Written by Hunter Marston.

Image credit: 總統出席「玉山論壇開幕典禮」by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

As great power rivalry between the US and China intensifies, Taiwan finds itself exposed to a growing number of security and economic risks. Nonetheless, current trends in middle power diplomacy present Taipei with new opportunities to mitigate these external pressures. If the Tsai Ing-wen administration can better leverage Taiwan’s unique assets and advantages, and broaden the scope of its non-traditional cooperation with other regional players, it can bolstering the island’s strategic position.

There are already signs that the Tsai administration is indeed strengthening its ties with receptive middle power partners. In late October, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Yen De-fa confirmed that Taiwan would continue military cooperation with Singapore as part of its Starlight Program. This occurred just one week after Singapore and Beijing agreed to upgrade their bilateral defence relationship. Taiwan’s gains were also displayed emphatically in the 2019 Yushan Forum, which Taipei hosted in early October. Despite pressure from Beijing, this years forum was attended by dignitaries from 30 countries, and featured a number of high profile participants, included US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands Sandra Oudkirk, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and former Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. Sandra Oudkirk in particular welcomed Taiwan’s efforts to deepen its integration with other western Pacific nations.

Meanwhile, a group of Japanese legislators from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has advanced the idea of trilateral security coordination with Taiwan and the United States to discuss China’s military rise and growing economic influence in the Pacific Islands – the latter of which has been instrumental in reducing the number of countries which engage with Taiwan diplomatically and officially recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty. In March, Japan for the first time co-hosted the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) along with the United States and Taiwan, allowing the latter to participate in an international forum on combating corruption.

However, such positive developments have been few and far between amidst myriad headwinds unfavourable to Taiwan’s geopolitical standing. Beijing has lured some Pacific Island nations away from Taipei by promising lucrative and much needed investment, and this has increased Taiwan’s isolation on the world stage. This year, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Taipei has also been barred from participation in international fora like the UN World Health Organization, which has not invited it to the annual World Health Assembly since 2017.

In response to these bleak trend lines, the Tsai administration has sought to capitalize on its signature foreign policy initiative, the New Southbound Policy, which has deepened trade, education, and cultural ties with eighteen countries across Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Oceania. If Tsai prevails in Taiwan’s upcoming national election in January, as is likely, she should double down on extending the New Southbound Policy (NSP), which has helped Taiwan expand ties with a number of countries – ties vital to increasing Taiwan’s economic dynamism and soft power. Still, the NSP is not without its critics in and outside of government, and a narrow election victory could weaken the chances for support for an expansion of the NSP within the legislative Yuan.

Aside from bolstering the NSP, the Tsai administration should seek partners in order to capitalize on the outreach of those middle powers in the region who are seeking to develop foreign policies that are more independent of the dictates of the world’s great powers. This will in no small way make up for the legal and diplomatic hurdles confronting Taiwan due to its complicated international status, and amplify Taipei’s capacity to contribute on the world stage.

Japan is one such partner the Tsai administration could bring to its corner. Tokyo has been an active proponent of middle power diplomacy that has sought to hedge against uncertainty regarding an increasingly isolationist United States, and a more powerful and aggressive China. It has forged stronger security and diplomatic ties with India, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Japan has also been the leading champion for the region’s increasingly embattled rules-based order. It salvaged the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) multilateral trade pact after Donald Trump withdrew the United States from TPP membership during his first week in office. It has cooperated with India and African countries to promote the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), which developed from the so-called ‘Freedom Corridor’ co-envisioned by Japan and India. In late November, Tokyo and New Delhi are holding their first “2 + 2” meeting between each countries’ defence and foreign ministry officials.

Such networking is part of an emerging “middle-power moment.” Singapore, another vocal supporter of the rules-based order and important partner of Taiwan, now has more free trade agreements with other regional powers than Australia, Japan, or New Zealand, and has participated in more joint military exercises in the region than any other country except the United States. Taipei seems to have taken note of the fact that rising powers such as India and Indonesia (projected to be the world’s second and fourth largest economies by 2050) will play a major role in regional development, and Taiwan would like to be on their side – regardless of the outcome of growing tensions between the United States and China.

There are several reasons why Taiwan is a natural partner for such regional network-building. First, it shares many of the same security concerns of small and middle powers such as Singapore, Japan, and Vietnam (i.e., concerns about China’s growing willingness to use force to bully smaller powers). Taiwan officials for their part have pointed to acute concerns regarding China’s use of “sharp power” and coercion, and invoked their support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as key motivations for their foreign policy platform. President Tsai’s government has also been an outspoken advocate for the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, and has deepened ties with like-minded partners.

Secondly, Taiwan’s democratic model of governance, which offers a valuable alternative to China’s authoritarianism, very much accords with Japan and India’s preference (along with Australia) for such a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Other democratic partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as Indonesia, likewise support a more open and rules-based regional order than that championed by Beijing. Taiwan’s values corroborate those espoused by these democratic middle powers. As noted by Keiji Furuya, the Japanese politician behind the US-Japan-Taiwan initiative,  these three nations “share fundamental values such as freedom and democracy.”

Thirdly, Taiwan has a great deal of expertise and resources to bring to bear to bring this vision closer to fruition. Taiwan is home to a number of world-class companies in the field of digital innovation, some of which are at the forefront of advances in new information technologies. Taiwan has also championed its first-rate health care system and medical research by launching a “One Country, One Center” initiative to train healthcare professionals in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Taiwan has also signed memoranda of understanding with Indonesia to expand agricultural cooperation, and with the Philippines to share best practices in electronic waste management. In 2012 the United States and Taiwan jointly launched a mercury monitoring program to assist Indo-Pacific countries.

As I outlined in a report I coauthored with Richard Bush at the Brookings Institution, Taiwan can do more with Australia and India, both of which initially lagged behind Southeast Asian countries in terms of trade, investment, tourism, and educational exchange with Taiwan. As a leader in green energy innovation, Australia could partner with Taiwan to enhance efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop new eco-friendly businesses. Both sides should also recommit to enhancing bilateral trade and investment (Chinese pressure reportedly stalled negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) between Australia and Taiwan in 2018). Despite a recent MOU between India and Taiwan to cooperate in the development of electrical vehicles, bilateral trade and investment remains inconsequential in comparison to its real potential.

In terms of other opportunities, Taipei could build upon existing cooperation mechanisms such as the Indo-Pacific Governance Consultations, announced by the American Institute in Taiwan and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in March, by considering including countries such as Australia, Japan, India, Singapore, and possibly Indonesia. Canberra could potentially play a co-hosting role in the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) as Japan did earlier this year, perhaps with a focus on clean energy cooperation, an area where Australia remains a leader.

Looking at the big picture, Taiwan faces growing constrictions on its international role and space to manoeuvre in the international sphere due to rising geopolitical rivalry. However, viewed from another angle, this competition also provides opportunities. The Tsai administration has worked hard to expand Taipei’s cooperation with friendly countries in a variety of non-traditional ways. Tapping into the prevailing trend of middle power diplomacy, Taiwan may find ways to both promote its interests and make a positive contribution to global affairs – but only if it is watchful of international currents, and leverages the goodwill of Asia’s emerging middle power movers.

Hunter Marston (@hmarston4) is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Australian National University and a frequent commentator on Indo-Pacific security issues.

This article is part of the special issue on Taiwan’s partnerships with Asian nations.

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