Rethinking Diplomacy and its Cultural, Social, and Political Contexts: The Diplomacies of Tuvalu, the Pacific, and Taiwan

Written by Jess Marinaccio.

I have lived in Taiwan for the past decade and I formerly worked for the Embassy of Tuvalu in Taiwan as an English-Mandarin translator. During my employment at the embassy, I was fascinated by how diplomats from different countries/cultures understood the term “diplomacy” and how this affected diplomatic interactions. Here, I briefly explore how Pacific nations represented in Taiwan, especially Tuvalu, contemplate what diplomacy means and then compare these ideas with Taiwan’s views of diplomacy. I conclude by examining examples where differing ideas of diplomacy have caused tension in Pacific-Taiwan diplomatic practice.

Taiwan’s Pacific Relations

Taiwan currently maintains official ties with six Pacific nations: Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. These nations are all represented in Taiwan through embassies located in Taipei. However, non-allied Pacific nations have also operated diplomatic-type offices in Taiwan. PNG currently has an active office, while Fiji closed their office in 2017.

Although countries in the Pacific region control a combined land and sea area almost twice the size of Russia, much research on Taiwan’s relations with the Pacific focuses more on the rivalry between the PRC and Taiwan than on how Pacific countries and Taiwan actually interact. This literature highlights how the PRC and Taiwan have “fought over” and “won”/“lost” Pacific allegiance, but the agency/voices of Pacific countries are sidelined. Yet, examining different conceptions of diplomacy held in Taiwan and Pacific nations focuses our attention on Taiwan and its allies/partner nations rather than the PRC.

Non-Tuvaluan Pacific Conceptions of Diplomacy

Before looking at Tuvaluan ideas of diplomacy, it is important to briefly highlight how other Pacific nations represented in Taiwan understand this term. This is because regionalism is crucial to the Pacific, and, in Taiwan, regardless of whether Pacific nations have official or unofficial relations with Taiwan, they all still meet to discuss how Taiwan’s policies impact Pacific places. Thus, the views of non-Tuvaluan Pacific nations may influence or coincide with Tuvaluan ideas.

Based on interviews I conducted with Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, PNG, and Solomon Islands diplomats in Taiwan, two phenomena became clear:

(1) Many ambassadors/representatives explained that there was no direct translation for the term diplomacy in their native languages.

(2) When discussing how to explain diplomacy to non-English speakers in their countries, most ambassadors/representatives suggested using cultural protocols in their nations that they saw as mirroring what international diplomacy meant to them. Divergences in understandings of diplomacy emerged in the different cultural protocols ambassadors/representatives adopted in their explanations of diplomacy.

Solomon Islands and PNG, which are regarded as part of the same Pacific sub-region, understood diplomacy through protocols of bartering/exchange, where different groups engaged directly to get what they wanted from each other. For Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, however, ambassadors/representatives focused not on exchange itself but on protocols of cultivating goodwill with partners through displays of care and concern that allowed both sides to get what they wanted because they learned to anticipate each other’s needs.

Tuvaluan Conceptions of Diplomacy

Tuvaluan conceptions of diplomacy, which I researched in greater depth both in Taiwan and Tuvalu, adhered most closely to ideas found in Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. Thus, views of diplomacy centered on the importance of communication/cooperation, consensus, non-confrontation, and hospitality. The alofa, a Tuvaluan gift-giving protocol now conducted both in Tuvalu and internationally, is indicative of these perspectives on diplomacy. For an alofa, one group becomes aware that a second group is in a time of need or requires some show of gratitude/goodwill and brings gifts (ranging from food to more symbolic items like fans or mats) to the second group. This giving of gifts also involves song, dance, and speeches, all of which emphasize the importance of the friendship between the two groups. This process initiates a reciprocal relationship because gift recipients are expected to present a return alofa to gift givers when the givers are in a time of need.

Consequently, for ambassadors/representatives from four of the six Pacific nations I interviewed, diplomacy was seen as rooted in hospitality and the cultivation of long-term relationships based on mutual care/concern.

Taiwanese Conceptions of Diplomacy

For Taiwan, perspectives on diplomacy are undoubtedly influenced by Taiwan’s relationship with the PRC and, thus, more negative than those found in the Pacific. Since the 1970s, when Taiwan (or officially known as the Republic of China) was expelled from the UN, Taiwan has consistently lost allies, producing ideas of official diplomacy as inconstant and diplomatic allies as inevitably disloyal. Furthermore, as the number of Taiwan’s official allies has dropped into the dozens, negative ideas of allies themselves have emerged. Allies are characterized as “poor, small, and black” and a burden on Taiwan’s resources. This situation has been somewhat exacerbated for Taiwan’s Pacific allies because of Austronesian diplomacy, a strategy through which Taiwan bolsters ties with Pacific allies using linguistic similarities between these nations and Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. This strategy has marginalized Pacific nations among conservative portions of Taiwan’s Han majority who hold stereotypes of indigenous populations.

Conflicting Conceptions of Diplomacy

Conceptions of diplomacy held in Taiwan and Pacific nations like Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Palau have often come into conflict. One example is how Taiwan’s presidential visits to the Pacific have been conducted and received. Since the Chen Shui-bian administration came to power in 2000, Taiwanese presidents have attempted to visit most if not all of Taiwan’s allies. However, in the Pacific, these visits are often quite abbreviated. In Tuvalu, Taiwan’s negative ideas of allies are clearly reflected in the fact that Taiwanese presidents have never stayed in the country overnight. At the same time, Tuvaluan reactions to these visits are quite ambivalent because protocols of hospitality crucial to Tuvalu’s diplomacy cannot be completed in the brief period presidents remain in country.

Clearly, in examining Taiwan’s relations with its allies, it is critical to look beyond diplomatic competition between Taiwan and the PRC and to highlight complexities that emerge when the term diplomacy is not taken at face value. Furthermore, it is safe to say that, given Taiwan’s current geopolitical situation, conceptions of diplomacy held by Taiwan and many of its Pacific allies are not mutually intelligible.

Jess Marinaccio is a PhD candidate in Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Jess’s doctoral research focuses on performative cultural diplomacy between Tuvalu and Taiwan but she has also written extensively on how indigeneity and diplomacy are conceptualized throughout the Pacific. Image description: Alofa presented to the Nanumaga community in Funafuti, Tuvalu. Image credit: Jess Marinaccio

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