Since Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in May 2016, relations across the Taiwan Strait have grown increasingly tense—and even more so following the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August 2022. Following Beijing’s move to unilaterally suspend official and semiofficial cross-Strait contacts, the Chinese leadership has demonstrated the broad spectrum of the toolkit it wields against the island.
Beijing’s toolkit includes disinformation campaigns and larger influence operation efforts to spread discord across the Taiwan public and paint Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as ill-equipped to govern. Other tactics include routine incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and targeted import bans to hit critical agricultural sectors. Internationally, Beijing has sharply retracted the goodwill it extended to the previous administration, led by the more China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), by poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and blocking not only Taiwan’s access to international and regional fora, but also pressing these organizations to adopt Beijing’s framing of “Taiwan as a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”
Preserving and expanding Taiwan’s international space, broadly defined as its participation in and engagement with the larger global community, has been a consistent goal across recent Taiwan government administrations—be it KMT or DPP—since the early 1990’s.1Bonnie Glaser, “Taiwan’s Quest for Greater Participation in the International Community,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2013, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/131121_Glaser_TaiwansQuest_WEB.pdf. There are numerous ways Taiwan tries to remain active in the international arena, including by maintaining official and unofficial relations with other countries, participating in international political and economic organs, or engaging with external actors through its civil society and the nonprofit sectors. Taiwan’s objectives include obtaining support for its sovereignty claims; contributing to and gaining information from global debates with relevance back home; accessing preferential trade agreements or blocs; and shaping Taiwan’s global image, including trying to portray itself as a responsible stakeholder.
While successive administrations in Taiwan have pursued different policies regarding the island’s international space, these approaches were shaped in response to the geopolitical realities of the time. The current Tsai administration has arguably had to adapt to a disproportionately large number of world events, compared to previous administrations, including two major unprecedented ones in relative quick succession: the outbreak of COVID-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This issue brief will first provide a succinct overview of the history of diplomatic competition between the Republic of China (ROC) and the PRC, which will be followed by a discussion of the policies advanced by the previous KMT administration under former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). The piece will then explore the evolution of the Tsai administration’s approach to securing Taiwan’s international space, including adjustments made in response to the global pandemic and increasing authoritarian aggression, and it will conclude with predictions on how Taiwan’s international engagement will persist beyond its elections in 2024.
Competition for diplomatic recognition between the ROC and the PRC was borne with the inception of the latter and played out against the larger backdrop of the Cold War. Both were competing to be the “true China” and both maintained a “one China” baseline, refusing to forge diplomatic relations with a country that recognized the other, presenting countries with an “either/or” choice.2Timothy Ka-ying Wong, “Changing Taiwan’s Foreign Policy: From One China to Two States,” Asian Perspective 24, no. 1 (2000): 9, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42704247. This came to a head when the PRC had garnered sufficient support and backing to bring to a vote the issue of whether or not the PRC should hold the “China” seat at the United Nations (UN) to a vote—which ultimately passed with UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 in 1971.3Drun and Glaser, “The Distortion of UN Resolution 2758.”.
Following the passage of UN Resolution 2758, the number of countries recognizing the PRC surged, continuing further along this trajectory after the United States and the PRC normalized relations in 1979.4John F. Copper, “Taiwan’s Diplomatic Isolation: How Serious a Problem?” The Journal of East Asian Affairs 6, no.1 (1992): 207-208, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23253989. Around the same time, Taipei began to place greater emphasis on the commercial and cultural elements of diplomacy. Coupled with Taipei’s nascent democratization efforts at the time, this laid the foundation for an approach to international outreach that extended beyond the hard political elements of diplomacy and that tied the ROC’s legitimacy to the Taiwan people and, by extension, positive perceptions of democracy worldwide (though this is not to underemphasize or devalue the contributions of the Dangwai (黨外) movement to Taiwan’s democratization).5Copper, “Taiwan’s Diplomatic Isolation,” 207; and Shelley Rigger, From Opposition to Power: Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001). The Dangwai, or “outside the party,” movement was composed of opposition politicians and dissident intellectuals at a time when opposition parties in Taiwan were banned. Activists from the Dangwai movement advocated for self-rule and played a pivotal role in Taiwan’s democratization movement. Many of the movement’s members were founders of the DPP. For more on this, see S. Rigger’s From Opposition to Power.
In the early 1980s, the ROC lost its membership to major global financial organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, when its seat was transferred to the PRC. During this time, President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) adopted a policy of “practical diplomacy”—maintaining a firm “one China” baseline for joining intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) while preserving space for flexibility in joining nongovernmental organizations under a “no avoidance and no surrender” mindset, and saw successes such as with the International Olympic Committee.6Wong, “Changing Taiwan’s Foreign Policy”: 10 Concurrently, though, Beijing persisted in blocking Taiwan’s access to nongovernmental organizations and in trying to lure away Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies.7Wong, “Changing Taiwan’s Foreign Policy”: 9
Chiang’s successor, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), set forth a policy of “pragmatic diplomacy” (務實外交) that sought to counteract Taipei’s increasing international isolation by being less rigid about what his administration would be willing to accept, most critically on “one China” hard line. Early on in his administration, Lee touted his openness for dual-recognition (of two political entities under a common “one China”) at IGOs and drove a largely unsuccessful effort to join and participate in these organizations. Under this approach, Taipei accepted countries having official ties with both the ROC and PRC, though Beijing remained steadfast in it being one or the other.8T. Y. Wang, “Taiwan’s Foreign Relations under Lee Teng-Hui’s Rule, 1988-2000,” American Asian Review 20, no.1 (2002): 78-79. Under the Lee administration, Taipei doubled down on informal diplomatic efforts, including by opening representative offices in dozens of countries, following the model it used with the United States and Japan from the decade prior, and utilizing unofficial travel for reciprocal exchanges between government officials; this latter approach was spurred in part by Taiwan’s burgeoning transition to a full democracy and surging economic growth.9Wang, “Taiwan’s Foreign Relations,”: 81-87. 10Drun and Glaser, “The Distortion of UN Resolution 2758”; Wang, “Taiwan’s Foreign Relations under”: 75-76.
Taiwan took advantage of its economic strength to help grow its international space. It fostered deeper trade and investment relationships with major economies around the world, which lessened its reliance on the PRC market. It also used initial economic outreach to cultivate unofficial political ties with new partners, such as post-Soviet states, and offered foreign aid in what was known as “dollar diplomacy” for smaller, poorer countries, which often spurred these countries to switch diplomatic recognition from the PRC to the ROC.11Wang, “Taiwan’s Foreign Relations”: 84-91. This latter practice, often criticized as “checkbook diplomacy,” persisted into the next administration.12Timothy S. Rich and Vasabjit Banerjee, “Time to End Checkbook Diplomacy, Taiwan,” News Lens, June 15, 2017, https://international.thenewslens.com/article/70867.
In 2000, Taiwan had its first transition of power to the DPP, with Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) elected as the first non-KMT president. In his first term, Chen undertook several conciliatory measures toward the PRC to try to chart a positive course for cross-Strait relations, including his “Four Nos” policy centered around not moving towards independence, and opening the three “mini-links” of direct cross-Strait trade, transport, and postal.13James Mitchell, “Taiwan stands up,” Taipei Times, May 21, 2000, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2000/05/21/36952; and Shelley Rigger, “Notes for the Conference on Taiwan and US Policy: Toward Stability or Crisis? The Role of Domestic Politics: Taiwan,” Presented in part two of a two-part series sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in conjunction with Stanford University, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the National Committee on US-China Relations, hosted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, October 9, 2002, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/rigger_paper_100902.pdf. Taiwan successfully joined the World Trade Organization and secured membership in eight IGOs and observer status in seven.14Glaser, “Taiwan’s Quest for Greater Participation in the International Community.” Beijing’s recalcitrance due to its “one China” precondition prompted Chen to later shift gears and initiate what would be dubbed by his critics as “scorched earth diplomacy (烽火外交),” intended to overwhelm the PRC with diplomatic feints—making motions to poach a diplomatic ally without following through—and to deplete Beijing’s resources so that Taiwan would face less resistance in achieving its actual priorities.15Tingting Yang, “Southeast Asia’s Relations with Taiwan, 2000-2016: An Assessment of Vietnam and Singapore,” Calhoun: Institutional Archive of the Naval Postgraduate School, September 2019, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Southeast_Asia%E2%80%99s_relations_with_Taiwan%2C_2000-2016-_an_assessment_of_Vietnam_and_Singapore_%28IA_southeastasiasre1094556192%29.pdf; and Kwei-Bo Huang, “Taiwan’s Foreign Policy and International Space”, Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Taiwan, ed. Gunter Schubert (Abingdon-on-Thames, United Kingdom, and New York: Routledge, 2016), 465-81. Chen also sought to apply for UN membership for the first time as “Taiwan”—rather than the ROC—but fumbled in his effort. This all led to wariness from the United States and other countries, all while accusations of checkbook diplomacy endured.16“President Chen Shui-bian’s Letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Delivered on July 19,” Office of the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), July 20, 2007, https://english.president.gov.tw/NEWS/2720; Minxin Pei, “Crash Landing for Transit Diplomacy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 9, 2006, https://carnegieendowment.org/2006/05/09/crash-landing-for-transit-diplomacy-pub-18337; Yang, “Southeast Asia’s Relations with Taiwan, 2000-2016”; and Huang, “Taiwan’s Foreign Policy and International Space.” Taiwan lost nine of its official diplomatic allies, and global perceptions of Taiwan soured. Chen also earned the unfortunate moniker of “troublemaker,” though this was due in no small part to PRC propaganda efforts.17Huang, “Taiwan’s Foreign Policy and International Space”; and “Beijing: Chen Shui-bian Is a ‘Troublemaker, Saboteur,’” China Daily, February 8, 2006, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2006-02/08/content_518231.htm.
Recent approaches and developments
Under the Ma administration from 2008 to 2016, Taipei pursued a policy of “flexible diplomacy” (活路外交) that sought to deepen trust with Beijing, project cross-Strait rapprochement into the international arena, and suspend ROC-PRC competition for diplomatic recognition. At the same time, the administration fostered positive relationships with Taiwan’s unofficial allies and sought meaningful participation in those international fora in which sovereignty was not a prerequisite.18“President Ma’s Remarks at Ministry of Foreign Affairs: The Concept and Strategy of the ‘Flexible Diplomacy’,” Office of the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), August 4, 2008, https://english.president.gov.tw/NEWS/2653.
Ma envisioned this policy as a course correction from his predecessors, concluding that the past “scorched earth diplomacy” and “checkbook diplomacy” had proved to be “detrimental to Taiwan’s national interest”; he also noted that “mutual trust with our non-diplomatic allies has fallen, the number of our diplomatic allies has decreased, our participation in international activities has encountered unprecedented pressure, and Taiwan’s international image has worsened.”19“President Ma’s Remarks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”.
A major component of this “flexible diplomacy” policy was the “diplomatic truce (外交休兵)” in which Taiwan would no longer vie with the PRC for diplomatic recognition. While China never formally agreed to the truce, it tacitly accepted it by respecting the policy in practice—with rumors that Beijing rejected overtures from many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Latin and South America to switch recognition.20Shih-chung Liu, “Strategies for a Cross-Strait Truce,” Brookings Institution, November 20, 2008, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/strategies-for-a-cross-strait-truce/; and Jessica Drun, “China-Taiwan Diplomatic Truce Holds Despite Gambia,” Diplomat, March 29, 2014, https://thediplomat.com/2014/03/china-taiwan-diplomatic-truce-holds-despite-gambia/.
The diplomatic truce era was revealing in that it showcased PRC priorities, with the management of cross-Strait relations—a core interest for the Chinese Communist Party leadership—taking precedence over increasing the number of countries that recognize the PRC. This included corresponding gains for PRC bureaucracies in expanding the country’s global footprint (as there were whispers that certain elements of the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs were discontented about the diplomatic truce, due to it limiting the number of ambassadorships and posts available for PRC diplomats).21Drun, “China-Taiwan Diplomatic Truce Holds Despite Gambia”; “Forced to Give Up the Opportunity to Perform Meritorious Service [because of] the Diplomatic Truce, the PRC Ministry of Affairs Is unhappy (被迫放棄建功機會 外交休兵 中國外交部不爽),” Liberty Times (自由時報), September 9, 2011, https://news.ltn.com.tw/amp/news/focus/paper/522894?fbclid=IwAR3-4kdmkXIIemO4Lk3Yzuj5iFb10_vJ4qV8JQg-6KcJWD3jzYIxMlMUh9M.
The example of Gambia in 2013 demonstrated most starkly Beijing’s resoluteness in tacitly accepting the diplomatic truce. When Gambia unilaterally cut ties with the ROC without prior consultation with Taipei or Beijing, it expected the latter to welcome its offer to formalize an official relationship. However, Beijing did not respond, and between November 2013 and January 2016, Gambia did not have formal diplomatic ties with either the ROC or the PRC, finding itself in the same position as Bhutan.22Bhutan’s approach to foreign policy is complex; at risk of oversimplification, it can be categorized as somewhat isolationist, because it is selective in its official and unofficial engagement with other countries, out of a need to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Due to this wariness, it does not have diplomatic ties with any of the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council. Bhutan maintains a special friendship with India, but this also serves as a means for the two to counterbalance the PRC. Longstanding issues between Bhutan and the PRC are questions around Tibet and border disputes. For more, see: “Foreign Policy of the Kingdom of Bhutan,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan, February 2021, https://www.mfa.gov.bt/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Foreign-Policy-Document.pdf;Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, “The Changing Contours of Bhutan’s Foreign Policy and the Implications for China and India,” Observer Research Foundation, June 2022, https://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/ORF_OccasionalPaper_356_Bhutan.pdf; and Andi Dahmer and Timothy S. Rich, “Taiwan’s Diplomatic Relations in Central America: A Historical Legacy or Enduring Partnership?” 2018, Draft Paper presented at the American Association for Chinese Studies Annual Conference (AACS), University of Maryland Law, Baltimore, MD, October 5-7, 2018, https://aacs.ccny.cuny.edu/2018conference/Dahmer%20Rich%20%20AACS%20paper%209-20-18.pdf. 23Drun, “China-Taiwan Diplomatic Truce Holds Despite Gambia.”
The flexible diplomacy policy also brought Taiwan tangible gains beyond maintaining a steady number of diplomatic allies from 2008 to 2016. Taiwan secured more access to international organizations, including specialized UN agencies. For example, it attended the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer from 2009 to 2016 and the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Assembly in 2013 as an invited guest of its president.24Nike Ching, “G-7 Countries Back Taiwan’s Observer Status in World Health Assembly,” Voice of America, May 5, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/east-asia-pacific_g-7-countries-back-taiwans-observer-status-world-health-assembly/6205478.html; Bonnie Glaser, “Taiwan Quest for Greater Participation in the International Community.” The Ma administration claimed that the policy fostered a political climate that allowed for a number of visa exemptions for Taiwan tourists in Western countries and paved the way for it to sign pseudo-free trade agreements for the first time with countries with which it did not have official ties, such as New Zealand and Singapore.25“Flexible diplomacy yields visa-free European travel,” Taiwan Today, October 15, 2010, https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=2&post=1468&unitname=Politics-Top-News&postname=Flexible-diplomacy-yields-visa-free-European-travel. Beijing likely permitted this because it had existing FTAs with those countries and in the agreements, Taiwan used its WTO designation as “the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu”; taken together, these measures provided enough ambiguity to not contradict the PRC’s “one China,” achieved then through the “1992 Consensus.”26Glaser, “Taiwan’s Quest for Greater Participation in the International Community.” The “1992 Consensus” formulation served as the foundation for cross-Strait dialogue during the Ma administration and was premised on a common One China baseline. However, the concept is contentious in Taiwan, from its purported origins in a 1992 meeting between PRC and ROC representatives in Hong Kong (which notably, was prior to Taiwan’s full democratization and thus did not include the assent of its people) to whether there is any semblance of an actual consensus between the two sides. For more, see: Jessica Drun, “Taiwan’s Opposition Struggles to Shake Pro-China Image,” Foreign Policy, March 11, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/11/taiwanopposition-kuomintang-kmt-pro-china-1992-consensus/.
Ma likewise touted the successes of flexible diplomacy in recalibrating Taipei’s unofficial relationship with the United States by demonstrating how Taiwan could be a “responsible stakeholder.”27“President Ma explains his new diplomatic approach,” Taiwan Today, August 15, 2008, https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=10,23,45,10&post=14925; Alan D. Romberg, “Cross-Strait Relations: First the Easy Steps, Then the Difficult Ones,” China Leadership Monitor (No. 26), Fall 2008, https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/files/file-attachments/CLM26AR_1.pd; Ma’s focus on UN specialized agencies aligned with longstanding US support for Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in organizations where “statehood is not a requirement.”28Ibid. While US-Taiwan relations were placed on a backburner as his administration prioritized cross-Strait rapprochement, the Ma era included the initiation of the Global Cooperation & Training Framework, which served as “a platform to utilize Taiwan’s strengths and expertise to address global issues of mutual concern.”29“Taiwanese Perspectives on United States-Taiwan Relations and the People’s Republic of China during the Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen Administrations,” before the Hose Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, 116th Congress, page 1-2 (2020) (Shelley Rigger, Brown Professor of Political Science at Davidson College); “Mission,” Global Cooperation and Training Framework, 2020, https://www.gctf.tw/en/IdeaPurpose.htm. The period also saw more routinized stopovers for President Ma and his Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) as they transited the United States en route to meetings with diplomatic allies in the Western Hemisphere (and with zero opposition from Beijing, contrasting sharply with complaints it lodged during the Chen era).30Ralph Jennings, “Taiwan VP US Trip Tests Diplomatic Truce,” Voice of America, August 15, 2012, https://www.voanews.com/a/taiwan-vp-us-trip-tests-taiwan-china-diplomatic-truce/1486409.html; Kristian McGuire, “Tsai Ing-wen’s US Transit Stops in Historical Context,” The Diplomat, July 5, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/07/tsai-ing-wens-u-s-transit-stops-in-historical-context/.
After Taiwan’s general elections in 2016, in which the DPP took control of both the presidency and the legislature for the first time, it became all too apparent that the concerns of critics of the diplomatic truce—and flexible diplomacy, more broadly—were valid and realized. Those that opposed or were skeptical of the diplomatic truce held that the policy was imbalanced, as it let Beijing wield all the cards, and the PRC’s forbearance from poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies could easily be withdrawn and used as a tool to apply political pressure on Taipei, sparking a domino effect among the ROC’s remaining official allies.31Shih-chung Liu, “Strategies for a Cross-Strait Truce”; Others also argued that the truce provided room for the PRC to advocate for the universality of its “one China” principle32The One China Principle is the PRC’s insistence that “there is only one China in the world, Taiwan is a part of China and the government of the PRC is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.” Notably, it is different from countries’ unique One China policies, which vary across the spectrum. The US position is that Taiwan’s status is undetermined. For more on how the PRC has attempted to internationalize its One China Principle, see: Jessica Drun and Bonnie Glaser, “The Distortion of UN Resolution 2758 to Limit Taiwan’s Access to the United Nations,” German Marshall Fund, March 2022, https://www.gmfus.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/Drun%26Glaser-distortion-un-resolution-2758-limit-taiwans-access_1.pdf. For more on the US One China policy, see: Richard Bush, “A One-China Policy Primer,” Brookings Institution, March 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/one-china-policy-primer-web-final.pdf. on the world stage.33Shih-chung Liu, “Strategies for a Cross-Strait Truce.”
In the four months between Tsai’s election and her inauguration, Beijing began to posture by signaling that it would constrict Taiwan’s international space if Tsai refused to accept the 1992 Consensus. Such actions were first seen in March of 2016, when the PRC abruptly established diplomatic relations with Gambia—which presented Beijing with a unique opportunity. The PRC did not compel Banjul to switch recognition from the ROC—with state-affiliated media denying claims that this move meant an end to the tacit truce—but the PRC made clear that it could very much defy the diplomatic truce if desired.34“Cross-Straits ‘diplomatic truce’ still holds,” Global Times, March 18, 2016, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/974522.shtml. Beijing likewise delayed Taiwan’s annual WHA invitation, which, for the first time, included language on the importance of adhering to “one China”—another thinly veiled threat that the preservation of Taiwan’s international space hinged on acquiescence to the 1992 Consensus.35Jessica Drun and Bonnie Glaser, “The Distortion of UN Resolution 2758 to Limit Taiwan’s Access to the United Nations.”
The “one China” baseline for the 1992 Consensus is a nonstarter for the DPP, and Beijing viewed Tsai’s nod to the “historical fact” of the achievements and understandings reached since that year in her inauguration address as insufficient.36“Inaugural address of ROC 14th-term President Tsai Ing-wen,” Office of the President of the Republic of China, May 20, 2016, https://english.president.gov.tw/News/4893; Javier C. Hernández, “China Suspends Diplomatic Contact with Taiwan,” June 25, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/world/asia/china-suspends-diplomatic-contact-with-taiwan.html. Since then, the PRC has steadily poached Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, with only a minor lull during the pandemic, likely stemming from associated travel restrictions. Eight of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have switched their recognition from the ROC to the PRC, with thirteen country allies and the Holy See now remaining. However, there have been rumors recently that Paraguay insisted on a $1 billion investment from Taipei to resist “enormous pressure” from the PRC to switch recognition (though these comments were quickly addressed).“37Diplomatic Allies,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China (Taiwan), November 4, 2022, https://en.mofa.gov.tw/AlliesIndex.aspx?n=1294&sms=1007; Michael Stott and Kathrin Hille, “Paraguay calls for Taiwan to invest $1bn to remain allies,” Financial Times, September 28, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/9d752c51-2c3d-4f93-85c1-49b4d663f075; Daniela Desantis and Ben Blanchard, ““Paraguay Says ‘Excellent’ Taiwan Ties Not Conditional on New Investment, Reuters, September 29, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/paraguay-says-excellent-taiwan-ties-not-conditional-new-investment-2022-09-29/. In some instances, these announcements on changes in diplomatic recognition were deliberately timed to signal discontent with the Tsai administration or advancements in US-Taiwan relations. For example, Beijing established relations with Sao Tome and Principe following Trump’s phone call with Tsai after he was elected38On December 2, 2016, president-elect Donald Trump had a phone call with Tsai, the first time the U.S. and Taiwan’s presidents have directly communicated since the termination of ties in 1979. This was met with significant blowback from Beijing. For more, see: Anne Gearan, Philip Rucker, and Simon Denyer, “Trump’s Taiwan phone call was long planned, say people who were involved,” The Washington Post, December 4, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-taiwan-phone-call-was-weeks-in-the-planning-say-people-who-were-involved/2016/12/04/f8be4b0c-ba4e-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html. and with Panama as Taiwan representatives were participating in the Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy.”39Jonathan Chin, “Academics say Sao Tome linked to Trump,” Taipei Times, December 22, 2016, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2016/12/22/2003661706; Sarah Wu, “China targeted Taipei’s allies while US hosted democracy summit -Taiwan foreign minister,” Reuters, December 14, 2021. Notably, many of the former ROC allies that Beijing has successfully poached since 2016 are geographically situated in strategically-important locations.40Panama, which switched in 2017, straddles the narrowest point between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Taken together with the other Central and Latin American countries that now recognize the PRC, these moves can be viewed as part of Beijing’s broader efforts to deepen its ties and influence in the region—seen in investment agreements and the integration of Chinese technology into critical infrastructure, some as part of Belt and Road Initiative projects and loan agreements; a growing PRC role in regional organization such as the Inter-American Development Bank; more robust security ties, to include arms sales and training schemes; and, more recently, the vaccine diplomacy initiatives that appear to be strings-attached. These developments have raised U.S. concerns that Washington is losing its longstanding “positional advantage” in the region, as described by the former commander of U.S. Southern Command, and that Beijing is bolstering authoritarianism close to home. Similarly, increased PRC presence in the Solomon Islands and Kiribati and the greater South Pacific more broadly, has implications for sealines of communication critical to global trade and U.S. naval presence, as well as for ANZUS. For more, see: Diana Roy, “China’s Growing Influence in Latin America,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 12, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-influence-latin-america-argentina-brazil-venezuela-security-energy-bri; Kenneth Rapoza, “China’s Financial Footprint Deepens In Latin America,” Forbes, November 4, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2022/11/04/chinas-financial-footprint-deepens-in-latin-america/?sh=2d74fa21235a; Charles Edel, “Small dots, large strategic areas: US interests in the South Pacific,” The Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, April 3, 2018, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/small-dots-large-strategic-areas-us-interests-south-pacific.
Taiwan has also seen its access to international organizations and fora restricted and has not received an invitation to attend the WHA since 2016, despite a global pandemic and Western efforts to push for its inclusion.41“MOFA thanks the international community for unprecedented support of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China (Taiwan), June 1, 2021, https://en.mofa.gov.tw/News_Content.aspx?n=1329&s=95949. Fears that Beijing would double down on its narrative that “one China” is an international norm were also substantiated, with PRC representatives and proxies justifying Taiwan’s exclusion from these meetings with false claims that UN Resolution 2758—which shifted the holder of the “China” seat at the UN from the ROC to the PRC in 1971—embodied “one China” and thus came to a UN-level determination on the status of Taiwan.42Jessica Drun and Bonnie Glaser, “The Distortion of UN Resolution 2758 to Limit Taiwan’s Access to the United Nations.”
Fundamentally, the eight years under former President Ma and the early Tsai years brought to the fore just how critical “one China” and its associated 1992 Consensus are as a baseline for leadership in Beijing to set the tone first and foremost for cross-Strait relations and also for PRC-ROC interactions globally. This includes how swiftly PRC approaches can turn from one of forbearance—with demonstrated restraint in peeling off the ROC’s diplomatic allies and permitting participation in international organizations—to one of coercion, used as a leveraging tool to pressure Taipei to adopt policies in line with Beijing’s goals and objectives.
Policies under President Tsai
Since President Tsai came to power in May 2016, her administration has pursued a foreign policy strategy that shares contours with that of her predecessors, but with required adjustments due to changes in its strategic environment. These include evolving dynamics in the Taiwan Strait, in Sino-US relations, and Taiwan’s corresponding role in the wider triangular relationship and globally.
Since 2016, cross-Strait relations have had greater rigidity, which extends into the broader international realm. Taipei faces a Catch-22 situation: as it seeks to further expand its international space—in part to hedge against PRC pressure—it reinforces perceptions in Beijing that Taiwan is asserting autonomy and working counter to “one China,” which further exacerbates tensions in the Taiwan Strait and with continued spillover internationally. Thus, as outlined above, many of Taiwan’s efforts to preserve its international space have been unsuccessful—especially those relating to the UN and to retaining official diplomatic allies. This is in spite of the fact that President Tsai has maintained more or less the same positions on these fronts as former President Ma, namely, focusing on joining specialized UN agencies as an observer or nonmember and vowing to refrain from zero-sum checkbook diplomacy.43Jacques deLisle, “Taiwan’s quest for international space in the Tsai era: adapting old strategies to new circumstances,” in Taiwan in the Era of Tsai Ing-wen: Changes and Challenges, ed. June Teufel Dreyer and Jacques deLisle (New York: Routledge, 2021): 242-246; “Era of ‘checkbook diplomacy’ is over, Tsai Ing-wen says,” Taipei Times, July 1, 2016, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2016/07/01/2003650102.
Another shift has been a hardening of US views toward the PRC. This began with the Trump administration, but has persisted into the Biden administration and showcases bipartisan consensus on the PRC as a major strategic competitor. US-Taiwan relations have deepened over the past six years, building on renewed confidence achieved under the Ma years. These deeper ties are characterized by a number of high-level visits, including by a cabinet secretary; a slew of Congressional legislation on Taiwan, such as calls for helping it regain observer status at UN-affiliated organizations and maintain its official diplomatic relationships; and regular official statements reiterating US support for Taiwan.44Jacques deLisle, “Taiwan’s quest for international space in the Tsai era: adapting old strategies to new circumstances”: 253-256.
Furthermore, since Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, his administration has weaved Taiwan into many of its larger policy efforts. The Biden administration has emphasized the importance of cross-Strait stability in several multilateral fora and in joint statements with key partners and allies, including those in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. It has likewise linked Taiwan’s security with broader US interests in the Indo-Pacific region and fostered deeper economic dialogue between Taipei and Washington.45“Japan-US Joint Leaders’ Statement: Strengthening the Free and Open International Order,” The White House, May 23, 2002, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/23/japan-u-s-joint-leaders-statement-strengthening-the-free-and-open-international-order/; “United States-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Joint Statement,” The White House, May 21, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/21/united-states-republic-of-korea-leaders-joint-statement/; “US-Australia-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue,” US Department of State, August 5, 2002, https://www.state.gov/u-s-australia-japan-trilateral-strategic-dialogue/; Statement By Dr. Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Office of the Secretary of Defense before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 117th Congress, page 1-3 (2021) (Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs, Office of the Secretary of Defense); United States and Taiwan Commence Formal Negotiations on US – Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade, Office of the United States Trade Representative, August 17, 2022, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2022/august/united-states-and-taiwan-commence-formal-negotiations-us-taiwan-initiative-21st-century-trade; The Biden administration has stressed the importance of values-based diplomacy, with Biden himself asserting, “we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values,” and calling democracy “the grounding wire of our global policy—our global power” and “America’s abiding advantage.”46“Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World,” The White House, February 4, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/04/remarks-by-president-biden-on-americas-place-in-the-world/. At the Summit of Democracy—which Taiwan participated in—he highlighted his view that defending democracies would be “the defining challenge of our time.”47“Summit for Democracy Summary of Proceedings,” The White House, December 23, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/23/summit-for-democracy-summary-of-proceedings/.
Against this backdrop, Tsai’s foreign policy contains converging and complementary elements with Biden’s. Tsai emphasizes Taiwan’s contributions to the international community, noting that despite restrictions, Taiwan has positioned itself as a responsible stakeholder that enables regional peace and security.48“Inaugural address of ROC 15th-term President Tsai Ing-wen,” Office of the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2020, https://english.president.gov.tw/News/6004; More critically, she underscores the importance of Taiwan’s democracy, writing in Foreign Affairs that Taiwan “lies at the intersection of contending systems” and amidst “a contest of ideologies,” presenting Taiwan as a bastion of defense against authoritarianism and democratic-backsliding.49Tsa Ing-wen, “Taiwan and the Fight for Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/taiwan/2021-10-05/taiwan-and-fight-democracy?utm_medium=promo_email&utm_source=lo_flows&utm_campaign=registered_user_welcome&utm_term=email_1&utm_content=20221113. It’s essential to note that this approach has been imperfect. The Tsai administration has been unable to square its calls for an “Alliance of Democratic Values” with the contradiction that the bulk of its official diplomatic partners are among the world’s least free states (though this has been a pervasive issue across presidencies).50Nick Aspinwall, “Taiwan: The Tsai Doctrine,” The Diplomat, January 7, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/taiwan-the-tsai-doctrine/
Robust public diplomacy efforts, including on social media platforms, have been a key facet of Tsai’s strategy for expanding Taiwan’s international space. Building off the pan-green coalition’s greater familiarity with social media, which first saw demonstrated successes in Taiwan’s 2014 local elections, Tsai—alongside other government officials and DPP leaders—has built solid followings on Facebook and Instagram, tailored toward domestic audiences, and on Twitter, for engagement outside of Taiwan.51Jessica Drun, “Taiwan’s Social Media Landscape: Ripe for Election Interference?” Center for Advanced China Research, November 13, 2018, https://www.ccpwatch.org/single-post/2018/11/13/taiwans-social-media-landscape-ripe-for-election-interference; Chris Horton, “Muffled by China, Taiwan President Embraces Twitter as Megaphone,” July 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/06/world/asia/taiwan-tsai-twitter.html; “Taiwan president pushes online diplomacy through tweets,” Taiwan News, April 19, 2020, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3918821. Tsai has called social media a means for Taiwan to “enter the global conversation” that “helps Taiwan connect with the world.”52“Taiwan president pushes online diplomacy through tweets”
These public diplomacy efforts have ramped up in the past two years, due in part to an overall increase in online presence globally as most of the world quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tsai administration used this window of opportunity to informally expand its international space and advocate for its inclusion in formal ones. The momentum has continued, with Taiwan using public diplomacy and social media to stress its invaluable role in the fight against authoritarianism; engage with like-minded countries, specifically in Eastern Europe; and voice its unwavering support for Ukraine, as the world’s focus has turned to the Russian invasion, and some have inadvertently drawn parallels with a potential Taiwan invasion scenario.
The outbreak of the coronavirus at the end of 2019 shone a light on the frailty of Taiwan’s position internationally, while also providing the island with a chance to showcase its ability to serve as a responsible stakeholder and contribute to global pandemic relief efforts—both because of and despite its relative isolation on the world stage.
Taiwan quickly implemented measures to contain COVID-19 due in part to its mistrust of the global international health system resulting from the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s. Taiwan could not obtain SARS information or samples from the WHO because it was not a recognized member and was instead referred to Beijing.53Cindy Wang and Samson Ellis, “How Taiwan’s COVID response became the world’s envy,” Fortune, October 31, 2020, https://fortune.com/2020/10/31/taiwan-best-covid-response/; David Cyranoski, “Taiwan left isolated in fight against SARS,” Nature 422, 652 (2003), https://doi.org/10.1038/422652a Notably, Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control in late 2019 used WHO-designated communication mechanisms— put into place to institutionalize Taiwan as subordinate to the PRC—to raise questions on the transmissibility of the coronavirus only to have the request more or less dismissed. Taiwan then opted to begin prevention initiatives without waiting for formal WHO guidance.54Jessica Drun and Bonnie Glaser, “The Distortion of UN Resolution 2758 to Limit Taiwan’s Access to the United Nations.”
Accordingly, Taiwan was one of the few places in 2020 that allowed its citizens relative normalcy and was commended for its COVID-19 response. As a result, Taipei sought to share its best practices through soft power campaigns such as “#TaiwanCanHelp” that was spearheaded by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an organization self-described as an “international cross-party group of legislators working towards reform on how democratic countries approach China.” Taiwan also engaged in “mask diplomacy,” sending masks and personal protective equipment to its official diplomatic allies and to the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, such as Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.55Chun-yi Lee and Yu-ching Kuo, “Taiwan Can Help!” Taiwan Insight, June 26, 2020, https://taiwaninsight.org/2020/06/26/taiwan-can-help/; Nicole Jao, “‘Mask Diplomacy’ a Boost for Taiwan,” Foreign Policy, April 13, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/13/taiwan-coronavirus-pandemic-mask-soft-power-diplomacy/; Taiwan’s scientists and medical practitioners also were able to take part in research collaborations with countries such as the United States and the Czech Republic.56Stacy Chen, “Taiwan to donate 10 million masks to countries hit hardest by coronavirus,” ABC News, April 1, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Health/taiwan-donate-10-million-masks-countries-hit-hardest/story?id=69918187.
Despite these contributions and the prominent “#LetTaiwanHelp” campaign, Taiwan was still unable to participate in WHA meetings.57Jenny Li, “#LetTaiwanHelp: What Taiwan’s Hashtag Diplomacy is About,” The News Lens, April 29, 2021, https://international.thenewslens.com/article/150349; “MOFA thanks the international community for unprecedented support of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China (Taiwan), June 1, 2021, https://en.mofa.gov.tw/News_Content.aspx?n=1329&s=95949; “About,” Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, 2022, https://ipac.global/about/. Limitations on Taiwan’s public health outreach, particularly in vaccine distribution (with high demand, finite supply, and the government’s difficulty balancing between providing vaccines to allies versus its unofficial relationships), arguably also made its official diplomatic allies more susceptible to PRC enticements—with Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accusing Beijing of using the offer of vaccines to compel Paraguay to switch its recognition.58“Taiwan accuses China of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in Paraguay,” BBC News, April 7, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56661303; Chris Horton and Ken Parks, “Paraguay Says Chinese Vaccine Offers Tied to Dumpling Taiwan,” March 24, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-24/paraguay-says-offers-of-chinese-vaccine-tied-to-dumping-taiwan#xj4y7vzkg.
Nonetheless, the pandemic period reinforced several points in the eyes of international observers:
- The PRC prioritizes its self-interests even during a global pandemic despite its rhetoric calling for international cooperation.
- Taiwan can make valuable contributions to support global health, and its exclusion comes to the detriment of the international community.
- Taiwan can expand its global footprint through nontraditional channels by leveraging its messaging on social media through hashtag campaigns and bringing greater awareness to the value it can add and the challenges it faces vis-à-vis the PRC.
War in Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 led to renewed attention on Taiwan, with the international community drawing parallels between Russia and Ukraine and the PRC and Taiwan. Many saw the shared plights of democracies striving to preserve their way of life in the face of a looming authoritarian aggressor. This has prompted several like-minded countries—including post-Soviet states that have faced similar threats–to offer greater support for Taiwan. Beginning with Beijing’s overreaction to Prague’s signing of a sister-city agreement (which promotes cultural and business ties) with Taipei in 2019, hesitation in Central and Eastern Europe has grown over the PRC’s influence in the region, including mounting disaffection for China’s 17 + 1 regional framework (now down to 14 due to withdrawals by Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia) and disillusionment about promised Chinese investment through its Belt and Road Initiative. Partly as a result, Taiwan’s unofficial relations with Eastern European and Baltic states have since deepened.59Gregory Coutaz, “Taiwan’s Diplomatic Offensive in Eastern Europe,” Diplomat, February 3, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/02/taiwans-diplomatic-offensive-in-eastern-europe/; “Why are eastern European countries cosying up to Taiwan?” The Economist, December 2, 2021, https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2021/12/02/why-are-eastern-european-countries-cosying-up-to-taiwan.
The most prominent example is the case of Lithuania, which in July 2021, announced that Taiwan would open a representative office in its capital, Vilnius, and that a reciprocal office would be opened in Taipei.60Lin Chia-nan, “ ‘Taiwanese’ office to open in Lithuania,” Taipei Times, July 21, 2021, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2021/07/21/2003761201. Notably, the office would be called the “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania,” diverging from the nomenclature used in similar offices with Taiwan’s other unofficial relationships, which include some formulation around “Taipei” (i.e., Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the United States is called the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office”).61“Taiwan to use its own name at new Lithuania office,” France24, July 20, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210720-taiwan-to-use-its-own-name-at-new-lithuania-office. This was met with fervent backlash from the PRC–as “Taipei” preserves a certain amount of neutrality and avoids allusions to sovereignty that using “Taiwan” or “ROC” could denote (Taiwan’s official embassies hold the name of the latter).
In the months leading up to the office’s formal opening and during its aftermath, Beijing levied numerous punitive measures against Vilnius, such as recalling its ambassador and downgrading diplomatic relations, as well as a swath of coercive economic actions that included removing Lithuania from its customs system and imposing informal secondary sanctions and targeted import bans.62“China condemns opening of Taiwan office in Lithuania as ‘egregious act’,” The Guardian, November 18, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/19/china-condemns-opening-of-taiwan-office-in-lithuania-as-egregious-act; “China halts Lithuania beef, dairy and beer imports amid Taiwan row,” BBC News, February 11, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-60343316; Matthew Reynolds and Matthew Goodman, “China’s Economic Coercion: Lessons from Lithuania,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 6, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/chinas-economic-coercion-lessons-lithuania. Vilnius did not succumb to pressure, and Taiwan launched its office in November 2021 and opened a reciprocal office for Lithuania in Taipei a year later.63Milda Seputye, “Lithuania Opens Trade Office in Taiwan as Ties With China Sour,” Bloomberg, November 7, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-11-07/lithuania-opens-trade-office-in-taiwan-as-ties-with-china-sour. PRC moves against Taiwan–taken in conjunction with existing wariness over Beijing’s human rights record, growing authoritarianism, and tacit support for Russia’s invasion–have further soured China’s image in Eastern Europe.
Heightened reservations towards the PRC have seemingly gone hand-in-hand with enhanced contacts with Taipei, which is viewed as an ideological peer, underscoring how an emphasis on democracy and on common values and goals has increased global awareness of cross-Strait issues and brought in new stakeholders.64James Lamond and Edward Lucas, “Getting Ahead of the Curve: Chinese Influence in Central and Eastern Europe,” Center for European Policy Analysis, September 21, 2022, https://cepa.org/comprehensive-reports/getting-ahead-of-the-curve-chinese-influence-in-central-and-eastern-europe/; Thorsten Benner, “Europe is Doubling Down on Taiwan,” Foreign Policy, November 8, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/11/08/europe-is-doubling-down-on-taiwan/; Hiroyuki Akita, “How China continues to lose friends in Central and Eastern Europe,” Nikkei Asia, November 3, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/How-China-continues-to-lose-friends-in-Central-and-Eastern-Europe. Examples of Taiwan’s deepening support in Eastern Europe abound, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia leaving the PRC-led 17 + 1 forum; the first-ever joint visit to Taiwan by parliamentarians from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; the signing of cooperation agreements between the Czech Republic and Taiwan; an unprecedented meeting with EU parliamentarians and Taiwan’s foreign minister in Brussels; and ongoing support for an EU-Taiwan Bilateral Investment Agreement.65“Latvia, Estonia leave China-backed East Europe forum,” Associated Press, August 12, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-putin-taiwan-china-beijing-24a51164e0b0a849c33b83dcc92fb1e1; Stuar Lau, “Lithuania pulls out of China’s ’17+1′ bloc in Eastern Europe,” Politico, May 21, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/lithuania-pulls-out-china-17-1-bloc-eastern-central-europe-foreign-minister-gabrielius-landsbergis/; Natsumi Kawasaki, “Lithuania’s ties with Taiwan will pay high-tech dividends: PM,” Nikkei Asia, October 28, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Interview/Lithuania-s-ties-with-Taiwan-will-pay-high-tech-dividends-PM; “Baltic lawmakers meet Taiwan’s Tsai, stepping up cooperation,” Associated Press, November 29, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/europe-china-estonia-taiwan-latvia-de0c6b41ad5a50e9d4089ad9bb2c144d; “Taiwan, Czech Republic ink six cooperation agreements,” Focus Taiwan, September 23, 2022, https://focustaiwan.tw/politics/202209230007; Erin Hale, “European MPs Meet with Taiwan Envoy Despite China Risks,” Voice of America, October 31, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/european-mps-meet-with-taiwan-envoy-despite-china-risks/6292615.html; Jorge Liboreiro, “European lawmakers issue joint appeal calling for EU-Taiwan investment deal,” Europe News, September 21, 2022, https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/09/21/european-lawmakers-issue-joint-appeal-calling-for-eu-taiwan-investment-deal.
Notably, these countries have been willing to bear the brunt of any PRC retaliation resulting from enhanced ties with Taiwan. This is partly because they benefit from membership in multilateral organizations such as the European Union and NATO, which have both voiced concerns and released statements critical of PRC actions against their member states; such membership allows for corresponding burden-sharing and solidarity against coercive measures from Beijing. For example, in December 2022, the EU brought the PRC’s earlier export embargo on Lithuania to the WTO, calling the moves “discriminatory and coercive.”66“EU requests two WTO panels against China: trade restrictions on Lithuania and high-tech patents,” European Commission, December 7, 2022, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_22_7528. The EU has likewise come out with statements reaffirming “one China” but stressing that EU policy permits it to “[persist with and intensify] our cooperation with Taiwan.”67Mario Esteban and Michael Malinconi, “EU-Taiwan relations continue to expand in the framework of the One China Policy,” Elcano Royal Institute, October 10, 2022, https://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/en/commentaries/eu-taiwan-relations-continue-to-expand-in-the-framework-of-the-one-china-policy/
This momentum is likely to continue, yielding tangible benefits for both Taiwan and its European partners through the many Memoranda of Understanding and investment agreements signed covering areas such as bilateral trade, collaboration among start-ups, and the sharing of technical expertise, including on semiconductors.68Chou Yung-chieh and Sean Lin, “Taiwan, Slovakia sign MOUs to boost exchanges on trade, semiconductors,” Focus Taiwan, December 2, 2022, https://focustaiwan.tw/business/202212020025; Judy Lin, “Taiwan invests EUR10 million in Lithuania and provides semiconductor scholarships to Central and Eastern Europe students,” DigiTimes Asia, November 8, 2022, https://www.digitimes.com/news/a20221108VL201/eastern-europe-lithuania-semiconductor.html; Trade data suggests a similar conclusion, with Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs highlighting that its exports to Central and Eastern Europe reached a “record high” of $1.38 billion during the first four months of 2022.69“Taiwan’s Exports to Central and Eastern Europe Reach a Record High from January to April 2022,” Ministry of Economic Affairs of the Republic of China, May 31, 2022, https://www.moea.gov.tw/MNS/english/news/News.aspx?kind=6&menu_id=176&news_id=100226
The PRC has made clear that its forbearance on condoning Taiwan’s international space is explicitly tied to the Taiwan leadership’s recognition of the 1992 Consensus” and “one China.” Taipei is unlikely to adopt such policies given that demographic identity trends suggest support for the DPP’s more Taiwan-centric policies will only increase in the future.70While the DPP saw a crippling defeat in the 2022 local elections, identity trends in Taiwan–as they pertain to views of the island’s relationship with China and thus, party preference–do not feature prominently as local issues inherently are the focal point. How an individual chooses to identify–as Taiwanese, Chinese, or both–does however play in significantly in national level elections and will shape party politics and policies into the future. For more, see: Jessica Drun, “A Green Wave?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 22, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/green-wave. In addition, PRC leader Xi Jinping has seemingly tied the 1992 Consensus to “One Country, Two Systems,” which has left the formulation unpalatable for Taiwan’s people and its viability as a core element of the KMT’s cross-Strait policy unclear.71Jessica Drun, “The KMT Continues to Grapple with its ‘1992 Consensus’,” Global Taiwan Brief, October 7, 2002, https://globaltaiwan.org/2022/10/the-kmt-continues-to-grapple-with-its-1992-consensus/.
As such, the PRC will continue employing all available means to squeeze Taiwan’s international space. Beijing has demonstrated that no event, meeting, or area has been too insignificant to assert its framing of the Taiwan issue, as demonstrated by PRC pressure on even high schools and bicycle associations trying to gain UN access or accreditation.72Jessica Drun and Bonnie Glaser, “The Distortion of UN Resolution 2758 to Limit Taiwan’s Access to the United Nations.” The PRC may continue poaching Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies—though some analysts speculate that debate exists as to whether too aggressive of an approach could inspire movements towards independence; some staunchly pro-independence groups view “diplomatic zero” as a way for Taiwan to shed what they view as the inconvenient legacy of the ROC.73Jacques deLisle, “Taiwan’s quest for international space in the Tsai era: adapting old strategies to new circumstances”: 251; Thomas J. Shattuck, “The Race to Zero?: China’s Poaching of Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies,” Orbis vol.64, 2 (2020): 334-352, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7102519/#fn0135. Further, the PRC will continue trying to weaken Taiwan’s unofficial contacts with other countries even as Taiwan seeks to expand them, using its full coercive toolkit to include trade restrictions and political pressure.
Yet, as the ROC’s diplomatic history has shown, its leadership and people are adaptive—reshaping their policies and priorities to better align with global trends and developments. Many of the successes of the Tsai administration, such as its effective messaging strategies, especially in tying Taiwan’s fate with global democracy promotion efforts, will likely endure in subsequent Taiwan administrations.
There are a number of avenues that Taiwan, the United States, and US allies and partners can pursue to preserve and increase Taiwan’s international space. These efforts can leverage some of the lessons learned from the international community following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and build on some of the successes Taiwan has had in burnishing its image and expanding its outreach through nontraditional channels during COVID.
Expand and transition working-level relationships into more formalized frameworks and mechanisms
Despite China’s relative success in denying Taiwan’s official participation in international organizations, Taiwan has been able to use bilateral and multilateral working-level relationships to circumvent these restrictions. Taiwan has gained significant traction over the past five years in deepening its ties with countries, such as those in Eastern Europe, that share similar values and face similar threats; these efforts form the basis for expanded ties. Moreover, the outpouring of support and attention Taiwan received in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and around Speaker Pelosi’s visit and the subsequent Chinese military exercise suggest ample opportunities exist for crafting an allied approach to formalize and upgrade engagement with Taiwan. Such efforts would provide a measure of security against Chinese coercive efforts through increased international ties and could involve the following:
- Increase engagement with developing countries, particularly those in the Global South. These countries not only serve as a critical voting bloc within the UN, but they are also particularly vulnerable to PRC influence and pressure—with stark implications for transparency, good governance, and foreign policy independence. Taiwan officials could conduct such outreach bilaterally or in collaboration with the United States and its partners on a range of topics such as technology, civil society development, and agricultural best practices, as well as through continued efforts under the Global Cooperation and Training Framework.
- Utilize and advance formalized mechanisms for promoting Taiwan’s resilience. Pursuing targeted approaches to Taiwan’s existing diplomatic allies, similar to what has been described in the US Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act of 2019 (TAIPEI Act) that became law in 2020, could increase Taiwan’s resilience to PRC coercion. Such efforts could include expanding and deepening coordination with key US partners in areas of mutual interest. It could also involve more robust and regionally-focused approaches, such as enhanced collaboration with Australia and New Zealand to counteract PRC pressure on Taiwan’s remaining allies in the South Pacific. US allies and partners should likewise prioritize supporting Taiwan’s growing unofficial relationships in Eastern Europe.
- Embed Taiwan’s economic ties in bilateral trade agreements. As the Lithuania example showcased, a growing number of countries around the world are willing or able to bear the brunt of economic pressure from the PRC resulting from their engagement with Taiwan. In some cases, this reflects countries that are less economically integrated with and reliant on the PRC and those that can contend with Beijing’s moves to weaponize deeper trade ties. Accordingly, these countries could make ideal partners for Taiwan to pursue free trade agreements with, offering an alternative to Ma’s approach in which Taiwan could only sign agreements with countries that had existing ones with the PRC. This would enable Taiwan to diversify its economy and lessen its reliance on the PRC market, creating more resilience against economic pressure from Beijing.
- Safeguard Taiwan’s access to multilateral fora. To date, China’s efforts to restrict Taiwan’s access to international fora have been concentrated on political and security-focused entities, rather than economic ones. Taiwan’s participation in economic organizations such as APEC has thus far been largely untouched.74Jacques deLisle, “Taiwan’s quest for international space in the Tsai era: adapting old strategies to new circumstances”: 247 As the PRC continues to constrict Taiwan’s international space, Taiwan, the United States, and like-minded countries should look at ways to jointly proactively counter Chinese efforts to impede Taiwan’s access to economic organizations, including by using institutional bylaws or pressure to restrict Taiwan’s access.
Increase coordination to shape the narrative on Taiwan globally
Efforts to counter Beijing’s narrative that Taiwan is a part of the PRC could also yield major dividends, given that this narrative has been used to justify Taiwan’s exclusion from many international fora and venues during the past two decades. Since its entry into the international community in the early 1970s, the PRC has worked to normalize this stance through the internationalization of “one China” and its efforts to embed this position within organizations. The United States has pushed back and should continue to do so, coordinating its messaging with other countries that hold “one China” policies that do not take a position on Taiwan’s status. In the lead-up to and aftermath of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan, PRC propaganda organs pushed forth a relentless and false narrative that the visit violated commitments made under the United States’ “one China” policy.75“Six reasons why Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is a mistake,” China Daily, August 6, 2022, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202208/06/WS62eda850a310fd2b29e709ab.html; “Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu on Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, August 9, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/202208/t20220809_10738069.html; “Pelosi’s provocative Taiwan visit lashed out by mainstream US media, intl politicians,” Global Times, August 7, 2022, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202208/1272408.shtml. Beijing likewise used this argument to assign blame on the United States and its allies for changing the status quo and to try to justify increased incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, including past the median line of the Taiwan Strait, and in conducting military exercises closer to the island.76“Six reasons why Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is a mistake,” China Daily; “Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu on Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China;“Pelosi’s provocative Taiwan visit lashed out by mainstream US media, intl politicians,” Global Times. This underscores the need for US allies and partners to develop a networked approach—with simultaneous and joint efforts to clarify their policies and to refute PRC claims—to counter China’s overt and covert attempts at narrative control.
Forecast and plan for the future
One consistent element in Taiwan’s foreign policy across administrations has been its leadership’s ability to adjust to the changing times and adapt recommendations so that Taiwan can optimize opportunities. Taiwan’s domestic political trends point to the increasing popularity of pan-green parties’ cross-Strait approaches and the increasing unpopularity of the KMT’s 1992 Consensus—both of which the PRC will likely respond to by continuing to clamp down on Taiwan’s international space.77Jessica Drun, “A Green Wave?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 22, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/green-wave. In anticipation of further Chinese attempts to restrict its access, Taiwan should continue looking for channels to expand its international space in which the PRC has less or no influence. One particularly effective approach has been participating in multilateral discussions in which the PRC is not a member, such as the Halifax Security Forum, the Summit for Democracy, and the Open Parliament Forum. The United States and its allies could also encourage greater alignment on any offensive or defensive approaches to maximize Taiwan’s international space and help Taiwan build its capacity and mitigate vulnerabilities.
Finally, Taiwan should take advantage of enhanced multilateral ties to foster and hone deeper bilateral ones with more like-minded countries. This would permit Taiwan not only to further internationalize cross-Strait issues but also to cushion against the potential impact on its interests of fickle partisan politics in friendly democracies that change the direction and level of engagement of foreign policy. Expanding bilateral ties with newer supporters will help avoid overreliance on traditional backers and ensure the longevity and effectiveness of actions designed to preserve and expand Taiwan’s international space.
The Global China Hub researches and devises allied solutions to the global challenges posed by China’s rise, leveraging and amplifying the Atlantic Council’s work on China across its fifteen other programs and centers.
Report Dec 5, 2022
Taiwan: The key to containing China in the Indo-Pacific
By John B. Barranco
2021-2022 Senior Marine Corps Fellow John Barranco considers the role of the US-Taiwanese relationship in deterring Chinese aggression and ways in which the United States can strengthen this relationship.