Cross-Strait Politics and the International Spectre of Climate Change in Taiwan

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: UNFCCC – COP15 – Negotiations by Nclimatechange/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Taiwan’s international climate conference participation has been subject to the same dynamics applicable to other international organisations. However, Taiwan has often been pushed out because of Chinese pressure.

Namely, when the Ma administration held power, Taiwan could participate as an observer in climate change summits that it was later excluded from when the Tsai administration took office. This includes being allowed to participate as an observer in the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), of which Taiwan is not a member due to its lack of UN member status. However, by 2017, the Tsai administration was not allowed to participate in international conferences due to Chinese interference, including conferences held in the EU.

To this extent, Taiwan has voluntarily ratified climate change conventions. It is not a signatory because of its exclusion from international bodies. The Tsai administration stated that it would cut coal emissions following the Paris Agreement despite not being a member of the UNFCCC. This fits the broader pattern of Taiwan ratifying international conventions to show that it is a responsible international stakeholder—despite its exclusion from the international community—and shows that it is not a “rogue state.” Other international conventions that Taiwan has voluntarily ratified include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which are major UN human rights covenants.

In proving that it is a responsible stakeholder, Taiwan is trying to bolster its claims that it should be allowed a seat in the international community. One also notes that pan-Green legislators have called for Taiwan to voluntarily comply with the EU’s carbon emissions targets to reduce the barriers for Taiwan’s entry into multilateral trade agreements such as the RCEP. This is in line with broader pan-Green aspirations to secure Taiwan’s entrance into multilateral trade agreements or signing bilateral trade agreements. This aims for stronger economic ties between Taiwan and other countries, which would increase other countries incentives to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. However, more broadly, in past decades, environmental provisions have increasingly become important in international trade agreements.

Otherwise, there are international environmental bodies that Taiwan can participate in. However, these do not occur at a state-level. Taiwan’s Green Party, for example, participates in the Global Greens, consisting of international organisations that have ratified the Global Greens charter—something that the Green Party has leveraged domestically for electoral credibility.

Interestingly, the Tsai administration has not yet sought to pursue policies aimed at “climate diplomacy.” The Tsai administration has not put many resources into highlighting that Taiwan’s exclusion from international bodies—resulting from Chinese pressure—creates a hole in international efforts to fight climate change. This is distinguished from high-profile campaigns seeking to call attention to the dangers posed by Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Environmental successes, such as a semiconductor manufacturing giant (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) signing the world’s largest renewable corporate power deal in purchasing electricity from an offshore wind farm owned by Orsted, can bolster international soft power for Taiwan. Nevertheless, global “climate diplomacy” has not been a major initiative for the Tsai administration.

The spectre of the international looms large in discussions about environmental and energy policy in Taiwan. Both the pan-Green and pan-Blue camps claim compliance with international standards in rhetoric regarding domestic policy. This is particularly the case concerning nuclear energy. The pan-Blue camp, for example, has frequently attempted to cite Japan’s return to nuclear energy after the Fukushima incident as a claim for showing that Taiwan should not be afraid to restart nuclear reactors such as the controversial reactor No. 4. Though one notes that the pan-Blue camp omits how protests against nuclear energy in Japan after the Fukushima incident were among Japan’s largest protests since the 1960s in this narrative.

However, it is also the case that climate change is an issue on which Taiwan may have to be cautious, with climate change having becoming an issue negotiated between the US and China. While the Biden administration has signalled that it intends on taking a tougher stance on China, it remains to be seen to what extent climate policy will influence negotiations between the US and China regarding trade. Efforts to separate climate change policy from other areas of contestation between these two superpowers may be difficult. Whether Taiwan would ever come up as a contention point to be traded off for climate change concessions remains to be seen. This is a remote possibility, particularly given Taiwan’s importance to global supply chains, but not out of the realm of imagination.

Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator. This article is part of the special issue on new media. He tweets @brianhioe

This article was published as part of a March 2021 special issue on climate change and environmental issues in Taiwan. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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