China Power

Taiwan’s Diplomatic Crossroads

Recent Features

China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Taiwan’s Diplomatic Crossroads

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 provoked a flurry of visitors from liberal democracies. Will Taiwan prioritize these countries over its formal diplomatic allies?  

Taiwan’s Diplomatic Crossroads
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

The former U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s whirlwind visit to Taiwan in 2022 made waves. It was the second such visit since Washington cut diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979, and the first in 25 years. This unusual trip not only led to unprecedented responses from stakeholders in the Taiwan issue, but also galvanized politicians in other liberal democracies to leave their footprint in Taiwan. The latest to do so was a parliamentary delegation from Lithuania, which visited Taiwan on January 13. Since Pelosi’s trip, Taiwan has also hosted lawmakers from Australia, the EU, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and several different delegations from the United States.

Many countries have taken actions to support Taiwan during the same timeframe. For instance, Japan decided to bolster its defense capabilities so as to guard against a contingency in the Taiwan Strait. Australia has allowed the United States to deploy more troops on its territory, aiming to deepen cooperation on the Taiwan front. Even South Korea, which has refrained from angering Beijing on the Taiwan issue, discreetly sent a legislative delegation to visit Taiwan.

By contrast, the prospect of Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies does not look as satisfying. There are only 14 countries in the world that maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, all of which are relatively small states. Since 2016, Beijing has stripped Taipei of eight diplomatic allies – a form of punishment for the Tsai administration’s refusal to recognize the 1992 Consensus, a modus vivendi reached between the two sides. Soon after Nicaragua decided to embrace Beijing, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, announced that “it is only a matter of time” before Taiwan has no allies left.

Most Taiwanese do not regard this as a critical situation. According to a poll conducted by Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation in December 2021, only 32 percent of respondents were concerned about the issue. Taiwanese netizens generally believe that the loss of diplomatic allies is actually beneficial: It allows Taiwan to save the huge expense of maintaining the so-called “checkbook diplomacy” and apply the funds for internal use.

Taiwanese attitudes toward diplomatic allies could be summarized by a remark made by Chen Tung-hao, a famous Taiwanese media professional in 2016: “A visa-free Taiwan will still exist even if Taiwan has no diplomatic relations. If you can still go abroad with a Taiwanese passport, then the effect of zero allies is only a matter of face.”

There are similar voices among Taiwanese politicians. In response to Panama’s decision to sever ties with Taiwan in 2017, former Premier You Si-kun declared that when the Republic of China (ROC) has fewer and fewer diplomatic allies, allies of “Taiwan” will automatically emerge. The ROC is the formal name of Taiwan, and the entity that established diplomatic ties with other countries. Like You, some argue that the loss of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies would hasten the process of dropping the ROC moniker in favor of a purely Taiwanese identity.

However, there also exist pessimistic voices. Ma Shao-chang, former vice chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation, quoted the four criteria for statehood, as defined in the 1933 Montevideo Convention, in a 2019 article, arguing that international recognition is indispensable for the ROC to exist. In other words, if Taiwan has no diplomatic allies, then its claim to international participation would be far weaker.

Even though the Taiwanese passport grants visa-free access to 145 countries/regions at present, its validity might be further questionable in the future, as in the case of the United Nations denying entry to Taiwanese using a passport. Besides, “stopover diplomacy” adopted by Taiwanese presidents, including Tsai Ing-wen, aiming to visit the United States will no longer be viable if Taiwan loses all its formal allies in the Southern Pacific or Latin America. Currently, it’s typical for Taiwanese leaders en route to diplomatic allies to transit through U.S. airports, where they have informal meetings with U.S. politicians.

That said, the effect of the United States’ Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act should not be underestimated. The act authorizes Washington to use its humanitarian assistance to countries in Latin America and the South Pacific as leverage to prevent them from cutting ties with Taiwan. As countries like Belize, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and Grenadines are reliant on U.S. aid, they tend to maintain the status quo with Taipei. Thus, it’s unlikely that China could poach all of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, as the United States would not sit back under the fierce competition between the U.S. and China.

But there is a larger question facing Taipei: As the U.S. is not Taiwan’s official ally, but offers steadfast help, should Taiwan shift its focus to these unofficial but significant partners, or even abandon its current diplomatic network?

Derek Grossman, an analyst at RAND, argued that Taiwan would be better off alone. That is to say, Taiwan should consider extricating itself from the unwinnable diplomatic battle with China and focus on deepening unofficial ties with large and medium countries. By doing so, Taiwan could focus on developing diversified economic relations with significant countries in the form of “semi-official diplomacy” or “people-to-people diplomacy.”

This can be manifested by the G-7’s high-profile support for Taiwan at its summit in 2021, even though none of the seven member states official recognizes Taipei. The Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy at the end of 2021 provided another opportunity for Taiwan to engage with international society. Taiwan and its unofficial partners can avoid the blockade erected by Beijing by no longer using “sovereign state” as the criteria for participation in such summits.

Under the Tsai administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ actions seem to indicate Taiwan is shifting gears to emphasize “unofficial diplomacy.” On the one hand, it is harnessing Taiwan’s preponderant semiconductor industry to echo the U.S. supply chain “Chip 4 Alliance.” On the other hand, Taiwan has been welcoming visits by politicians from unofficial partner countries triggered by Pelosi’s trip. Amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, Taiwan has further promoted its “value-oriented diplomacy” toward EU countries, emphasizing Taiwan’s strategic value as the liberal democracies’ frontline against the expansion of authoritarian powers.

No matter which party is in power in Taiwan, no president will take the initiative to cut off ties with formal allies. But before the day arrives when Taiwan loses all of its diplomatic allies, it is time for the island to decide the orientation of its diplomacy: non-diplomatic but significant partners, namely the Quad and EU countries, or the 14 remaining small but formal diplomatic allies.