Taiwan’s Think Tanks and the Practice of Unofficial Diplomacy

Written by Pascal Abb.

Image credit: 2017臺灣國際科學展覽會頒獎典禮 by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0

Taiwan is a unique case when it comes to diplomatic practice: with a population of 23 million people and the world’s 22nd largest economy, it is by far the most significant de facto state lacking widespread official recognition. After Beijing’s most recent campaign to “poach” Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, the latter is down to 17 states that still maintain official diplomatic relations – virtually all of them very small polities in the Pacific or Central America. Yet, Taiwan is one of the most globally oriented countries on Earth – it maintains extensive trade links with markets in Asia, Europe and North America; its citizens frequently pursue employment, education and leisure overseas; and it is party to a host of international regulation agreements that govern day-to-day interactions. In the case of US-Taiwan relations, robust defence cooperation has continued for more than four decades since official ties were severed.

All of this has been made possible by a distinctly Taiwanese form of unofficial diplomacy, with a heavy reliance on conducting policy dialogues and negotiations through think tanks. Such “track II” activities are a staple of think tank work and are often used to buttress official governmental interactions, but in the case of Taiwan, actually serve as a functional replacement.

In the face of a steadily shrinking international space, formats like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) or the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) that allow Taiwanese participants to interact with international peers have become steadily more important. Taiwan’s participation in these venues is often either directly organised through think tanks (e.g. in the case of CSCAP, whose Taiwanese secretariat is located in the Institute of International Relations (IIR) at National Chengchi University) or substantially facilitated by them (APEC is undergirded by a designated “study centre” in each member, with the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research (TIER) assuming this function in Taipei).

Participation in these formats is one of the few remaining ways in which Taiwan can share in regional integration and cooperation, focusing on issues where Taiwan has a competitive advantage. Under the aegis of APEC, it established an international vocational training centre in 2016 that is also intended to support its “New Southbound Policy” (NSP) towards partners in Southeast Asia. Within CSCAP, subject matter experts could highlight Taiwan’s contribution to maritime search and rescue operations. In 2017, Taiwan introduced a new regional policy discussion mechanism of its own: the Yushan Forum, which similarly focuses on leveraging Taiwan’s strength in fields like industrial innovation, training and health care. The Yushan Forum is also part of Taiwan’s NSP push and organised by the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF), a think tank specifically established to support the policy.

In addition to these big, multilateral formats, Taiwanese think tanks have moved to fill the gaps caused by a loss of official bilateral ties. For example, when South Korea switched recognition to Beijing in 1992, a recurring “Taipei-Seoul Forum” was quickly organised to keep channels between decisionmakers and experts open. Similar fora also maintain robust contacts with other major partners in the Asia-Pacific.

Due to the semi-official nature of their work, and the historically close relationship between academia and public offices in Taiwan, the “revolving door” connecting both realms sees frequent usage. For example, president Tsai Ing-wen recruited her first premier Lin Chuan from the New Frontier Foundation, a DPP-affiliated think tank where he had served as CEO; Kung Ming-Hsin, the current minister of economic affairs, had been vice president of TIER; and current foreign minister Joseph Wu worked at the IIR before and after appointments in the Chen Shui-bian administration.

Apart from high-level appointments, think tank staff are frequently seconded to ministries on project work. Going the other way, lower-ranking ministry personnel work together closely with expert delegations to international formats like APEC and CSCAP. Sometimes, they are even included in a nominal advisory function as private citizens, when protocol constraints make it impossible to participate in an official capacity. This way, official Taiwanese views can be disseminated through experts.

Beyond policy questions, Taiwan’s think tanks have also become an integral part of the island’s soft power outreach and public diplomacy. A government-funded “think-and-do tank”, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, was set up in 2003 to raise international awareness of Taiwan’s successful democratization and assist similar processes in transitioning countries. Many other institutes have been able to leverage their strength in research and Taipei’s role as an international academic hub to organise a multitude of conferences each year. These provide an opportunity to disseminate Taiwanese viewpoints among international epistemic communities, raise awareness of the island’s difficult situation, and also share analyses of developments on the mainland.

While its shrinking international space is a major problem for Taiwan, the resulting need for unofficial diplomacy has arguably been a boon for its think tank sector. Through their track-II-activities, experts render essential services to the government and can in turn achieve a tight integration in the policymaking process. Compared to Taiwan’s larger neighbours, its think tanks have long been able to punch above their weight, and the unique circumstances of nonrecognition are a major reason why.

Pascal Abb is a senior researcher at the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution (ASPR) in Vienna, Austria. He was previously a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University as part of a Taiwan Fellowship. His recent article on this subject, “The Impact of Democratization, Political Culture, and Diplomatic Isolation on Think-Tank Development in Taiwan” (with Alan Hao Yang), was published in Pacific Affairs vol. 91(1), March 2018.

This article is part of the special issue on Taiwan’s foreign relations.

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