Taiwanese perceptions of diplomatic recognition

Written by Timothy S. Rich and Andi Dahmer.

Image credit: President Tsai visits Tuvalu by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Despite meeting all of the common characteristics of a state as identified in the Montevideo Convention, Taiwan lacks formal recognition from most countries due to ever-increasing pressure from China. Countries must choose between Taiwan and China and few appear willing to risk the political and economic costs associated with choosing the former. Moreover, with the end of the diplomatic truce established during the Ma Ying-jeou administration, which occurred between 2008 and 2016, Taiwan’s formal diplomatic partners have dwindled in number to just 15 countries, from 23 at the height of the truce.

Countries in three regions traditionally have remained steadfast partners of Taiwan: Central America, the Caribbean, and Oceania. However, since 2016, countries from each region have switched recognition: Panama in 2017, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic in 2018, and the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in 2019. In 2020, other partners in these regions may follow suit, also enticed by China’s economic and political incentives.

Our previous research asks why a country would recognise Taiwan over China (see here and here) and addressed the challenges Tsai Ing-wen’s administration would face in maintaining formal diplomatic relations. We reiterate that the Tsai administration must avoid competing with China on who can provide the largest economic incentives for recognising states while also rationally responding to any diplomatic losses. However, we also emphasise that Taiwan does contribute important aid packages to its remaining partners in key areas such as agriculture, health, infrastructure, and construction. Taiwan, as a small state, is also particularly receptive to the concerns of small states, a point that both Taiwanese officials and recognising states acknowledge. For example, in a 2018 interview, Honduran Ambassador to Taiwan Sierra Quesada stated, “with Taiwan we are needed and important”. Taiwan can respond to partners switching by re-dedicating this economic aid to other recognising countries in order to bolster support.

While increased attention is given to how Taiwan should respond to its continued diplomatic losses, little research addresses public perceptions of diplomatic recognition. For example, the limited survey data from the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) generally compares establishing diplomatic relations in contrast to improving relations with China. Moreover, it is unclear to what extent the Taiwanese public views the loss of diplomatic relations from another country as a particularly salient issue. Taiwanese likely have become accustomed to countries breaking relations, while also viewing such losses through a partisan lens.

Our previous interviews found politicians from multiple parties concerned that the money currently dedicated to bolstering international relations could be used for matters of domestic concern for Taiwanese citizens, such as education initiatives. One stated that Taiwanese citizens “are more upset about the money being spent than China gaining allies”. Others believe that, rather than official relations with small countries with limited influence, Taiwan’s most important foreign relations involve unofficial, informal partners like Japan and the United States, who can lobby for Taiwan in important intergovernmental organisations like the UN. Moreover, Taiwan already receives some of the tangible benefits often associated with but not exclusive to formal recognition. For example, according to KMT Director of the Department of International Affairs, Yun-kuang Kuo, (at the time of the 2018 interview) “only 18 [countries] recognise us but 166 countries waive Taiwan’s visa; hundreds of countries recognise China but only 50 countries have visa free entry for China”.

We also assume two factors that influence why a state would recognise Taiwan would also influence Taiwanese public perceptions of diplomatic recognition. First, while states may be lured by political and economic incentives to recognise China over Taiwan, we assume that Taiwanese would be more supportive of diplomatic efforts as a means to stand up to Chinese efforts to limit Taiwan’s diplomatic space. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts commonly are associated with the international aid provided to such countries. While Taiwanese officials are quick to deny that international aid is a quid pro quo for diplomatic recognition, we assume that the view of such efforts as “dollar diplomacy” weakens support for Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts.

To address Taiwanese perceptions of diplomatic recognition and the dual roles of relations with China and concerns about countries demanding aid, we conducted an experimental web survey through PollcracyLab at National Chengchi University’s (NCCU) Election Study Center in December. Five hundred and two respondents were randomly assigned to receive one of four versions of a statement and asked to evaluate the statement on a five-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The versions were:

Version 1: Currently fifteen countries recognise Taiwan. It is important for Taiwan to maintain these formal diplomatic relations.

Version 2: Currently fifteen countries recognise Taiwan. It is important for Taiwan to maintain these formal diplomatic relations, even if this hurts relations with China.

Version 3: Currently fifteen countries recognise Taiwan. It is important for Taiwan to maintain these formal diplomatic relations, even if this encourages these countries to ask for more international aid from Taiwan.

Version 4: Currently fifteen countries recognise Taiwan. It is important for Taiwan to maintain these formal diplomatic relations, even if this hurts relations with China and encourages these countries to ask for more international aid from Taiwan.

pic 1

Our survey results find that overall support for maintaining relations increases when the possibility of hurting relations with China is referenced. However, support decreases when maintaining relations is framed within the context of countries asking for more aid, suggesting the public sensitivity to so-called “dollar diplomacy”. Interestingly, support for the maintenance of diplomatic relations in version 4 that mentions both the China and “dollar diplomacy” frames produces levels of support identical to that of the baseline. Separated by party, we find that DPP supporters to be swayed more by the framing about hurting relations with China, whereas KMT support in Version 2 marginally differs from the baseline version. Meanwhile, framing recognition in terms of potential costs appeared to have a much larger effect on KMT supporters, with limited influence on DPP supporters.

These results were largely consistent with our similar surveys in March 2018  and April 2019 where more than half of all respondents, across both parties, supported the baseline version. Ultimately, the survey results have been consistent in proving that, while the Taiwanese public is willing to exacerbate tensions with China to maintain other diplomatic relations, Taiwanese citizens are less supportive if partners request additional international aid.

Next, we asked “In your opinion, who or what is to blame for Taiwan losing diplomatic partners since 2016?” A word cloud is presented below. Here, the most common phrases were references to China (e.g. 中國, 中共, 中國打壓, 大陸) or President Tsai and the DPP (e.g. 蔡英文, 民進黨, 總統), with answers largely falling on partisan lines. In fact, no DPP identifier mentioned Tsai or the DPP as a cause, instead emphasising China’s role, while KMT supporters infrequently mentioned China’s role.

pic 2

Last, we wanted to see if Taiwanese wanted US assistance in maintaining partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean, where American concerns of Chinese encroachment on American regional hegemony intersect with concerns about supporting Taiwan. For example, following El Salvador’s switch in 2018, State Department officials recalled top diplomats from the three Central American and Caribbean countries which most recently switched. The formal statement explicitly referenced these countries’ recent decisions to no longer recognise Taiwan as grounds for the recall. Moreover, several US politicians urged tying US aid to the continued recognition of Taiwan by current partners.

Specifically, we asked respondents to evaluate the following statement on a five-point scale of strongly disagree to strongly agree: Taiwan should ask the US for assistance in maintaining diplomatic partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean. Here we find tepid results for US assistance as 40% of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement, while similar numbers (38.7%) agreed with the statement. However, again we see a clear partisan distinction: among DPP supporters, 57.8 agreed that Taiwan should ask for American assistance, compared to only 28.1% of KMT supporters.

Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition remains precarious and China will likely continue pressure in 2020, especially if Tsai Ing-wen is reelected. However, rather than respond impulsively to Chinese efforts to marginalise Taiwan, a more holistic approach is necessary that acknowledges public perceptions and concerns while promoting Taiwan’s long-term interests.

Taiwan must find new strategies in order to strengthen formal and informal ties. However, it should not over rely on expanding unofficial relations with the US or overlook the inconsistencies of Trump’s foreign policy that could impact Taiwan. For example, the Trump Administration’s decision to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for two consecutive years provides a greater opportunity for Chinese influence in the region and greater pressure on Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners. Rather, Taiwan should work to coordinate unofficial relations with the US and countries such as South Korea and Japan with remaining official diplomatic partnerships to limit China’s efforts to further constrain Taiwan’s diplomatic space.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics in East Asian democracies.

Andi Dahmer, a 2018 Harry S. Truman Scholar, recently graduated from Western Kentucky University. Her primary research focuses on the diplomatic recognition of Taiwan as it relates to Central America, with broader research interests in Taiwan and the Koreas.


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