In the face of a tougher China, Taiwan tries different tactics to get noticed

As China tries to get Taiwan to talk politics, Taipei is attempting to head off any public opinion backlash at home by looking elsewhere to achieve its goal of international independence.

Jim Young/Reuters
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (l.) and Taiwan's Representative Lien Chan attend the first plenary meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit in Honolulu, Hawaii, Sunday.

Over the past few years, Taiwan has been pushing for a voice in United Nations agencies in order to assert its legitimacy overseas and look strong at home. 

For that to happen, however, Chinese officials must give their nod of approval. As warm as Taiwan-Chinese relations have become in the past 3-1/2 years, China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory and actively asks its 171 diplomatic allies to block the island from joining international bodies.

But now, Taiwan's push – popular with most Taiwanese – has lost ground as its relationship with Beijing loses momentum.

To head off a public backlash at home, Taiwan is scrambling to find successful alternatives to achieving its goal of international independence, such as visa-free travel and free-trade deals. It may be too little too late, however. The setbacks in international diplomacy could well cost Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou points with voters as he campaigns for reelection in January 2012. 

“Most people think it is fairly ironic that hundreds of nations can be members of the UN, even member-states with much smaller populations, while Taiwan is kept outside the door,” says Jay Lin, managing director of a TV content distributor in Taipei. “It is not as if Taiwan is asking for a permanent seat in the Security Council.”

And Mr. Lin's sentiments are echoed by thousands of Taiwanese.

How China has stymied Taiwan's UN bid

To compound matters, Taiwan was a full UN member until 1971, when the organization recognized the People’s Republic of China instead because of its fast-growing ties with influential world powers.

Beijing permitted Taiwan to sit in on UN-linked World Health Assembly (WHA) meetings starting in 2009, but Beijing’s charity apparently stopped there.

“Taiwan saw the WHA as the least that China could do, while China saw it as the most they were prepared to do without some reciprocity on Taipei’s part,” says Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii.

Taipei told the US in 2009 that it had hit tough roadblocks to raising international profile, according to WikiLeaks.

The roadblocks are part of China’s plan to get Taiwan to discuss closer political ties, scholars close to Beijing say, but Taipei is avoiding those discussions because such ties are unpopular with the island’s democratic public.

President Ma has floated the idea of talking to China within the next 10 years on a peace accord. An accord could raise China’s goodwill so that Taiwan gets into more international agencies, experts say.

But most Taiwanese still don’t want to reunite or get too close with China. Ma and his Nationalist Party risk a backlash at home if China keeps pressuring Taiwan to stay out of UN agencies and to bill itself as part of China in less formal international bodies such as sports federations or film festivals.

“This infuriates the Taiwanese and spurs them to do more to be heard by people around the globe,” says Chou Yu-hsuan, a student and social activist at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan.

It’s also why the Taiwanese government will keep pushing for observer status in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Convention and the International Civil Aviation Organization, foreign ministry spokesman James Chang says. And some foreign parliaments have passed bills supporting Taiwan’s quest, he notes.

Looking elsewhere for support

Taiwan has also started to lean more on strong informal relations with major world powers to showcase its arts, sports, and environmental protection, hoping those moves will open doors to international agencies.

But Taiwan’s staunchest informal ally, the United States, eager to stay friends with China for economic gain, has pulled back on overt support for Taiwan, says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

As the UN quest falls short, Taiwan is stepping up its profile in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit, one of the few regional bodies that gives the island full status. Taiwan said last week it would use the summit this month to share its experience handling global economic problems and showcase the help it has given APEC since joining it in 1991.

Taiwan is also talking to Singapore about a potential tariff-cutting free-trade agreement, which would be its first with a major partner nation and a boost to local exporters. India is also interested in an FTA as well, Taiwan's cabinet spokesman said in October.

But perhaps the most domestically popular measures are talks with a fast-growing number of foreign governments – some 124 countries and regions so far – into offering visa waivers to local passport holders, making it easier to travel or do business. Only a third of that number allow visa-free travel to citizens of China, the island's foreign ministry points out.

“This is a different, but more practical diplomatic recognition that I think makes people here feel more respectful,” says David Ma, a PhD candidate at Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University who studied Taiwan’s identity issues.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.