Taiwan Diplomacy: Worth the Effort?

Written by David Pendery

Image credit: 01.09 總統與尼國孟卡達總統顧問沿紅毯前進接受禮兵致敬 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Commentary has recently focused on Taiwan’s diplomatic ties, following the loss of a number of allies under President Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure, most recently Nicaragua, which caused quite a stir internationally. The state of affairs has worsened to the point that many in the nation are now questioning the value of diplomatic relations in general and whether it is even worth the trouble for Taiwan to maintain its diplomatic relations with its remaining official allies. This is a query worth addressing.

The question comes down to a few key points, including whether public opinion and political leaders’ sentiments are shifting to “no” on this point; the economic and diplomatic effects of these changes and the issue of Taiwan’s “isolation” in international affairs; and just exactly how “Taiwan” and the “Republic of China” subsist and operate in all of this. 

In a recent Taipei Times article, Raymond Sung (宋承恩) claimed that “statehood does not require diplomatic recognition from other countries.” This could not be more mal-informed. The existence of the non-countries worldwide, with virtually no diplomatic recognition and negligible impact and effect on global affairs, clearly indicates the failure of this view. The State of Palestine, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and the Republic of Somaliland come to mind. 

There is no doubt another mistaken perspective that is completely disconnected from reality. Just as some people might claim, Cheng Hui-ying, a teacher in Taiwan, said, “I don’t even know where Nicaragua is.” Yet a lot of us know where Nicaragua is. Furthermore, this nation is just as important as any other in terms of Taiwan/the ROC’s roles and position in world affairs. 

Chen Chien-jen (程建人) expressed a view that makes more sense in these respects. This was that “If no other countries officially recognise Taiwan, we will become further isolated in the international arena, and the legitimacy and the very existence of the country will become questionable.” The aforementioned non-states are relevant here, and the presence of the ROC, as opposed to Taiwan’s official designation (much less independence), complicates this view. In any case, even a “country” like the State of Palestine, with the recognition of 138 UN member states, is not entirely there yet—and is not a member in the UN, which Taiwan/the ROC knows something about. You Si-kun’s (游錫堃) added opinion that Taiwan “could gain allies as an independent Taiwan” is in these ways an untruth, as Taiwan is not going to be independent any time soon, as far as everyone can see. 

The EU, US, Japan, and others have recently increased their attention to Taiwan, and the incident with Lithuania opening a Taiwanese representative office has contributed significantly to this. But none of this gets to the real matter. Such semi-official relations with this or that country amount to little more than that—essentially half-measures that are primarily done for political/bureaucratic/administrative purposes, created, and maintained by fellow-traveller Taiwan sympathisers, with little true get-up-and-go to make them actually effective in any diplomatic sense. The fact that none of the aforementioned countries recognise Taiwan or the Republic of China demonstrates this.

Taiwan’s unofficial or non-government relations with other foreign entities may be more essential than all the rhetoric about formal diplomatic recognition. In other words, what Taiwan needs may be capacious ongoing relations with various organisations and institutions—dubbed non-official and non-government, instead of the existing state-to-state interactions. Moreover, given that many of the groups in line are enormously important and influential, such relationships might foster an elevated level of reciprocity, trustworthiness, credibility and mutual validity and legality among the actors, which could be beneficial to Taiwan, and lead to even better outcomes. 

This is mentioned positively in the Taipei Times commentary, and I do not doubt that it can replace the importance of official diplomatic recognition in Taiwan. Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, the Library Project, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, the WHO, and the Committee on Space Research are among the main organisations that might be involved. Taiwan has connections with some of these groups now but needs to go further. These connections may fall short of diplomacy, but they can have a real impact on cooperative effort, international law, and transnational arbitration. 

According to Déber Andrade Lage and Leonardo Nemer Caldeira Brant in “The Growing Influence of Non-Governmental Organisations: Chances and Risks,” cooperation with non-governmental organisations has been a hot topic in global affairs. We have witnessed a considerable increase in the number and importance of these organisations, as well as the prominence of their output, capabilities, and functions, in recent years. Their incorporation into civil structures, and their connection to governmental systems, has indicated their growing importance in the formulation of national and international policy. The environment in which these groups function has proven to be stable and favourable for accomplishment, and diverse objectives, functions and activities have been formulated, with transparent, accountable mechanisms employed in necessary decision-making. Non-government organisations are doing much more than simply observing from the sidelines and have become vital to developing and implementing policies and processes. Many of them are financially autonomous and capable of creating and conducting their own programs, with substantial autonomy in relation to states. 

In a word, in light of all of the preceding, this may be seen as an avenue that Taiwan should explore thoroughly, and could undoubtedly have a significant economic impact, which seems to be on many people’s thoughts. In all of this, I see no negative with assigning priority to official relations with other countries. But perhaps it is time to take a step back from diplomacy proper and look into a bit of the non-diplomacy described here. 

David Pendery obtained a B.A. in International Relations at San Francisco State University, and an M.S. in Journalism at Boston University. He has lived and worked as a technician and writer in these cities. He relocated to Taipei, Taiwan, in 2000, and there has worked as an English Consultant, journalist, and editor. He obtained his PhD in English literature and historiography at National Chengchi University in Taipei. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Foreign Languages at National Taipei University of Business. He is married to a Taiwanese woman, and they have a five-year-old daughter. 

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