OPINION: Bilateral Cooperation, a New Diplomatic Model for Taiwan?

OPINION: Bilateral Cooperation, a New Diplomatic Model for Taiwan?
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

Can Taiwan foster closer ties with unofficial allies?

On the final day of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) second international trip to South America as part of a strategy to consolidate Taiwan’s diplomatic ties with its allies in the region, she hinted that mutual co-operation could become an integral component of its future official relationships.

Speaking at a breakfast meeting with reporters in El Salvador, she stated that bilateral trade and an expansion of market orientated policies will be of mutual benefit to Taiwan and the Central American economy. Such measures include promoting Taiwanese youth to work with those in countries such as Paraguay and the Dominican Republic to develop startups, establish new trade policies, and schedule bilateral visits by business leaders to develop stronger trade exchanges. Furthermore, it looked to directly involve domestic companies in the continued improvement and development of infrastructure and healthcare.

In some respects, bilateral trade has been the bread and butter of Taiwan’s foreign diplomacy for several decades. Indeed Taiwan’s economic clout on the world stage and integral role in the global supply chain have allowed it to foster strong relations worldwide. Following a golden era in the mid-20th Century where apart from a select number of countries (U.K., Sweeden and France included) which shunned it in favor of communist-led China, Taiwan enjoyed its position as China’s "true" representative, it essentially became a diplomatic orphan following its expulsion from the U.N. in 1971 and eventual severing of ties by the United States in 1979. Following Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) death in 1976, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), undertook a more flexible approach to relations. He felt that whilst Taiwan may not be able to have formal state-to-state relations, it can cultivate deep and substantive unofficial ties with those sympathetic towards it through the establishment of "Cultural & Economic Offices" around the world, which to this day continue to represent Taiwan’s interests worldwide.

However, when it comes to managing Taiwan’s remaining 21 allies, direct monetary contributions continue to play an important role. Part of Chiang Ching-kuo’s strategy, and to a later extent Taiwan’s current strategy of pragmatic diplomacy (in essence making the most of making the most of its economic power and cultural favor), is the utilization of foreign aid. In order to curry favor, and more importantly, formal diplomatic support), Taiwan often offers large sums of money to some of the world’s poorest nations in order to maintain at least some officials friends which further legitimizes a Taiwan State.

Whilst the majority of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens take a negative stance against this style of diplomacy, the government has viewed it as a necessary evil. Although decreasing in recent years as a result of the former administration’s closer ties with China, Taiwan has regularly ring-fenced hundreds of millions of dollars to give to other countries. Whilst no doubt some of these countries need monetary support, in reality Taiwan needs the foreign aid program as much as the nations that receive the money, a prime example being that these allies, have led an annual campaign to the United Nation’s requesting Taiwan to be a participant, or at the very least an observer. Whenever Taiwan is unable to officially participate in international governmental organizations, these allies will often send official delegations to protest such decisions, and provide Taiwanese officials with information from such events. Although in both situations these countries are often pushed by Taipei to behave in such a manner, they remain a vital link between Taiwan and the world around it. Taiwan pays to have its voice heard, and a select number of nations are more than willing to utilize this to their own advantage.

Perhaps the stakes have become too high. Taiwan rung in the new year with the news that after years of being held at ransom, the African nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, a country of just 200,000 people, switched alliances to the People’s Republic of China, apparently demanding a minimum of USD$200 Million a year which Taipei ultimately found unacceptable.

Beijing can offer more money and can build more motorways. However, an interesting alternative perspective is that although Beijing may be perceived to be in a stronger situation, the impact of Taiwan’s foreign aid is often significantly more meaningful to those on the ground. São Tomé and Príncipe, for example, has a near negligible imprint on Google Maps, to the extent that not only does it not have any street view capabilities, there is no recognition outside of any routes outside main roads. What does exist however, is “Open Map” - an editable app that was largely contributed to by Taiwanese who through their successful initiative to reduce malaria diagnoses from 50 percent to less than 1 percent were able to effectively map the island and its roads, which is not only the most detailed map of the island to exist today, but has also been key to foreign aid agencies delivering further resources to those in need.

A movement towards bilateral cooperation signals several things from Taipei. Primarily, Taiwan acknowledges that it can’t outbid Beijing. What it can do, however, which Beijing won’t, is not only open its domestic market to outside competition, but work together with its partners to take advantage of markets in North America, Europe and the rest of Asia. This puts its allies on an equal footing, not something resembling neither a hostage situation nor a finance-dependent friendship. Further, Taiwan has seen more successes with its unofficial alliance strategies than of that with its official approaches.

Although it may no longer be the Asian tiger that it once was, Taiwan still plays an integral role in the world economy, and increasing sympathies for the island as well as its continued economic influence in recent years have seen a warming in the titles of its de-facto embassies around the world. Most recently, the Japanese branch of Taipei’s unofficial representation changed its name to the “Japan-Taiwan Exchange Foundation” - an act condemned by Beijing yet still implemented. This is perhaps evidence that a mutual two-way relationship with Taiwan is not just beneficial to Taiwan, but has positive implications for the countries that it does business with.

However, just because a new model is aspired to doesn’t necessarily mean that old habits will die hard. President Tsai has confirmed that assistance in public health, education and infrastructure will continue. At the same time, leaders of countries such as Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has directly expressed that he hopes such deposits of foreign aid does not stop. This presents an interesting conundrum for Taiwan: even if a mutually beneficial relationship is successfully established, will it still be held at ransom, and will it’s relationship still be at risked of being broken up be Beijing’s willingness to throw money away?

Tsai’s aim of steadfast diplomacy through mutual dependency is entirely dependent of exactly how much benefit the leaders of its allies feel they are getting from their relationship in comparison from how much they could be getting in much simpler terms from Beijing. Although Beijing may offer many no strings attached loans which are now prevalent throughout Africa, its inability to allow local people to managerial positions and the fact that many operations are enacted simply to benefit China, paint the picture of Beijing as a benevolent colonist rather than an actor interested in meaningful economic cooperation. Whilst Taiwan is no exception to diplomatic aid scandals, its work is often felt directly by the local community, and in general the reaction is unanimously positive.

Taiwan’s allies have the opportunity to work with it through meaningful economic and structural bilateral relations to bolster their own economies and provide greater opportunities for their respective businesses and entrepreneurs, alongside a continuation of traditional foreign aid contributions. Theoretically, this presents a potentially unlimited number of partnerships and business opportunities. In practice, this requires Taiwan’s allies to take a meaningful long-term view of their relationship and the benefits that official Taiwanese relations can bring In return. Taiwan, in contrast, doesn't just have allies that can be bought, it has friends.

Editor: Edward White