Whether using the criteria within the Montevideo Convention of 1933 or variations, Taiwan meets all basic requirements of internal sovereignty to be a state. It is only China’s refusal to allow dual recognition, in adherence with the One-China Policy, that has limited the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners to twenty. The majority of the recognising countries are in Central America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Ocean. In Europe, only the Vatican (Holy See) recognises Taiwan, leaving the country with less formal recognition in Europe than during the Japanese puppet government of Manchukuo (1932-1945).
To what extent does Taiwan’s ever-decreasing number of diplomatic partners limit their ability to interact internationally? As sovereign states remain the primary unit of analysis in international relations, conventional wisdom suggests that failure to receive recognition limits both a state’s security and its abilities to engage with other states. Overall, though Taiwan’s involvement in the United Nations among other international organisations has been limited, it has still maintained international relevance.
Despite the paucity of formal recognition, Taiwan’s so-called isolation from the international community remains exaggerated. Most major powers other than China have established unofficial relations with Taiwan, with physical presences in Taipei, operating as embassies in all but name. Due to Taiwan’s efforts to maintain unofficial relations, Taiwanese citizens are now able to enter 166 countries without a visa, compared to only 21 for Chinese citizens.
This is expected to continue to expand. Furthermore, the lack of formal relations, though posing a challenge to passing free trade agreements (FTAs), has not limited Taiwanese trade. Despite these challenges, Taiwan maintains numerous FTAs with many Central American states and has attempted similar arrangements with countries without formal relations, notably New Zealand and Singapore. The need for often such cumbersome unofficial alternatives in the absence of formal relations may appear an insult to Taiwan’s sovereignty claims; however, this helps Taiwan maintain connections to the outside world—an important tactic to limit China’s efforts at international isolation.
The explicit benefits of Taiwan’s formal relations are not clear. Taiwan’s formal diplomatic relations do not directly provide the country additional security.
The explicit benefits of Taiwan’s formal relations are not clear. Taiwan’s formal diplomatic relations do not directly provide the country additional security. Excluding the Vatican, eight of the countries with whom Taiwan maintains diplomatic recognition lack a military of their own. In many cases, especially in Central America, Taiwan provides military assistance, investment, and even donations of weaponry and aircraft to the countries with whom it maintains formal relations.
China’s success at limiting Taiwan’s entry, or in the case of the United Nations (UN) re-entry, to intergovernmental organisations is Taiwan’s greatest disadvantage. For example, when Taiwan desperately needed assistance during the SARS epidemic of 2003, it was only after Beijing’s approval that the UN-affiliated World Health Organization was able to send a mission. As of today, Taiwan maintains neither membership nor observer status in the UN and its affiliate organisations, despite numerous petitions.
Taiwan circumvents its limited involvement in international organisations by joining regional organisations, especially in Central America. Currently, Taiwan maintains membership in Sistema de Integración Centroamericano (see here and here) to the Banco Centroamericana de Integración Económica and is a permanent observer at the Parlamento Centroamericano. Taiwan maintains similar involvement in the Pacific region, where it contributes to the Smaller Island States (SIS), the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP), and the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, among others (see here and here.) By donating to both Central American and the Pacific Ocean region, which contain the largest and second largest concentration of Taiwanese diplomatic partners, Taiwan helps maintain relevance in the region and deter diplomatic partners from switching recognition in the future.
Despite Taiwan’s relevance through international regional organisation, China continues to court countries recognising Taiwan, through both veiled threats and “dollar diplomacy.” Regarding veiled threats, China has utilised its UN Security Council veto power to deny peacekeepers to both Guatemala in 1997 and Macedonia in 1999, which many viewed as punishment for their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Two years later, in 2001, Macedonia formally switched recognition to China.
In addition to threats, China also economically incentivises Taiwan’s diplomatic partners to switch recognition. Based on China’s use of “dollar diplomacy,” it is not unrealistic to expect another country to switch diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 2018. As China’s economic and political clout increases, China outpaces Taiwan in both ability to give and amount given. Taiwan’s window to engage in “dollar diplomacy,” as it often did under previous administrations, has likely closed.
In the past, a few countries have vacillated between recognising China and Taiwan, switching multiple times, and prompting increasingly large aid packages from both countries. As China continues to offer increasingly large aid and assistance packages; however, states are unlikely to replicate this behavior in the near future. Ultimately, even if there are a subset of countries willing still to consider a diplomatic switch, engaging in “dollar diplomacy” once again simply shifts agency to countries acting in their own short-term self-interest rather than Taiwan’s.
Even the rhetoric around formal recognition hurts Taiwan’s efforts. The government, media, and scholars all frequently refer to Taiwan’s formal relations as “diplomatic allies”, with few questioning the implications of this phrase. Calling a privilege that most states extend to nearly all other states as “allies” engages in what in comparative politics is referred to as “conceptual stretching”. This sets up the Taiwanese government and its citizens, as well as casual observers, to view any switch in diplomatic recognition as Taiwan’s “loss” of a vital partner. Oftentimes, the depth of connection between Taiwan and the country that switched is limited exclusively to Taiwanese aid dollars. This also perpetuates a victimisation narrative rather than focus on why states leave or whether formal relations contribute to Taiwan’s goals. Furthermore, focusing on the perceived importance of formal relations diverts attention from Taiwan’s other strengths.
Without an abundance of formal diplomatic partners, Taiwan continues to maintain international relevance, in no small part due to creative efforts to maintain unofficial relations. The loss of another formal partner, although likely in the short-term, may draw attention to Taiwan’s status, but it is unlikely to limit Taiwan’s broader role and efforts in international relations.
Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. Andi Dahmer is an Honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.