Taiwan’s Non-Traditional Diplomacy During the Pandemic: The Case of Mexico

Written by Fabricio A. Fonseca.

Image credit: The Mexico DF Zocalo flag by Kevin Hutchinson/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

In the spring of 2020, the social media accounts of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Mexico City began to share posts made by Mexican federal legislators. In these posts, they showed appreciation for the donations made by Taiwan’s representatives in the country under the difficult circumstances posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, those donations consisted of food baskets and eventually included thousands of face masks. The different images of people across Mexico receiving boxes with the slogan “Taiwan Can Help” (TCH) made me think about how authorities on the island were using different instruments associated with non-traditional diplomacy. These are instruments used to increase Taiwan’s international space and implement this new phase of the TCH campaign. Part of a research project that I am currently conducting consists of studying public, cultural, and other types of diplomacy used by Taiwan in its relations with Latin America. This is particularly with those larger economies that do not have official diplomatic ties with the government on the island. Therefore, I thought that enlarging my research scope to include analysing how Taiwan was cooperating with those countries most affected by the pandemic. The expansion of the TCH campaign in Latin America could shed some light on how Taiwan was also combining different instruments linked to public and parliamentary diplomacy in pursuing its goal of furthering its international visibility.

In the paper that I prepared for the 2021 Conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS), I introduce some of the key concepts and definitions of public diplomacy and parliamentary or legislative diplomacy. From the original idea of public diplomacy as that between state actors and the people of another state, in the past decade, we have seen multiple studies that incorporate new elements and try to reflect the complexities of a more globalised world. As a result, it is common to define the main goals of public diplomacy as building and managing long-term relations, building trust, and eventually influencing thoughts and mobilising actions to advance interests and values that are considered to be shared or common. States can conduct this type of diplomacy, along with associations of states, sub-states and non-state actors.

On the other hand, parliamentary diplomacy has also recently received more attention from scholars in international relations. Typically understood as relations between parliamentarians—or representatives of lawmaking bodies from different countries—it has now been expanded to include international activities performed by those agents, not only with other fellow legislators but also with public or semi-public actors in other states. Therefore, when thinking about the many lawmakers globally—such as those in the United States and the European Union—who once supported Taiwan in different ways, like taking part in their countries activities organised by TECROs, we can also detect a form of parliamentary diplomacy in action.

This part of my research focuses on Mexico since there is an essential precedent in economic and cultural cooperation between that country and Taiwan. Having cut official diplomatic ties in late 1971, the two countries agreed to establish representative offices in each other’s capitals two decades later. Since the late 1980s, Taiwanese firms have shown an increasing interest to invest in Mexico, using the country as an export platform to the U.S. market and taking advantage of the regional economic integration process in North America. As a result, more than 300 companies from Taiwan have invested in Mexico, making it the largest recipient of FDI from the island and the leading consumer of Taiwanese exports in the Latin America and Caribbean region. In January 2021, another sign of bilateral economic cooperation was announced with the successful issuance of Mexican 50-year sovereign notes, called “Formosa Bonds” in the Taipei Exchange, raising more than US$3 billion among investors on the island.

Different signs of cooperation in the past were also evident between some federal lawmakers in Mexico and the staff at TECRO and other Taiwanese associations. However, the challenge posed by the pandemic and the need for medical supplies around the world, particularly face masks, represented a new field for cooperation between those actors. The THC campaign’s extension to incorporate Taiwanese efforts in fighting the virus and sharing its experience also centred on the donation of medical supplies to allies and friendly nations. For the case of Mexico, the campaign was implemented through the collaboration of federal lawmakers.

For this paper, I analysed the different social media posts and local newspapers’ coverage related to the donations of groceries and medical supplies by TECRO between March and September 2020 to confirm quantities and dates of donations. I paid attention to who were the lawmakers involved, the location of the legislative districts they represent, as well as their party’s affiliation and the number of food boxes and face masks reported. I then proceeded to identify how many of those legislators had previous experience with parliamentary diplomacy by looking at the friendship groups they belong to in Congress and how many of them are members of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate. These observations were relevant to understand the interests behind the cooperation projects that were the base for implementing the “Taiwan Can Help” campaign in Mexico. Moreover, they related to how those events also contributed to the interest of those legislators in joining the Latin American version of the “Formosa Club” and the unofficial “Taiwan-Mexico Friendship Group” in the Chamber of Deputies. Those facts confirm the way representatives from Taiwan in Mexico utilised instruments associated with non-traditional diplomacy during pandemic times to continue pursuing their goal of increasing the island’s space and visibility in Latin America and the world. I hope this research could contribute to a better understanding of the use of public and parliamentary diplomacy and give way to further research questions on how those instruments have been used by Taiwan in other countries and regions.

Fabricio A. Fonseca is Assistant Professor in the College of International Affairs at Tamkang University. He holds a Ph.D. in Asia-Pacific Studies, with a specialization in International Political Economy, by National Chengchi University, and a M.A. in China Studies by El Colegio de México. His research interests include comparative politics, economic development in Taiwan and Mexico, and relations between East Asia and the Americas.

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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