Written by Simona Grano.
According to China, Taiwan is a splinter province to be re-conducted under Beijing’s sphere of influence at all costs; likewise, China forbids international recognition of Taiwan under its “One China” principle. Through dealing with such hindrances for decades, the island has become skilled at swerving Chinese diplomatic aggression. Taiwan uses its soft – or “cat warrior” – diplomatic power to counter attacks on its sovereignty, promoting itself as a freedom-loving, peaceful nation in contrast to a belligerent China.
This short article sketches Taiwan’s official multiple identities as evolving through time and detailing its changing efforts to shape its image as a democratic, liberal, and peaceful country. While negative views of China have reached historic highs in 14 advanced economies, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Centre, Taiwan and its successes in keeping the corona pandemic under control have dramatically improved its image and made the world speak about Taiwan, for a place of its own merits.
Even though Taiwan has long possessed a “positive story” as a strong, stable democracy that deserves to be shared with the world, it is often shifts in geopolitical domains that amplify its capacity for “being heard.” While an important share of how Taiwan is perceived abroad depends on its domestic political communication apparatus, an even greater factor influencing how ‘Western media frames Taiwan’ internationally depends on the existing tensions and the geopolitical situation across the Strait.
Although Taiwan entertains social, economic and cultural interactions with many countries, and is a major economic player, it lacks formal diplomatic recognition. Furthermore, the PRC’s monopoly of representing China in international organisations – and the increasing pressure it exerts on Taiwan – is pushing the Republic of China away from identifying with a broad “Chinese identity” category. Moreover, it forces the Taiwanese to increasingly identify with ‘Taiwan’ as a ‘sovereign nation’. This new Taiwanese identity is based on civic and democratic values that bind Taiwanese people together, especially since the 1990s when Taiwan established a vibrant and successful democracy.
By transforming its national and ethnic identities in ways that have unwelcome implications for the PRC’s national identity, Taiwan needs to strike a chord with the outside world, marking a difference from its undemocratic neighbour. Since the pandemic, Taiwan has actively worked to link its positive contributions to global problems to its representative and open system.
A three-dimensional approach has been pursued in this article concerning recent efforts to boost the ‘Taiwan Brand’ internationally. First, Taiwan’s renewed efforts to be allowed to participate in international organisations, such as the UN and the WHO; second, its attempts to be portrayed as a successful “model” in managing the corona pandemic; and third, a renewed emphasis on its democratic and transparent system and participatory institutions. These three dimensions will be pursued by analysing press releases, media campaigns, newspaper articles and national policies.
Taiwan’s renewed efforts to participate in international organisations
Taiwan has long been aware of the delicate balance needed to survive for a ‘de facto’ but not ‘de jure’ state. Since the late 1980s, the country’s foreign policy and its international space have been understood as amalgamating different domains: domestic politics, cross-strait relations, and Taiwan-US relations are part of the mix. Moreover, other administrations from various political camps have understood the importance of consolidating relations with diplomatic allies, enhancing ties with non-diplomatic allies and participating in international organisations.
To this avail, in September 2021, Taiwan unveiled an international campaign promoting a bid to participate in the activities, mechanisms and meetings of the UN as a key partner in achieving Sustainable Development Goals.
The Campaign “Give Taiwan a Voice” was launched by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York shortly before the 76th UN General Assembly in September and is the latest government initiative urging global support for Taiwan’s bid to take part in the UN system. In addition, the initiative attempts to showcase the country’s contributions to stimulating global economic recovery and sustainable development in the post-COVID-19 era.
In a tweet on its official Twitter account, the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) declared, “The 76th @UN General Assembly opens Sept. 14. Taiwan is shut out on political grounds. Take 3 steps & join the call to give #Taiwan a voice at #UNGA76!”
A successful “model” in managing the corona pandemic
Because of its successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has renewed its efforts to participate in the World Health Assembly (WHA) both in 2020 and 2021, to which it was previously allowed with an “observer” status (2008 – 2016).
Taiwan survived the pandemic through an open and inclusive system where the public could actively participate in a state of emergency. This is a stark contrast to the draconian measures employed by China. Therefore, in its efforts to join the WHA, the Taiwanese government has purposely raised awareness of the participatory “Taiwan Model” of crisis management. For instance, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) wrote an article entitled “Global Health Security—A Call for Taiwan’s Inclusion,” highlighting the crucial role Taiwan could play in global health, which was well received by international media outlets.
Taiwan also tried to raise awareness by liaising with allied countries and interested parties, organising joint conferences to exchange ideas on the COVID-19 prevention strategies, global health security and Taiwan’s participation in the WHO.
One of the most famous government-sponsored campaigns is the “Protect Taiwan and Help the World” campaign, meant to illustrate the global civic spirit of the Taiwanese people. The pandemic also brought new opportunities for Taiwan to increase its visibility by supplying medical equipment under the slogans “Taiwan Can Help” and “Taiwan Is Helping.”
In sum, Taiwan has been able to gain consistent advantages from its good management of the COVID 19 pandemic. Still, it has come to a crossroads where it needs to build a brand image beyond COVID-19 to remain viable in an after-pandemic world. This is where values such as democracy, openness and inclusiveness come in.
The Post-Covid Era and the democratic/progressive values
In the Covid and post-Covid era, Taiwan has been assisted in branding its national image both by domestic and international factors.
Externally, a more aggressive China and its increasing lack of appeal among Western countries has allowed Taiwan to fill the gap in portraying itself as the ‘responsible player’ that has successfully mastered the pandemic without the draconian measures of its neighbour. Internally, a more progressive administration has allowed the ruling party to link its national branding efforts to issues that have more to do with domestic politics and the democratic system, such as freedom of opinion, speech, religion, and respect for diversity. These are all characteristics the current administration wants Taiwan to be associated with in the international discourse. By so doing, the island strongly marks its difference (and its distance) from China’s authoritarian regime.
Under the current DPP administration, the government has actively promoted Taiwan’s Austronesian Indigenous heritage at home and abroad, setting the island’s historical narrative further apart from China’s. The ruling party also elevated LGBT issues as the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. In a video produced before the United Nations’ Assembly in September 2021 that trended on Twitter with the hashtags #UNGA76 #HearTaiwan #WorkingTogether, these attributes are spelt out clearly. The video ends with the slogan: “Free to speak, to learn, to believe, to vote, to love. FREE IN TAIWAN.” These characteristics of a peace-loving, freedom-oriented democracy become crucial in Taiwan’s national branding efforts, when directly juxtaposed with the recent attitude that China has taken onto the world stage.
Wolf Warriors vs Cat Warriors Diplomacy
Since 2017 the Chinese foreign ministry has taken an increasingly assertive tone against several other countries worldwide. This novel approach, also called “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” is purposely aimed at reinforcing China’s transition from “dealing with the world” in a low-key manner of the past to the high-profile and self-assured way of the present. Named after two movies starring agents of the Chinese special operation forces, the term indicates actions by Chinese diplomats to strenuously defend China’s national interests and own narration of events.
While China’s diplomacy is unfolding in the world in a “wolf warrior” mode, Taiwan is fighting back differently. In the past two years, Taiwanese diplomats have started to openly counteract Chinese foreign policy and public diplomacy efforts by crafting Taiwan as a responsible and democratic player, capable of finding solutions to global crises, which involve – rather than censor – the public.
This novel style of diplomacy is best embodied by Taiwan’s envoy to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim, who – in 2020 – moved to Washington DC with her four cats and told the media that her agile “cat warrior” qualities – namely flexibility, intelligence and independence – will enable her to counter the aggressive behaviour of “wolf warrior” diplomats. Hsiao – the first female representative to the US and the first ambassador to run a social media, account herself – posts messages that revolve around values like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and stand in sharp contrast with the more aggressive Chinese style of diplomacy, best embodied in Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Zhao Lijian’s tweets. ‘Cat warrior diplomacy’ indicates Taiwanese politicians’ and diplomats’ communication style, using humour to build mutual understanding, making ample usage of positive terms such as “freedom” and “openness.” On the contrary, the wolf warrior Twitter diplomacy has gradually coalesced around two aims: to criticise foreign countries for misunderstanding China; warn anyone who stands in the way of China resuming its rightful position in the world that they will pay the price.
In both cases, Twitter diplomacy’s main goal is to construe a country’s image and share it with the international community.
With Taiwan’s formal diplomatic space further diminished by a more assertive China, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has set out to rebrand Taiwan’s international identity. It thus takes advantage of its positive crisis management efforts and its democratic attributes, setting a stark contrast to China.
In all the recent governmental campaigns and foreign diplomacy efforts, Taiwan’s distinct socio-cultural values (transparency, freedom, respect, and tolerance) are creating a new national consciousness. This has specifically tied to the new image Taiwan wants to convey of itself as a ‘responsible player’ with much to offer to the world if the international community allows it to. Placing greater emphasis on “post-materialist” issues associated with lifestyle or equality rather than physical security or material comfort, Taiwan positions itself as a post-industrial society where issues connected to the representation of previously marginalised groups, equality, and diversity as well as ecological awareness have become well-established priorities. In such a society, political leaders, especially under the Tsai administration through well-known figures like Audrey Tang or Hsiao Bi-khim, are perceived as ‘close to the people,’ ‘accountable’ and ‘transparent.’
In conclusion, through the analysis of recent campaigns, we can see that we can improve ‘Taiwan’s National Brand’ by shifting the debate to focus on the superiority of its socio-political system. This would concentrate on exogenous elements (e.g., the pandemic, the China element, and its more aggressive positioning on the international stage) that are crucial factors to raise attention to the Taiwan case.
Simona A. Grano is Senior Lecturer at the University of Zurich and Director of the Taiwan Studies Project at UZH. She completed her Ph.D. in Chinese Studies at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy in 2008. Since then she has held research positions and taught China Studies and Taiwan Studies at her alma mater, at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and at National Cheng’chi University in Taiwan. She is the author of Environmental Governance in Taiwan: a new generation of activists and stakeholders, which has been published in 2015 by Routledge and is currently working on an edited volume titled: International Response to US-China Strategic Competition: neutrality or taking sides, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022.
This article is published as part of a special issue on European Association of Taiwan Studies.