What you need to know
Taiwan's 17 remaining official allies, along with its larger unofficial friends, make for strange bedfellows.
On Oct. 28, Brazil elected far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro to its presidency. In the aftermath, Twitter was full of messages of grief, concern, and condemnation from observers around the world fearful that the populist, who has expressed his support of torture and his disdain for democratic norms, would threaten Brazil's democratic society. However, there was a notable exception:
Of course, congratulating the victors of foreign elections, as Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) did following Bolsonaro's triumph, is a perfectly normal and time-honored tradition.
U.S. President Donald Trump, when under pressure for congratulating Russia's Vladimir Putin following his March 2018 victory in an election judged by international observers to be unfair, notably pointed out that his predecessor, Barack Obama, did exactly the same in 2012.
This was partially true. Obama did in fact congratulate Putin, but with hesitancy: the U.S. State Department's official statement expressed concerns about "the conditions under which the campaign was conducted, the partisan use of government resources and procedural irregularities on election day."
Indeed, world governments often use careful, hesitant language to diplomatically congratulate leaders while subtly warning them to abide by world standards of democracy, human rights, and free expression – and sometimes, the truth lies in what is not said.
Following an attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, Obama called on allies to "support the democratically elected government of Turkey." Astute observers pointed out Obama's cautious insistence on using the term "democratically elected government" rather than directly referencing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom the U.S. has long regarded with suspicion over his subversion of Turkey's own democracy.
Taiwan's MoFA does not play the same role of world arbiter as the U.S. State Department. However, its public embrace of populists, dictators, and monarchs can be striking in its lack of nuance.
Some of this is by necessity. Taiwan has just 17 remaining diplomatic allies. These include Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, where hundreds have lost their lives in anti-Ortega demonstrations which are violently suppressed by police, according to the Organization of American States (OAS). They also include eSwatini, where King Mswati III rules over a society in which those who criticize the monarchy are subject to imprisonment.
Taiwan brands itself as a bulwark of democracy and human rights sitting across the Taiwan Strait from a massive authoritarian threat that wants nothing more than to bring Taiwan under its regime of one-party rule.
The Trump administration has arguably drawn closer to Taiwan than any U.S. regime since the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Taiwan has, in return, held back from any criticism directed towards the U.S. while its own congressmen call for investigations into Trump's alleged electoral misconduct and the international community simply laughs when Trump takes the stage.
Taiwan's support for autocrats like Ortega and Mswati, along with far-right populists with a blatant disregard for democratic principles like Bolsonaro and Trump, thus strikes as an uncomfortably jarring juxtaposition. After all, as New Bloom editor Brian Hioe recently pointed out, how can Taiwan denounce the China threat while fawning over leaders who can credibly be compared to China's Xi Jinping?
MoFA and Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) may be in a difficult spot. Taiwan's cache of diplomatic allies is, after all, a relic of decades of one-party Kuomintang (KMT) rule in which diplomatic alliances did not exactly take ideals such as human rights and free expression into account.
Some voices within the DPP resent Taiwan's need to diplomatically – and financially – support countries like Nicaragua, eSwatini, Nauru and Haiti. Reports have indicated DPP insiders are prepared, and often accepting, of the proposition of "diplomatic zero" – the complete erosion of the Republic of China (ROC) network of diplomatic allies, leaving the ROC fully unrecognized worldwide and, perhaps, ready to take one step forward towards becoming an independent Taiwan.
One wonders how such voices feel about Taiwan's open support of any world leader prone to show an inkling of fondness towards Taiwan. Bolsonaro has visited Taiwan himself and was sharply critical of China on the campaign trail, leading observers to wonder whether Brazil had just elected an anti-China president.
For Taiwan, building any possible ties, whether formal or informal, seems pragmatic and prudent given its less-then-enviable diplomatic situation. It needs all the support it can get as it takes actions, such as attempting to join international organizations, which are made difficult for a democracy of 23 million solely due to the influence of its authoritarian neighbor.
However, if Taiwan's diplomatic messaging comes across as blatantly, shamelessly hypocritical to the international community, it could very well hurt Taiwan's own international branding of itself as being, unlike its cross-Strait neighbor, a free and democratic country.
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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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