The Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen administrations chose different approaches to engage the international community. Which one best serves Taiwan?
Nineteen seventy-one marked the year of Taiwan’s expulsion from the United Nations as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came to formally represent China within the international community. Since then, the PRC’s insistence on the “one China” principle, whereby countries are required to recognize the authority of China under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has been the main barrier to Taiwan’s participation in the international community. The PRC has courted Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies into switching recognition with generous trade deals and infrastructure projects, as was witnessed in the case of Panama earlier this year. The PRC has also sought to veto Taiwan’s participation in international governmental organizations (IGO), citing that Taiwan is not a sovereign state and therefore is unable to conduct foreign relations outside the remit of China.
After Taiwan’s expulsion from the UN and more than a decade of diplomatic isolation, came the period under President Lee Teng-hui in 1988. Lee’s “pragmatic diplomacy” marked a change in Taiwan’s attitude and approach toward the international community. Under Lee, Taiwan began looking to build links with other states and explore alternative means of participating in international affairs, a process he described as increasing “international space.” For instance, Lee engineered the “Southbound Policy” to promote more investment and engagement with Southeast Asian nations. Since Lee’s presidency, the concept of international space has become a cornerstone of Taiwanese foreign policy for successive administrations.
However, the criteria by which we can assess international space are not always clear. Some have pointed to the specific number of formal diplomatic relations Taiwan holds with other nations. But this understanding of Taiwan’s international role neglects other areas in which Taiwan has increased its engagement with the international community over the past few decades, including NGO membership. Other areas in which Taiwan’s international involvement continues to grow include unofficial ties, “visibility” and functional participation in IGOs.
Each administration since Lee has updated its strategies to increase international space, often depending on the nature of cross-Strait relations. The contrast between current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen and her predecessor from the Nationalist Party (KMT), Ma Ying-jeou, is informative. While Ma enjoyed a closer relationship with China, Tsai has experienced a rapid cooling in cross-Strait relations.
Prior to her election in 2016, Tsai presented an alternative vision of Taiwan’s international development that deviated from the approach taken by the “China-friendly” KMT, declaring “the DPP walks towards the world and walks towards China with the world while the KMT walks towards China and walks toward the world with China.” In light of Tsai’s recent call for a “breakthrough” in cross-Strait relations, it may be worth comparing these two strategies and reflecting on the results of the DPP’s approach to Taiwan’s international space.
Ma’s acceptance of the so-called “1992 consensus,” or the acknowledgment of “one China,” formed the basis for warm relations with China during his tenure. This action in turn seemed successful in boosting Taiwan’s international role — at least on a short-term basis. Positive cross-Strait relations under Ma led to some victories in the struggle for international space, especially on the economic front. This was epitomized by the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010 with the PRC. Free-trade agreements with New Zealand and Singapore followed, demonstrating that Taiwan could independently negotiate and secure trade deals outside the remit of the PRC. Ma’s strategy to improve Taiwan’s international space thus appeared to prioritize strengthening ties first and foremost with China, then other nations.
However, outside the economic realm, Ma’s foreign policy remained heavily reliant on Beijing’s “approval” and cooperation. This became apparent in negotiations for Taiwan’s accession to the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) as well as the World Health Assembly (WHA), where Taiwan’s participation remained subject to review.
Though these achievements suggest that Ma expanded Taiwan’s global role during his presidency, there is some evidence which suggests that international space did not expand in a meaningful way.
Though these achievements suggest that Ma expanded Taiwan’s global role during his presidency, there is some evidence which suggests that international space did not expand in a meaningful way. For instance, many of the economic gains were short-term, which became abundantly clear when the benefits of the ECFA’s “early harvest list” were exhausted within the first few years its signing.
Moreover, while ECFA initially saw a peak in exports from the PRC to Taiwan, cross-Strait trade slumped toward the end of Ma’s second term in 2015. According to Taiwan customs statistics, exports dropped from US$84.7 billion in 2014 to US$73.4 billion in 2015, while imports fell from US$49.25 billion to US$45.26 billion in the same period.
Perhaps even more reflective of the permanent limitations on Taiwan’s international space was the fact that despite positive cross-Strait engagement during the Ma presidency, Taiwan remained isolated from the larger process of regional economic integration in Asia. Under Ma, Taiwan did not participate in the Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. After Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank President Jin Liqun claimed Taiwan was not a sovereign state, meaningful participation in China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative was no longer an option.
In the case of IGOs, Taiwan’s participation was also temporary and highly contingent on Beijing’s “approval.” Since the change of administration in 2016, Taiwan has since been unable to attend meetings at ICAO and the WHA.
In contrast to her predecessor, Tsai has not enjoyed the same trust and cooperation with China. As the leader of a party with a history of pro-independence tendencies, the PRC remains highly distrustful of the Tsai administration. Tsai has also not openly accepted the “1992 consensus,” which had formed the core of cross-Strait relations under Ma. Lack of cooperation and trust from the PRC has affected Tsai’s strategy to develop international space, leading among other things to a resumption of efforts by Beijing to steal Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies. In response to the cooling of cross-Strait relations, Tsai has deviated from Ma by prioritizing Taiwan’s soft power and relations with countries other than the PRC, a process she describes as “walking toward the world.”
While maintaining economic goals similar to Ma’s (with GDP growth for 2017 set to be the highest since 2014, when it hit 4.01%), Tsai’s version of the “Southbound Policy” — known as the New Southbound Policy — focuses more on strengthening cultural and institutional links with Southeast Asian countries. For example, the New Southbound Policy Promotion Plan calls for an expansion of “education ties,” “conducting talent exchange” and coordinating with ASEAN states on a range of non-economic policy areas. The policy includes a plan to train a thousand doctors from ASEAN countries in Taiwan over a period of four years. The DPP has likewise devoted a large portion of the Southbound budget to offering more scholarships to students from southeast Asian countries and India. More recently, Taiwan introduced a nine-month period of visa-free travel for visitors from the Philippines.
From September 2016 to July of 2017, the number of students from Southeast Asia studying in Taiwan grew 9.7% from the previous academic year. Similarly, the number of tourists from Southeast Asian nations climbed 36.7%. The steady influx of students suggests Tsai is reaching beyond trade deals and deepening Taiwan’s ties with ASEAN nations through soft power. Meanwhile, exports to 18 countries targeted by the Southbound policy grew at the fastest rate in five years, rising 13.5% in the first half of 2017.
In response to the cooling of cross-Strait relations, Tsai has deviated from Ma by prioritizing Taiwan’s soft power and relations with countries other than the PRC, a process she describes as “walking toward the world.”
The recent Yushan Forum is another example how the Tsai administration is boosting institutional links and increasing engagement with Southeast Asian nations. The forum claims to provide a platform for leaders to exchange ideas and facilitate greater cooperation in the areas of society, culture, technology, and youth engagement, in many ways paralleling Singapore’s Shangri-la Dialogue and India’s Raisina Dialogue. Early next year, the “Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation” will be launched which will focus its efforts on furthering Taiwan’s involvement in the region.
As a way of circumventing the PRC, Taiwan has also looked increasingly to India. In February 2017, Kuan Bi-ling of the DPP headed a parliamentary delegation visit to India, signaling Taiwan’s commitment to improving bilateral relations. As Sino-Indian relations have soured over age-old border disputes and differing security interests, Narendra Modi has unveiled the “Act East” policy with plans to improve ties with Taiwan, some even suggesting India send a military attaché to Taipei.
Although the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan is not explicitly linked to the government’s foreign policy, it may also prove beneficial to Taiwan’s struggle for international space in the long-run. Jason Hsu, a lawmaker from the KMT, argues same-sex marriage could improve Taiwan’s soft power by setting an example among Asian nations as well as solidifying the island’s image as a bastion of progressive values. This is yet another example of how a soft power strategy to expand international space may be the key to improving Taiwan’s status in the global community.
Overall, the contrast between Ma and Tsai’s strategies to boost Taiwan’s global role provides two understandings of international space. On the one hand, Ma prioritized cross-Strait relations and economic engagement. On the other hand, while economic engagement remains key in the current administration’s foreign policy agenda, President Tsai is taking the long-view by focusing more on the realm of culture and other non-trade areas. Although it has not reaped the same immediate rewards as the one adopted by her predecessor, and although more time is needed to see its full effects, Tsai’s strategy could prove more effective in securing Taiwan’s place in the international community.
Top photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.