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Taiwan’s Foreign Policy Shift to Unofficial Ties Needs a Balanced Strategy

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Taiwan’s Foreign Policy Shift to Unofficial Ties Needs a Balanced Strategy

Taiwan’s public is increasingly apathetic about the count of diplomatic allies. But can Taiwan afford to give up these partnerships?

Taiwan’s Foreign Policy Shift to Unofficial Ties Needs a Balanced Strategy
Credit: Depositphotos

Honduras’ recent decision to cut ties with Taipei brought the count of Taiwan’s lost diplomatic allies to nine in the past seven years. This worrisome trend is causing concern not only in Taiwan but also among the international community, as it further undermines Taiwan’s status as a sovereign state and position on the global stage. However, the general reaction of Taiwanese citizens toward this trend has become increasingly indifferent, and the significance of diplomatic allies has diminished in the minds of the Taiwanese people.

There are several reasons why Taiwanese are growing apathetic toward the loss of diplomatic allies. First, incidents akin to the recent case of Honduras have happened nine times since the Tsai administration came to power in 2016. Taiwanese have grown accustomed to such occurrences and possess a pessimistic attitude and low expectations toward Taiwan’s diplomatic circumstances and prospects. This results in escalating apathy toward the loss of diplomatic allies in society.

Second, since the outbreak of COVID-19, Taiwan’s unofficial engagement with the global community has improved, accompanied by the government’s successful domestic campaign promoting this development. Many Taiwanese thus believe that their nation is actually in a better position in the world, despite the shrinking number of diplomatic allies. For instance, Taiwan has improved its relations with countries in Eastern Europe such as Czechia and Lithuania. The latest example of this was a recent visit by a high-profile Czech delegation to Taiwan. Consequently, many Taiwanese now view the deduction of diplomatic allies as a relatively acceptable failure, as Taiwan has made progress in forging relationships with nations in other regions.

Finally, the contributions of diplomatic allies are seen as unsatisfactory in the eyes of many Taiwanese citizens, who believe these allies have failed to make a meaningful impact on Taiwan’s complex geopolitical challenges. For instance, despite allies’ continued support for Taiwan’s inclusion in international frameworks such as the United Nations and World Health Organization, these efforts have yielded disappointing results.

Taiwanese disappointment is amplified by their perception that their government has poured abundant resources into diplomatic allies, but received few benefits in return, creating an asymmetrical relationship. Additionally, most allies play a limited role in the world, and their overall capability is rarely respected by Taiwanese. Accordingly, Taiwanese do not believe that losing these allies will have a significant impact on Taiwan’s national interest.

A Policy Pivot to “Unofficial” Diplomacy

The notions and sentiments behind Taiwanese apathy have played a critical role in shaping Taiwan’s foreign policy. As public opinion has increasingly moved away from diplomatic allies, the Tsai administration has been able to advance unofficial engagement in foreign policy with domestic support.

Faced with a more challenging international environment, the Tsai administration has realized the need for a fresh diplomatic approach for Taiwan. The administration understands the importance of unofficial engagement with the world and acknowledges that relying solely on diplomatic allies is insufficient for Taiwan to expand its global influence. As a result, the administration has proactively taken measures to implement a novel diplomatic strategy called “Steadfast Diplomacy” since 2016, which emphasizes engagement with a broader range of countries and regions beyond Taiwan’s traditional allies, utilizing various engagement tools beyond conventional economic aid.

As part of this approach, the Tsai administration has committed to cultivating unofficial ties with major and minor actors across North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. It has cooperated with these countries in a variety of realms, including technology, trade, and culture. Although the administration has not explicitly prioritized unofficial engagement over diplomatic allies, it is evident that the former has become increasingly critical to Taiwan’s foreign policy in recent years.

On the surface, the Tsai administration has remained cautious about publicly endorsing such a major policy shift. It has never stated that unofficial engagement should be a priority over diplomatic allies, possibly to avoid political backlash and demonstrate its unwavering support for its allies. For example, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu reiterated the importance of consolidating diplomatic allies in the briefing report to the Legislative Yuan, positioning it as the top priority in Taiwan’s future work and guidelines on foreign policy.

Despite this, it is undoubtedly true that the priority of Taiwan’s foreign policy is becoming vague. Such ambiguity in foreign policy could engender several issues in Taiwan’s diplomatic relations.

Side Effects on Diplomatic Allies

In light of Taiwan’s blurring diplomatic priorities, potential problems loom for its diplomatic relations. The first issue is the uncertainty felt by traditional allies due to the administration’s growing emphasis on non-traditional partners. Allies may question Taiwan’s long-term commitment to the relationship, especially if they sense a decline in interest or a shift in attitudes toward diplomatic allies.

In this sense, the political trust could degrade between Taiwan and its allies, increasing the possibility of further deterioration in ties. It may become increasingly difficult to find shared areas for collaboration if the bilateral relations are further downgraded. This dynamic could ultimately lead to the loss of additional diplomatic allies, particularly if China can leverage these tensions and offer more attractive commitments to Taiwan’s partners.

In addition, as Taiwan’s foreign policy pivots toward unofficial engagement, it is inevitable that there will be a reallocation of its diplomatic resources to accommodate this new policy direction, which is likely to raise concerns among allies about the government’s level of commitment to maintaining these vital relationships.

In fact, the budget report this year has shown a subtle shift in Taiwan’s foreign policy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2023 Budget Report showed a notable increase in funding for the Department of European Affairs, while the Department of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs has seen a reduction in budget allocation for “Enhancing Bilateral and Multilateral Cooperation.” This year, the Department of European Affairs received an unprecedented almost 400 million Taiwanese dollars, a salient raise from its previous budget of tens of millions of Taiwanese dollars, even though Taiwan has only one official diplomatic partner on the continent. By contrast, the budget for the Department of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs, which manages relations with almost half of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, has decreased to NT$5 billion, down from NT$6.6 billion in 2021. These funding patterns offer an indication of the potential realignment of Taiwan’s foreign policy priorities, with an emphasis on closer ties with Europe.

Unfortunately, this realignment of resources could lead to dissatisfaction and mistrust among allies, ultimately resulting in a diplomatic breach and presenting an opportunity for China to exploit this situation to pull them away from Taiwan’s orbit.

Mitigating the Impact of the Policy Shift

To tackle these pressing concerns, Taiwan must unequivocally exhibit its commitment to preserving diplomatic alliances, not only through constructive discussions with allies but also through tangible actions.

First, Taipei has to continually increase or at least maintain a similar level of support to allies in fields that fit into allies’ interests, such as infrastructure, climate change, technology, and trade. For example, the annual budget for substantial regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean region should increase instead of diminishing. The decreasing budget for Taiwan’s allies could send the wrong signal, sparking doubt among these partners. Meanwhile, while Taiwan remains open to supporting projects that align with allies’ interests, it should clearly define its red line of cooperation by rejecting any unreasonable proposals that demand significant policy concessions, as seen in Honduras. This approach would demonstrate Taiwan’s unwavering commitment to its allies while protecting its own interests.

Second, the Taiwanese government must exercise prudence when providing foreign aid to non-diplomatic allies, carefully assessing initiatives’ size and scale. For example, this year’s Foreign Minister budget allocates a total of roughly NT$4.7 billion in economic aid to eight of Taiwan’s allies in Latin America (a count now reduced to seven, with Honduras’ switch), averaging around NT$600 million per country. Comparatively, the budget for non-diplomatic ally Ukraine stands at NT$1.8 billion, a marked discrepancy that may raise concerns among Taiwan’s diplomatic partners. While some may argue that Ukraine is an exceptional case, it remains a fact that Taiwan’s diplomatic allies may feel uneasy witnessing non-diplomatic allies receiving three times more economic assistance. Thus, Taiwan must adopt a measured approach when providing foreign aid to non-diplomatic partners to avert potential consequences for its diplomatic allies.

In addition, Taiwan must reassure allies of its unwavering dedication by engaging in consistent and frequent diplomatic consultations, from the working level to senior officials. Taiwan can further demonstrate its commitment by engaging directly with its allies’ highest leadership. Through open communication and concrete actions, Taiwan can assuage any concerns its allies may have about policy shifts and strengthen the trust that underpins its diplomatic ties. By better understanding its allies’ specific needs, Taiwan can ensure its support is aligned and promote more effective collaborations, deepening its relationships with allies.

Lastly, the Taiwanese government must effectively communicate with its people and promote the importance of allies to Taiwan. This is because domestic support is an essential element for both short- and long-term success of foreign policy. To that end, the government has to clearly explain its foreign policy outlook and convince its people to support the policy guidelines. In this way, Taipei can not only ensure its foreign policy is aligned with the interests and values of its citizens but also secure domestic support to implement the policy.

To advance its strategic interests without sacrificing diplomatic relationships, Taiwan must prioritize its existing diplomatic allies as well as actively engage with non-diplomatic countries. This dual strategy will solidify existing relationships and open up new avenues for cooperation, allowing Taiwan to expand its reach and influence on the global stage.