Taiwan Examines Its Policies of Diplomacy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 20

Taiwan’s diplomatic plight in recent years has been troubling for many concerned with the island’s political survival. Unable to compete with China’s growing political and economic influence, in the last three years alone Taiwan has lost six of its thirty diplomatic allies—Chad, Grenada, Dominica, Senegal, Liberia and Vanuatu—with another critical ally—the Vatican—rumored to be contemplating a transfer of recognition as well (Taipei Times, April 5, 2005). While such challenges are hardly a novelty in Taiwan’s struggle for recognition on the international arena, it is one that Taipei has found itself losing, particularly in recent years. With few options remaining and its back to the wall in its fight for international statehood, Taiwan has recognized the necessity of reexamining its policies toward diplomatic relations.

Mounting Challenges…

Wielding both tremendous political and economic influence, China’s modus operandi in persuading Taiwan’s existing allies to switch diplomatic recognition has consisted of both sticks—as in the cases of both Macedonia and Chad—and carrots—economic incentives that Taiwan has been hard-pressed to counter [1]. Concerned that Taiwan is competing in an already lost race for diplomatic recognition, a number of domestic observers have engaged in debates over Taiwan’s longstanding policy of financial assistance in return for diplomatic recognition. Some have criticized the wisdom behind the government’s strategy of what they view as unconditional assistance to countries with seemingly little political and strategic importance [2]. These countries, they argue, not only possess little political and economic capital—even collectively—but also demonstrate questionable loyalty, answering to the calls of the highest bidder. Others have questioned whether Taiwan should engage in the struggle for international diplomatic recognition at all. Given its limited resources, Taiwan is simply unable to win the “bidding competition” for diplomatic recognition vis-à-vis China. Taiwan’s generous financial assistance to its allies has come under considerable international criticism as well. Most recently, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters condemned Taiwan’s participation in “checkbook diplomacy” as a destabilizing force in the Pacific that has resulted in the delay of political reforms and the prolonging of the social upheaval on the Solomon Islands (Taipei Times, August 18).

…Result in a Pragmatic Strategy

In response to these concerns, in the last six years, Taipei has significantly changed its practices of providing international assistance to countries with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Rather than providing direct monetary assistance, much as it had done in the past, aid now appears in the form of international assistance programs, which are evaluated according to the joint needs of both the recipients as well as Taiwan. These international assistance programs cover issues as broad as the digital divide, agricultural and fishery technology and medical assistance. When evaluating the merits of each individual program, the Taiwanese government now takes into consideration the extent to which the programs allow for Taiwan’s added participation in the region as well as the extent of economic benefits derived by both countries. Furthermore, all major assistance programs are now highly transparent and are administered through the non-governmental organization, the International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF), which is under constant congressional oversight.

In addition to the implementation of international assistance programs, Taiwan has also utilized multilateral institutions as an additional instrument to secure its existing diplomatic relations. The most recent example of such is the “Taiwan-Pacific Allies Summit,” the first of which was held on September 5 in Palau (Taipei Times, September 6). Drawing upon its experiences with its Central American allies, Taiwan merged its existing bilateral relations with Palau, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands to produce the new multilateral body. While the long-term sustainability as well as the effectiveness of such an institution remains to be seen, such an effort is likely to shift Taiwan’s efforts away from sustaining formal bilateral relations and refocus them on developing a role in regional cooperation.

“New Thinking” on Diplomatic Relations

Recognizing that it has been on the losing end of China’s diplomatic offensive, a number of policymakers and academics have called for a reevaluation of not only Taiwan’s strategy toward maintaining current and obtaining additional diplomatic allies, but also its underlying policy for seeking international allies. Following Chad’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan and resume relations with China, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Yu Shyi-kun notably declared that Taiwan’s international status should not be measured by the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies [3]. Rather, Taiwan’s status is a decision that should be made only by the Taiwanese people themselves. Given that the previous goals of Taiwan’s international assistance programs were to sustain Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with existing allies and to prevent China’s encroachment, a shift in Taiwan’s policies would result in an entirely different program. Rather than devoting the bulk of its assistance toward its existing diplomatic allies, Taiwan would choose the targets for its aid programs—focused on the establishment of broader social, economic and political relations—based upon Taiwan’s strategic interests [4]. Taiwan would not be relegated to participating in the “bidding game” against China’s diplomatic offensive and instead, could focus on longer-term objectives.

Yet some, including this author, have pointed out that in order for such a policy to be truly actionable, questions regarding the potential loss of all diplomatic allies and consequently, the pragmatic and concrete benefits that have been afforded to Taiwan through its diplomatic relations would have to be answered. Strictly speaking, from the perspective of international law, the ending of a formal relationship would not denote the loss of Taiwan’s statehood, though its status as a state with international legitimacy would be severely weakened with no formal recognition as support. Moreover, the loss of diplomatic allies would also eliminate the critical channels that Taipei currently relies upon to voice its concerns in international organizations that it has been denied membership, particularly the United Nations. Without such channels, Taiwan’s already muffled voice may become altogether inaudible.

There is no question that Taipei must reconsider its existing policies toward the cultivation and preservation of its diplomatic allies. Its current strategy of utilizing international assistance programs as its primary instrument of foreign policy is simply unsustainable, especially given China’s considerably deeper coffers and its mounting political power. What has yet to be determined, however, is a cohesive policy that effectively promotes Taiwan’s statehood and interests on the international arena while taking into account its limited resources.


1. In the case of Macedonia, in 1999, China vetoed the continuation of the UN peacekeeping operation in Macedonia in order to force Skopje to sever its diplomatic relations with Taipei. According to press reports, China employed similar means to convince Chad to switch diplomatic recognition (AFP, August 8).

2. Comments made to this author in various conversations.

3. Statements made while speaking with the press on August 6.

4. The “Co-prosperity Project with Allies Countries in Central and South America” project, managed by the Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD), is a project to deepen the comprehensive economic, social and cultural relationship between Taiwan and the Central and South American countries. The contents of the project can be viewed at https://goca.cepd.gov.tw/.