Taiwan’s Middle Power Humanitarian Diplomacy

Written by Huynh Tam Sang.

Image credit: Taiwan-Republic of China community supports Ukraine by Can Pac Swire/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC 2.0.

Taiwan has been a strong advocate for liberal democracy. Its commitment is further demonstrated by recent protests calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt his bloody war waged against Ukraine. Politicians and civilians condemned Russia’s illegal invasion, holding placards with clear and sharp messages, such as No to War, Stop Putin, Stand With Ukraine, Support Ukraine, Stop Russian Aggression, among others.

In mid-March, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said that “Ukraine is suffering the terrible consequences of authoritarian aggression. Everyone is shocked and saddened but also moved by Ukraine’s determination. Taiwan will continue to unite and cooperate with its democratic partners to jointly oppose the invasion of Ukraine.” As a keen supporter of freedom and liberal democracy, the president of Taiwan undoubtedly emphasises preserving and defending democratic values, such as liberty, freedom, and autonomy, shared among democratic nations.

The independently governed democracy has been growingly viewed as one of the dangerous potential flashpoints in Asia as China has increased its prowess over the archipelago, with Beijing’s frequent aerial incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Hence, security is the top priority that Taiwanese leaders have heeded. President Tsai has recently ordered the Taiwanese troops to get defensive forces in readiness and called for strengthening armed forces and security personnel to better cope with contingencies.

But Taiwan has not stayed away from what has played out in Ukraine. Instead of embracing a silent or reluctant stance and focusing on its defensive posture against its giant neighbour—China, the Taiwanese government has put the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine among its top foreign-policy agendas. At the same time, the Tsai administration has gradually forged domestic solidarity about the urgent need to support Ukrainian refugees, those having been caught in situations of insecurity due to Russia’s protracted war.

As casualties in Ukraine are mounting and the number of Ukrainian people fleeing the country is increasing, the Taiwanese government and private sectors have joint hands to step up their effort to support Ukraine. Both top-level officials of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its opposition party—the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), vowed to donate a month of their salaries to humanitarian relief efforts to support Ukrainian refugees. Though not having political schemes in common and having been far from reaching a consensus on dealing with China, political figures from the two major parties of Taiwan likely agree on the requisite of offering humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian refugees.

Taiwan has embraced humanitarian diplomacy to strengthen ties with like-minded countries, especially those under the intimidation of non-liberal regimes. Efforts to help Ukrainian refugees have also been advanced by advocacy organisations, political activists, church groups, and individuals in Taiwan. As of March 17, non-governmental organisations, civil-society groups, human rights associations, businesses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, fundraisers, and people in Taiwan had donated over 50 metric tons of humanitarian aid. Moreover, the first shipment of 5.5 metric tons of supplies for Ukrainian refugees arrived in Slovakia on March 22. The second batch of donated goods reached Slovakia on March 30 and will be distributed to locals in Ukraine, continuing to keep up the responsible spirit of “Taiwan Can Help,” which has been used since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and gained recognition among the international community as an indication of a meaningful commitment to benefit the world in times of crisis . While fighting the pandemic domestically, Taiwan offered sincerity by donating masks and sharing experiences with European countries and diplomatic allies.

Taiwan also joined hands with European middle-powers to support Ukraine by sending necessities, such as blankets, wheelchairs, lighting devices, raincoats, sleeping bags, cookies, milk powder, basic medications, diapers, and feminine hygiene products that Ukrainian refugees have sought in dire need. The goods will reach Ukrainian refugees through local relief agencies in European countries bordering Ukraine. Taiwan has further pledged to stay committed to close cooperation with like-minded countries in Europe to help Ukrainian refugees in their own countries.

Donations of food, money and medical supplies from the Taiwanese government and citizens have indicated Taiwan’s sympathy and compassion for the Ukrainians fleeing their homeland. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since February 24, more than 4 million civilians have fled Ukraine in search of safety, protection, and assistance since the onset of the war; however, the actual number may exceed four million.

Donations from Taiwan not only help convey the spirit of “a friend in need is the friend indeed” but also demonstrate its firm commitment to helping Ukraine. President Tsai averred early this month that Taiwan would do its best to support Ukraine and stand with the values of freedom and democracy. The leader of Taiwan further underlined: “We’ll do whatever we can for Ukraine.” By supporting Ukraine, Taiwan has stayed unwavering in its well-known principle: “Taiwan Can Help,” even amid Beijing’s condemnation of Taiwan’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine as “taking advantage of other’s difficulties.” “[Taiwan’s] attempts to incite confrontation and create hostility through political manipulation will not succeed,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮) warned.

The Taiwanese government and its people are standing shoulder to shoulder with the East European country in the battle against authoritarian regimes. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) noted that much-needed humanitarian aid sent to help Ukrainian refugees demonstrated a shared understanding between the two members of the democratic world. With Russian troops launching a sweeping Ukraine invasion, Taiwan recognises the urgency of supporting its democratic fellows in the era of great-power politics. This is especially true when great powers attempt to unilaterally wage war against countries that they deem unfriendly or harmful to their nationalistic historical narratives.

In general, Taiwan has offered both symbolic support and practical help to Ukraine. While political rhetoric would likely prove effective in winning short-term support, practical engagement could last longer and embed in the minds of those achieving genuine assistance. Moreover, by stretching its hands to Ukraine, Taiwan has sought to construct a narrative of middle-ranking countries helping each other when liberal democracy is in peril.

According to the Lowy Institute’s 2021 Asia Power Index, Taiwan was hailed as a middle power in Asia and had the best performance in terms of economic capability. Furthermore, as praised by the Index, “Taipei’s competent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted its international reputation.” In addition, Taiwan has embraced niche diplomacy—a sort of diplomacy conducted in selected areas falling within the scope of interest and capacity of middle powers to forge their manoeuvrability and flexibility. According to Andrew Cooper, a renowned scholar laying the theoretical framework on middle-power studies, niche diplomacy is framed as the unique tool of middle-size countries, whose “high degree of resources and reputational qualifications” are utilised to form their middle-power behaviour. These activities help middle powers fulfil their responsibilities while raising their profile and footprint on regional and potentially international stages.

Shared concerns and discontent for irredentist, repressive coercion have buttressed Taiwan’s confidence to support Ukraine, even when the 23-million de facto nation has stood on the front line of Beijing’s economic and military coercion. As pointed out by Denny Roy, a senior fellow at Honolulu-based East-West Centre think tank, Taiwanese people’s special sympathy for Ukrainians is solid, given many similarities shared by the two sides. The courage to fight back against powerful and tyrannical neighbours and the love for freedom and democracy are notable parallels that people in Ukraine and Taiwan have sought to strengthen in the face of Russia’s and China’s intimidation.

As the resurrection of great-power politics has tragically befallen smaller powers, Taiwan has enhanced its agency via embracing humanitarian diplomacy and has sought a meaningful role in the global arena by supporting like-minded countries. The lesson from Taiwan’s humanitarian diplomacy is that when democracy is exposed to challenges, middle powers should potentially play a responsible role by investing in diplomatic support and humanitarian aid to vulnerable people.

Huynh Tam Sang, a doctorate holder and international relations lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, is a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum. He tweets @huynhtamsang2.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Ukraine and Russia-Taiwan and China’.

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