won the election in 2000, follows an agenda of differentiation from the mainland. The period of diplomatic appeasement thus came to an end when President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP took office in 2016, as she pursued an official independence-oriented approach. Tsai quickly distanced herself from the so-called “dollar diplomacy” of Beijing and of her predecessors and claims to pursue an approach that focuses on mutual values and democratic principles. However, not only has Taipei lost 7 allies within the first presidency of Tsai, but the specificity of her diplomacy is not always easy to differentiate from previous diplomatic strategies, since the granting of development aid continues to be a main focus.
Taiwan is clearly looking to engage with like-minded democracies by increasing exchanges between civil societies and deepening trade ties. As the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019, Taiwan has set a celebrated example for tolerance and democracy on the Asian continent. This underlines its intentions to strengthen informal diplomatic ties with liberal democracies. Domestic perceptions have also been changing. An ongoing study on the perceived identity of the Taiwanese population shows that an increasing number of inhabitants consider themselves only Taiwanese, rather than Chinese or both Chinese and Taiwanese.
Another governmental strategy to garner international support has been Taiwan’s engagement in international organisations. While it is a member of a few organisations, including the World Trade Organization under the name of Chinese Taipei, membership in other international organisations remains a foreign policy priority to be on even ground with other nation states. China actively opposes Taiwan’s recognition as an equal member of international organisations. Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO) is one of the more recent and controversial consequences of Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan. This has been a particularly contentious issue since Taiwan has fared exceptionally well in its management of the crisis.
#TaiwanCanHelp: Improving diplomatic relations and forming new alliances
Indeed, Taiwan’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been praised around the world. As of May 2021, it has only declared 1210 cases, and 12 deaths related to Covid-19. While other Asian economies suffered an economic slowdown in 2020, Taiwan countered these effects mainly by avoiding a national lockdown, and by increasing exports in key industries. It therefore had a GDP growth rate of 3.11 percent in 2020, faring better than China, South Korea, and Japan, who had a growth rate of 2.27 percent, -0.96 percent, and -4.83 percent respectively.
In an article penned for Time Magazine, President Tsai based her country’s success on four main factors: its quick reaction to early warnings, the cooperation between government, business, and private citizens in communicating effectively and in implementing specific measures to prevent the spread of the virus, government monitoring of resources, and its digital system of communication for contact tracing and information sharing. This multifaceted strategy, with a focus on transparent and timely communication between sectors to contain the spread of the virus, has been hailed as the Taiwan model.
It has paved the way for an increased international cooperation in the fields of information and medical technology, two sectors that happen to be part of President Tsai’s strategic economic focus for her second term. In her May 2020 inaugural address, President Tsai outlined six strategic industries to position Taiwan as a key player in the global economy following the dual effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the trade tensions between China and the USA. The focus lies on information and digital technology, cybersecurity, medical technology and precision health, green and renewable energy, national defense industries, and strategic stockpile industries. As countries in North America and Europe increasingly look for ways to decouple their economies from China, Taiwan presents itself as a reliable partner in the semiconductor and the information technology industries.
Capitalising on the country’s expertise in medical and information technologies, Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) is carrying out several projects under the hashtag and branding #TaiwanCanHelp. In India, it cooperates with other NGOs to train healthcare workers in using digital technologies to register and manage suspected COVID-19 cases. In Turkey and Lebanon, it is supporting the development of an app that grants access to reliable health information and services for refugees. This project also contributes to the literature on using digital health technologies in countries that have large refugee populations. This type of international cooperation allows Taiwan to share the lessons it learned through its own management of the pandemic, and to further emphasise civic participation and transparency in implementing these technologies.
Improving diplomatic relations
While excluded from the WHO, the perception of Taiwan as a model and its role in international cooperation has in fact contributed to improvements of its diplomatic relations with several countries. In March 2020, former American president Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act into law. The TAIPEI Act formalises the American support for Taiwan’s entry into international organisations as a U.S. foreign policy objective. It advises to support bilateral trade and economic relations with Taiwan, and to encourage its ties with other nations as well. While Taiwan’s successful management of the pandemic helped bring this legislation forth, signing the TAIPEI Act also constituted the American response to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance on Taipei.
Another political improvement since the beginning of the corona crisis is Taiwan’s joint statement with the Czech Republic, released in April 2020. The statement professes to strengthen cooperation, especially in research and medical technology. It sets out plans for a multi-faceted cooperation framework with increased information sharing and exchanges of medical materials. The Czech Republic does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and this type of statement shows that a further integration in the world community is possible even without official recognition. In the Czech Republic, relations with Taiwan have also become a domestic issue, opposing proponents of closer economic ties with China (represented by the current president Miloš Zeman), to supporters of the island state – most visibly represented by the Czech Senate President, Miloš Vystrčil, who visited Taiwan in September 2020. This high profile visit led China analysts to comment that it might embolden other countries to respect the One-China Policy while still warming up to Taiwan.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of many countries’ health infrastructures. President Tsai’s six key industries provide opportunities for Taiwan to further engage in the post-COVID-19 global market, especially as it finds itself increasingly integrated in trade deals in the region. While it already has free trade deals with Singapore, New Zealand, and Japan, among others, Taiwan also has the ambition of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which would further guarantee its economic integration in the region. Taiwan can play a key role in the international community in the fight against epidemics without resorting to measures that can weigh heavily on the rights and freedoms of citizens.
Indeed, the pandemic imposed a political challenge to democracies around the world. The Taiwanese government led its nationwide effort to contain the disease with transparency and efficiency while respecting democratic norms of governance by relying on civic participation. While this attracted the sympathy of many like-minded democracies around the world, it remains to be seen how this sympathy will advance Taiwan’s foreign policy objectives in the long run. As other countries balance their diplomacy act between China and Taiwan, the latter can gain the most from building its reputation not in opposition to China, but as its own young democracy, one that many well-established European democracies could learn from.
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Sophie is a 2021 International Parliamentary Scholar at the German Parliament. She holds a BA in Political Science and Philosophy, and an MA in Transcultural Studies. She studied at Concordia University in Montreal, Heidelberg University, and Tokyo University. At Polis180, she is engaged in the programmes ConnectingAsia, International Cultural Relations, and Gender and International Politics.