As Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies Dwindle, Students Are Caught in a Geopolitical Tug of War

As Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies Dwindle, Students Are Caught in a Geopolitical Tug of War
Jeankarlos Almonte (L) poses for a picture with a friend at his university's graduation ceremony in Taiwan. Credit: via Zach Hollo

What you need to know

Taiwan rewards diplomatic allies with scholarships for students to study at Taiwanese universities. When those countries switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing, Taiwan cuts the funds, leaving students to scramble.

At the end of his fourth academic year at a prestigious university in Taiwan, Jeankarlos Almonte had only one credit to complete in order to graduate. The undergraduate senior from the Dominican Republic had been the recipient of one of many scholarships given by the Taiwanese government to citizens of its diplomatic allies.

But on May 1, Almonte awoke to the news that his country had cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, handing formal recognition of China to Beijing. He was soon notified that he would no longer receive scholarship funding. Almonte felt like his future was in free fall.

“My first impression was fear. I was afraid of what would happen now. What would I do?” Almonte says. His situation became even more complicated because his passport would expire in about two months, and the Dominican Republic suddenly had no embassy at which to renew it. “I was going to stay in Taiwan to try to find a job, but as soon as they cut relations, all the doors were closed to us.”

Credit: Reuters / TPG
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu attends a news conference, following an agreement by China and the Dominican Republic to establish diplomatic ties, in Taipei, Taiwan May 1, 2018.

Almonte is one of dozens of international students in Taiwan who in recent years have had their scholarships revoked because their countries cut diplomatic ties with Taipei. Since 2016, Taiwan has lost five diplomatic allies: São Tomé and Príncipe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, and most recently El Salvador. Students who originally arrived as living representatives of Taiwan’s international vitality suddenly became emblems of betrayal, their futures pawned in a geopolitical chess game.

Almonte was on a scholarship issued under Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF), which allocates funds from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to development projects, many of which are hosted by its diplomatic allies.

Since the scholarship’s inception in 1998, more than 1,900 foreign students have used ICDF scholarships to study at Taiwanese universities. Currently, 346 students study in Taiwan on the ICDF scholarship. According to Lee Pai-po (李柏浡), ICDF’s Deputy Secretary General, about 75 percent of these students hail from countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei.

As various governments abandon diplomatic relations with Taiwan, their countries’ allotted scholarship funding will be pooled for students from countries that remain true to Taipei, Lee adds.

Pulling the plug

As soon as diplomatic relations were switched, says Almonte, the government of the Dominican Republic began trying to funnel all the students in Taiwan to China, as Beijing offered to provide scholarships for those students to study at Chinese universities.

The same situation occurred roughly a year earlier, when Panama cut ties with Taiwan. Pablo Avila, an undergraduate from Panama who studies civil engineering at National Taipei University of Technology, says that arrangement did not go over well with many students. “They thought that we’d just accept the scholarship from China and go. But most of us wanted to stay in Taiwan because we don’t like the politics of China,” he recalls.

This is exactly the kind of favorable sentiment that scholarship placements aim to foster, and indicative of why Taiwan has long used scholarships as a means of nurturing soft power.

Jessica Yuwen Wang (王郁雯), legislative assistant to Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政), a Democratic Progressive Party legislator who sits on the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, tells The News Lens: “These students might be future leaders in their home countries, becoming important diplomatic assets for us. Soft power is all about culture, values, ideologies, things you have to be in direct contact with to experience.

“We can’t beat China over trading capacity or military strength, but we’re definitely more open, free and democratic. And hopefully these scholarship students see [the] value in that.”

Lee of the ICDF suggests scholarship schemes are meant to offer a “triple win.” The first win is helping target countries educate their next generation, the second is fostering Taiwan’s international integration, and the third is consolidating future connections between Taiwan and target countries that will last for those students’ lifetimes. According to Lee, there is already a strong ICDF alumni network of influential government, NGO, and private sector leaders who act as bulwarks in retaining Taiwan’s international influence.

Almonte, though, suggests Taiwan may be undercutting its own diplomatic agenda with its heavy-handed approach of abruptly ending scholarship funding. While students from the Dominican Republic, Panama, and El Salvador maintain that eventually their home governments agreed to pay for some students to continue their studies in Taiwan, the initial shock of losing their scholarships and the anxiety-ridden weeks of waiting drove many students into China’s hands.

“After [the Dominican Republic] cut relations, the way [Taiwanese scholarship administrators] were treating us, I felt we were just an ID number. We were just a business deal to them,” Almonte recalls. Eventually, his university in Taiwan decided to grant him a diploma without the final credit, but by then he was already enrolling at a university in Beijing, where he’ll use scholarship funding from China to pursue a master’s degree.

Almonte sees the ordeal as a lost investment for Taiwan. After four years of college here, he’ll now go to China and possibly find work there and make a long-term contribution to China’s economy. Almonte suggests the government adopt a more lenient policy of continuing scholarships to let students finish their studies, as this would allow Taiwan to maintain the good will they’ve already spent so much money to cultivate.

Legislative assistant Wang, though, argues the case for continuing scholarship funding for students after diplomatic ties are cut is impractical given the limited funding of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We don’t want to lose diplomatic allies. We want to be able to provide help for these students too,” Wang says. “But continuing to use taxpayer money to subsidize students from countries that basically ‘betrayed’ Taiwan would not be accepted to Taiwanese people, nor would it be politically sensible.”

Read Next: 'Heartbreaking': Taiwan's Salvadorans Express Anger and Frustration at Diplomatic Rupture

Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more like it in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.