Taiwan’s international space: expanding or contracting? Shining at the Summit for Democracy but losing Nicaragua

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

Image credit: Screen grab from a Summit for Democracy livestream,  license United States government work

This article was originally published by The Diplomat

December 9 and 10, 2021 proved to be an interesting moment for Taiwan’s international space: on the one hand the country was invited to President Biden’s Summit for Democracy in Washington, where Digital Minister Audrey Tang gave a stellar performance in showcasing how Taiwan has enhanced its democracy in spite of the threats posed by China, and the hardships caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, on December 9, 2021 it was announced that Nicaragua was switching its diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing, reducing the total number of formal diplomatic ties down to fourteen.

What is happening? Is Taiwan’s international space expanding or contracting? A few thoughts.

A break with a rather undemocratic ally

To start with the break of relations by Nicaragua: this was primarily caused by domestic developments in Nicaragua itself, and there was little the Taiwan government could have done to avoid it.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega – a rather permanent fixture in the country’s political constellation – had won a fourth consecutive term on November 7th 2021 under circumstances that prompted the Biden administration to express deep concerns about the country’s democracy. The US criticized the Ortega regime for imprisoning opposition leaders, and slapped sanctions on the regime for operating an import and customs fraud scheme to enrich members of Ortega’s government.

In response to Nicaragua’s break of relations with Taiwan, the US State Department issued a strong statement, referring to “the Ortega-Murillo regime”, stating that “….. the sham election on November 7 did not provide it with any mandate to remove Nicaragua from the family of American democracies.”

The State Department added: “…this (break of relations with Taiwan) deprives Nicaragua’s people of a steadfast partner in its democratic and economic growth.” And it stated that “Taiwan’s relationships with diplomatic partners in the Western Hemisphere provide significant economic and security benefits to the citizens of those countries. We encourage all countries that value democratic institutions, transparency, the rule of law, and promoting economic prosperity for their citizens to expand engagement with Taiwan.”

Under the circumstances it was thus to be expected that Nicaragua would switch. Taiwan did bend over backwards to be supportive of Nicaragua and it people by sponsoring activities that encouraged agriculture and self-reliance, but in the end the deterioration in Nicaragua’s democracy proved to be the decisive factor. And of course Beijing was waiting to pounce on the opportunity to snatch one more formal ally away from Taiwan.

Strengthening relations with the world’s democracies

But how significant is this for Taiwan’s international standing?

Beijing will of course try to capitalize on the matter, and make it appear as if this is an “inescapable trend”, while in Taiwan itself the Kuomintang opposition will try to make a big thing out of it. In addition, most of the reporting by the international media seems to pay an obsessive attention to the numbers game and perpetuates its bean-counting of Taiwan’s official allies.

But for the DPP government of President Tsai Ing-wen this is far outweighed by the recent significant strengthening of substantive relations with Japan, Australia, the US (presence at the Summit for Democracy) and Europe (EU Parliamentary delegation and EU resolution on strengthening and deepening relations with Taiwan).

Four examples of increased support for Taiwan

Indeed, a brief overview of recent development show that Taiwan’s international space has actually significantly expanded.

First and foremost is of course the fact that the country was invited to President Biden’s Summit for Democracy on December 9-10, 2021, as one of 110 countries, with Digital Minister Audrey Tang both giving an official intervention – along the government leaders from such countries as Japan, Korea, Indonesia and India – and participating in a panel discussion chaired by former US Ambassador Samantha Power on how digital technology can help democracy.

A second important fact is that other democracies in the region, such as Japan and Australia have now spoken out clearly, and stated that peace and security in the Taiwan Strait is essential for their own security, and that any attempts by China to change the status quo will be met with strong countermeasures.

In Japan, high officials from Premier Fumio Kishida on down have voice support for helping to “protect Taiwan as a democratic country” and supporting Taiwan’s participation in the WHO. In addition, in early December 2021, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that neither Japan nor the United States would stand by if China attacked Taiwan, and that an emergency for the island would also be an emergency for Japan.

In Australia, it was Defense Minister Peter Dutton, who stated in mid-November 2021 that it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to join the United States should Washington take action to defend Taiwan.

A third factor is that all the way on the other side of the world, in Europe, there has been a major shift in Taiwan’s favor. Traditionally, European nations had cold-shouldered Taiwan in order stay on friendly terms with Beijing, in the vain hope to gain access to Chinese market for their companies. But China’s own aggressive actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and threats against Taiwan – as well as an increasingly unfriendly and restrictive business climate in China – have prompted many countries to look at Taiwan in a new light.

This was exemplified in the resolution on deepening relations with Taiwan, passed by an overwhelming majority of 580 vs. 26 on October 21, 2021 and the statements by the European Commission that it intends to work towards deepening relations with Taiwan. This intent to strengthen relations with Taiwan also found its way into the EU-US joint statement on high-level consultations on the Indo-Pacific, on December 8, 2021, which concluded that: They reconfirmed their interest in stability and the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and both sides noted a shared interest in deepening cooperation with Taiwan.

And, fourthly, it is significant that an increasing number of countries is turning away from China because of its aggressive behavior, and are turning to Taiwan, not only because of economic reasons – and particularly its prowess in the chip industry (TSMC) – but also for reasons that are important for sustaining democracy in the world. To countries as far apart as Lithuania and Somaliland, Taiwan is a like-minded country, and relations can be enhanced to the mutual benefit.

Under pressure, more committed to human rights and democracy

In this context, it is important to highlight the words of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in her statement issued on December 10, 2021 – the day after the break of relations with Nicaragua:

“…. the more successful Taiwan’s democracy, the more robust its support from the international community, and the greater is the pressure we face from the authoritarian camp. However, we all firmly believe that no amount of external pressure can shake our efforts and commitment to freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and partnering with the international democratic community.

On Human Rights Day today, our Representative Hsiao Bi-khim and Digital Minister Audrey Tang are representing Taiwan in the “Summit for Democracy” hosted by the United States, communicating with democratic countries worldwide, and will also make a national statement at the meeting. In the past few years, Taiwan, at the forefront of the democratic line, has gained more and more support and attention from the international community.

We will stand firmly with the international democracy and freedom camp and continue to strengthen the capacity of Taiwan’s democracy and enhance our democratic resilience.”

Emphasis on substantive relations

Thus, by its strong commitment to human rights and democracy, Taiwan is strengthening its substantive relations with the free world. It has a global network of some 110 representative offices, which may not have the formal title of embassy, but which are effective in getting across Taiwan’s message.

In fact, this network represents the 31st largest diplomatic network in the world, ahead of Sweden (104 posts), Norway (99 posts), or Finland (85 posts). Of course, Taiwan has been kept out of international organizations like the UN, ICAO, the WHO and Interpol through the manipulations of Beijing. But even there one can see change coming: on October 25, 2021, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that:

“Taiwan has become a democratic success story. Its model supports transparency, respect for human rights, and the rule of law – values that align with those of the United Nations (UN). Taiwan is critical to the global high-tech economy and a hub of travel, culture, and education. We are among the many UN member states who view Taiwan as a valued partner and trusted friend.

Taiwan’s exclusion undermines the important work of the UN and its related bodies, all of which stand to benefit greatly from its contributions. We need to harness the contributions of all stakeholders toward solving our shared challenges. That is why we encourage all UN Member States to join us in supporting Taiwan’s robust, meaningful participation throughout the UN system and in the international community…”

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communique.” He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University.

This article was published as part of a special issue on the Summit for Democracy.

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