Last week proved to be an interesting moment for Taiwan’s international space. On the one hand, on December 9 the country was represented at U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy in Washington, where Digital Minister Audrey Tang gave a stellar performance in showcasing how Taiwan has enhanced its democracy in spite of the threats posed by China and the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, on December 9, it was announced that Nicaragua was switching its diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing, reducing Taiwan’s total number of formal diplomatic ties to 14.
Looking at either development in isolation would lead to opposite conclusions as to the future of Taiwan’s diplomacy. So is Taiwan’s international space expanding or contracting?
A Break With a Rather Undemocratic Ally
To start with the break of relations by Nicaragua, this was primarily caused by domestic developments in Nicaragua itself, and there was little Taiwan’s government could have done to avoid it.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega – a rather permanent fixture in the country’s political constellation – won a fourth consecutive term on November 7 under circumstances that prompted the Biden administration to express deep concerns about the country’s democracy. The United States criticized the Ortega regime for imprisoning opposition leaders, and slapped sanctions on the regime for operating an import and customs fraud scheme to enrich members of Ortega’s government.
In response to Nicaragua’s break of relations with Taiwan, the U.S State Department issued a strong statement, referring to “the Ortega-Murillo regime,” stating that “the sham election on November 7 did not provide it with any mandate to remove Nicaragua from the family of American democracies.”
The State Department added that the break of relations with Taiwan “deprives Nicaragua’s people of a steadfast partner in its democratic and economic growth.” It stated that “Taiwan’s relationships with diplomatic partners in the Western Hemisphere provide significant economic and security benefits to the citizens of those countries. We encourage all countries that value democratic institutions, transparency, the rule of law, and promoting economic prosperity for their citizens to expand engagement with Taiwan.”
Under the circumstances, it was thus to be expected that Nicaragua would switch, if only to needle the United States, which has repeatedly expressed its preference that Taiwan’s diplomatic allies keep the status quo. Of course, Beijing was waiting to pounce on the opportunity to snatch one more formal ally away from Taiwan.
Taiwan’s efforts to be supportive of Nicaragua and it people by sponsoring activities that encouraged agriculture and self-reliance notwithstanding, in the end the deterioration in Nicaragua’s democracy proved to be the decisive factor.
But how significant is this for Taiwan’s international standing?
Beijing will of course try to capitalize on the matter, and make it appear as if this is an “inescapable trend,” while in Taiwan itself the Kuomintang opposition will try to use Nicaragua’s decision to criticize the Tsai administration. In addition, most of the reporting by the international media seems to pay an obsessive attention to the numbers game through bean-counting of Taiwan’s official allies.
But for the DPP government of President Tsai Ing-wen, the loss of Nicaragua is far outweighed by the recent significant strengthening of substantive, if unofficial, relations with Japan, Australia, the United States, and Europe.
Four Examples of Increased Support for Taiwan
Indeed, a brief overview of recent developments show that Taiwan’s international space has actually significantly expanded.
First and foremost is of course the fact that Taiwan was one of 110 countries invited to the U.S. Summit for Democracy on December 9-10, with Digital Minister Audrey Tang both giving an official intervention – along government leaders from such countries as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and India – and participating in a panel discussion chaired by former U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power on how digital technology can help democracy.
A second important fact is that other democracies in the region, such as Japan and Australia, have now spoken out clearly and stated that peace and security in the Taiwan Strait is essential for their own security, and that any attempts by China to change the status quo will be met with strong countermeasures.
In Japan, high officials from Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on down have voiced support for helping to “protect Taiwan as a democratic country” and supporting Taiwan’s participation in the WHO. In addition, in early December, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stated that neither Japan nor the United States would stand by if China attacked Taiwan, and that an emergency for the island would also be an emergency for Japan.
In Australia, it was Defense Minister Peter Dutton who stated in mid-November 2021 that it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to join the United States should Washington take action to defend Taiwan.
A third factor is that all the way on the other side of the world, in Europe, there has been a major shift in Taiwan’s favor. Traditionally, European nations had cold-shouldered Taiwan in order to stay on friendly terms with Beijing, in order to gain access to the Chinese market for their companies. But China’s own aggressive actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and threats against Taiwan – as well as an increasingly unfriendly and restrictive business climate in China – have prompted many countries to look at Taiwan in a new light.
This was exemplified in the European Parliament resolution on deepening relations with Taiwan, passed by an overwhelming majority of 580 vs. 26 on October 21, and the statement by the European Commission that it intends to work toward deepening relations with Taiwan. This intent to strengthen relations with Taiwan also found its way into the EU-U.S. joint statement on high-level consultations on the Indo-Pacific, on December 8, which concluded that the two “reconfirmed their interest in stability and the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and both sides noted a shared interest in deepening cooperation with Taiwan.”
Fourth and finally, it is significant that an increasing number of countries are turning away from China because of its aggressive behavior, and are turning to Taiwan, not only for economic reasons – and particularly its prowess in the chip industry (TSMC) – but also for reasons that are important for sustaining democracy in the world. To countries as far apart as Lithuania and Somaliland, Taiwan is a like-minded country, and relations can be enhanced to the mutual benefit.
Emphasis on Substantive Relations
In this context, it is important to highlight the words of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in her statement issued on December 10, the day after the break of relations with Nicaragua:
…the more successful Taiwan’s democracy, the more robust its support from the international community, and the greater is the pressure we face from the authoritarian camp. However, we all firmly believe that no amount of external pressure can shake our efforts and commitment to freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and partnering with the international democratic community.
Tsai noted that Tang, as well as Taiwan’s representative in the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim, were taking part in the U.S. Summit for Democracy. “In the past few years, Taiwan, at the forefront of the democratic line, has gained more and more support and attention from the international community,” she said.
“We will stand firmly with the international democracy and freedom camp and continue to strengthen the capacity of Taiwan’s democracy and enhance our democratic resilience.”
Thus, by its strong commitment to human rights and democracy, Taiwan is strengthening its substantive relations with the free world. It has a global network of some 110 representative offices, which may not have the formal title of embassy, but which are effective in getting across Taiwan’s message.
In fact, this network represents the 31st largest diplomatic network in the world, ahead of Sweden (104 posts), Norway (99 posts), or Finland (85 posts). Of course, Taiwan has been kept out of international organizations like the U.N., ICAO, WHO, and Interpol through the manipulations of Beijing. But even there one can see change coming: on October 25, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered remarks at length advocating for Taiwan to have a role in the United Nations:
Taiwan has become a democratic success story. Its model supports transparency, respect for human rights, and the rule of law – values that align with those of the United Nations (UN). Taiwan is critical to the global high-tech economy and a hub of travel, culture, and education. We are among the many UN member states who view Taiwan as a valued partner and trusted friend…
Taiwan’s exclusion undermines the important work of the UN and its related bodies, all of which stand to benefit greatly from its contributions. We need to harness the contributions of all stakeholders toward solving our shared challenges. That is why we encourage all UN Member States to join us in supporting Taiwan’s robust, meaningful participation throughout the UN system and in the international community…
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the push for Taiwan’s inclusion in the U.N. specialized agencies has gained steam. A breakthrough here would be far more consequential for Taiwan than the loss of any diplomatic ally.