Written by Dafydd Fell.
At a time when political attention in Taiwan has been focused on growing Chinese military threats, the Covid-19 pandemic and the presidential campaign in the United States, it is not surprising that the Taiwanese media have largely ignored the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).
I had first become aware of Artsakh due to frequent news reports of the war there while I was a university student in the late 1980s and early 1990s and finally visited the region ten years ago. While it was clear there are many differences, it also struck me there are also some noteworthy similarities between the Asian orphan and this European orphan.
Both are often put into the categories of contested or unrecognised states. They both have elected presidents and parliaments, armed forces and ministries of foreign affairs. When it comes to formal diplomatic relations, Taiwan actually has more official allies than the Republic of Artsakh. Until the 2020 conflict, almost all of Artsakh had been free of Azerbaijan control since the end of the Karabakh War in 1994. Similarly, Taiwan has never been ruled by the Peoples Republic of China. However, both are integral parts of Azerbaijan and China from the United Nations’ perspective, respectively.
Of course, the similarities can only be taken so far. While Taiwan enjoys most of the features of an independent state, Artsakh has been in many ways closer to a province of Armenia. Considering Taiwan’s desire to seek out diplomatic recognition, particularly in the light of its establishment of ties with another unrecognised state, Somaliland, it is puzzling that Taiwan has not made more effort to establish relations with the contested states of the Caucasus region. This relates to states such as Artsakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Although Artsakh is only about a tenth of Taiwan’s size, it is larger than many of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies. I recall conversations with bemused Taiwanese diplomats when I spoke to them enthusiastically about Artsakh shortly after visiting there.
Despite the numerous differences, I believe there are reasons for Taiwan to be concerned with the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Like China, Azerbaijan’s growing economic strength has allowed it to invest heavily in its military, giving it the capacity and confidence to go on the offensive. This was critical in allowing Azeri forces to retake much of the territory in the 2020 conflict, including the second largest city of Shushi. It is likely that if the peace agreement had not been signed in November 2020, Artsakh could have been fallen under Azeri control.
Moreover, both China and Azerbaijan have promoted an aggressive nationalism that emphasises preserving national territorial sovereignty. By constantly telling its citizens that reunification is a sacred goal, failure to deliver could undermine Azerbaijan and China’s ruling elites’ legitimacy. While China has tended to employ a mixture of sticks and carrots to take over Taiwan, Azerbaijan has instead relied solely on military threats and economic blockade. Until 2020, however, their unification policies could be regarded as having failed over the last few decades in both cases. They had neither won the hearts and minds of the target populations nor gained control of any of the territories they view as their own. There are of course echoes of the KMT’s martial law era slogan of recovering the mainland. However, in the end, the KMT was able to gradually shift its claim to domestic legitimacy to economic performance and limited democracy. There are no signs of a similar shift away from hard-line nationalism in either Azerbaijan or China.
In both cases, external actors have long played a key balancing role. Although Russia has military bases in Armenia, it has attempted to maintain close ties to Baku and Yerevan. In fact, it sells arms to both sides. In other words, there are parallels with the United States’ policy of strategic ambiguity towards China and Taiwan. A major difference in the cases has been the growing role of Turkey in the Artsakh dispute. This time Turkey openly encouraged Azerbaijan to go on its military offensive.
Both Azerbaijan and China frequently use similar reunification rhetoric in their statements about Nagorno-Karabakh and Taiwan. Moreover, much of this discourse shows no concern for the local populations’ actual desires to retain their autonomy and ways of life. Opinion polls over the last three decades in Taiwan have shown how support for unification with China has drastically declined so that almost no mainstream politician dares speak openly in support of China’s model for unification. The referendums held in Karabakh suggest a similar rejection of Azeri rule. However, both Azerbaijan and Chinese leaders dismiss the public sentiment of Artsakh and Taiwan’s residents as irrelevant. One of the most tragic features of the recent conflict over Nagorno Karabakh was how civilian areas such as Stepanakert were clearly targeted.
The way that the international community reacts to Azerbaijan’s attempt to recover Nagorno-Karabakh represents a test case for how the world might respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. While some world leaders did call for a ceasefire, few have challenged the Azerbaijan claim that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of its territory. The peace deal signed in November 2020 has preserved autonomy for the core of Artsakh territory but has left it much more vulnerable, as it is now surrounded on all sides by Azeri forces. The ceasefire agreement is also likely to be followed by ethnic cleansing and destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in areas taken over by Azerbaijan. Because of international society’s widespread recognition of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Artsakh, there has not been much outside support for the conflict’s losing side.
This, therefore, suggests common challenges for Artsakh and Taiwan. In addition to maintain the support of their traditional allies such as Russia and the United States, it is necessary to make more of the world aware and concerned about these countries under threat. Taiwan has adopted a range of diplomatic, economic and soft power strategies to bid for greater international space. In contrast, Artsakh simply does not have the resources to emulate Taiwan’s strategies, such as the New Southbound Policy. However, a crucial task that faces both Taiwan as well as Artsakh and its Armenian backers is how to challenge the international community’s acceptance of China and Azerbaijan’s territorial claims. There seem to be clear similarities between the way China attempts to impose its One China principle on other countries and Azerbaijan’s rhetoric regarding Nagorno-Karabakh.
I wanted to raise a final issue: how should Taiwan engage with other contested states such as Artsakh? Taiwan’s ability to not only survive but thrive in a hostile international environment may offer potential lessons for other contested states. However, implementing ethical or ideal based foreign policy is easier said than done. By showing solidarity with the similar desire for preserving de-facto independence in Artsakh, Taiwan would, of course, be risking its economic ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Despite placing democracy and human rights at the heart of its public diplomacy, Taiwan has often prioritised the interests of diplomatic recognition and economic benefits above ethical considerations. This tension can be seen, for instance, in Taiwan’s LGBT rights diplomacy. While many West European countries have attempted to promote LGBT rights abroad, Taiwan’s approach has been quite different. In other words, it has used this issue to promote its own international reputation as a liberal democracy that respects the human rights of its sexual minorities. Nevertheless, it does not promote LGBT rights in those countries that still retain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. For instance, it does not call for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in its remaining African diplomatic ally Eswatini.
Dafydd J. Fell is the Reader in Comparative Politics with special reference to Taiwan at the Department of Political and International Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is also the Director of the SOAS Centre of Taiwan Studies