Taiwan’s recent drive towards greater participation in the World Health Organisation (WHO) provides an opportunity for a wider discussion about modern diplomacy and its motives.

The continued marginalization of Taiwan from most international fora appears to cause the island’s government and population a great deal of stress and anxiety, with their derecognition by the United Nations (UN) in 1971 a major blow to their legitimacy as a nation-state. It is this marginalization and desire for formal recognition by international governmental organisations that passively and actively motivates a considerable amount of the Taiwan government’s diplomatic focus.

In international relations terms Taiwan’s diplomatic situation is a product of the formation of the UN, membership to which subsequently became an effective ratifier of formal statehood. The presence of the UN in international affairs has also reflected a movement away from the "declaratory" approach to diplomatic recognition described by the Montevideo Convention of 1933 to a more ‘constitutive’ approach.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan addresses the media on WHO's health emergency preparedness and response capacities in Geneva

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

Taiwan is intensifying efforts to try and take part in the World Health Organization.

M.J. Peterson explains:

Those viewing [diplomatic recognition] as constitutive argued that a new state had no international legal personality in the eyes of another state until recognition, while those viewing it as declaratory argued that the legal personality existed as soon as the state existed and recognition was merely the recognising state’s confirmation and pledge of respect.

As such, under the now unfavored declaratory approach, Taiwan would have achieved much of its recognition status simply by the reality that its government exists, independent to the People's Republic of China and achieves many of the criteria that other political entities seeking secession from parent states want to achieve.

Thus, Taiwan’s "problem", so to speak, is that the international community now almost entirely acknowledges the constitutive approach to recognition and this results in Taiwan believing that it is favorable to be formally recognized by other governments. Some of Taiwan’s diplomats and other interested parties appear not to realize that citing the Montevideo Convention as authority for Taiwan’s request for statehood now carries little weight.

The declaratory approach fell out of favor down to issues associated with increases in global trade and the number of territories that acquired statehood during the latter part of the 20th century. However, the constitutive approach has also been fraught with problems. For example, in 2011 the British government attempted to recognize rebel forces fighting the Gaddafi regime in Libya in order to provide them access to Libyan state assets in British banks. This situation was farcical as the rebels held none of the regularly accepted criteria for statehood.

There is another aspect to Taiwan’s dilemma though and one that some readers may find uncomfortable or controversial. Perhaps Taiwan’s diplomatic limitations are actually its strength and without them Taiwan would be a weaker entity making different political decisions. Gary Rawnsley has said in a recent essay on Taiwan that the island is "soft power rich, public diplomacy poor". This is a fair reflection of Taiwan’s situation as my own research into its public diplomacy has often been a highly frustrating experience accounting ignorance and ineptitude when engaging in international political communications. This when Taiwan has so many positive things to say.

These positive attributes involve aspects of Taiwan’s economy, society and politics that have largely developed since its derecognition by the UN in 1971. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that these attributes have been directly motivated by that derecognition and also the loss of the United States as a formal diplomatic ally during the winter of 1978-79.

It can be speculated that another liberal democracy without Taiwan’s concerns over statehood would have tackled a protest occupation of parliament like the Sunflower Movement far quicker and far more violently than the Taiwan authorities did.

Thus, without its marginalization, would Taiwan have these soft power assets that it has today or would it have remained a more authoritarian regime that suppressed many of its citizens? Perhaps it can be speculated that another liberal democracy without Taiwan’s concerns over statehood would have tackled a protest occupation of parliament like the Sunflower Movement far quicker and far more violently than the Taiwan authorities did. Thus, government reaction to this crisis was restricted by the ROC’s marginalization and desire not to destabilise its positive international image that provides much of its diplomatic currency.

These questions also provide an opportunity to discuss where Taiwan currently puts its diplomatic energies and tempts the conclusion that Taiwan does not actually need to be recognized at all but is doing just fine without it. Indeed, one should remember that many analysts thought that the days of the ROC were numbered when it was derecognized in 1971 and again in 1978 when Washington announced it was severing formal ties. However, it has grown into a strong and very viable political entity.

The final question then is why does the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) continues to spend a significant percentage of its time, effort and budget in a quest for diplomatic recognition by other governments and formal inclusion in international fora? One answer may come from the notion of the emotional pain that comes with ostracism from a society. In very basic terms, Taiwan wants to be in the international club just because it is absent from the international club. This is the case before any consideration of the merits of membership. The ancient Greeks and a number of the Eastern philosophers argued that death was preferable to banishment and these writings may provide some insight into the seeming distress that has been caused by Taiwan’s exclusion and the thought process behind MOFA’s priorities.

As such, the ROC on Taiwan is a positive outlier in Asia when it comes to democratic governance and other socio-political issues. The imperative for these developments largely comes from a desire to manufacture the international legitimacy in alternate ways to the constitutive recognition that is almost unconditionally received by its regional neighbors.

Thus, when Taiwan’s marginalization accelerated during the 1970s its government was far from the soft power allure that it is today. The clearest example coming from the collusion with a range of dictatorships including the likes of El Salvador where Taiwan helped to train their "death squads", and with little indication of liberal adjustments on the horizon.

Perhaps then without marginalization we would be talking about an entity that is soft power poor, public diplomacy poor, or maybe given the shifting tensions in East Asia, it would not exist at all.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Program.

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TNL Editor: David Green