Lessons in Diplomatic Coexistence: Taiwan’s Relations With China

Compared to the rising Chinese superpower, its neighbor Taiwan is small in territory and in population. A new Taiwanese 'viable diplomacy' policy seeks to replace hostility between the countries with pragmatism and multilateralism.

Liang-Jen Chang
Liang-Jen Chang
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Liang-Jen Chang
Liang-Jen Chang

Compared to China, Taiwan is small in territory and in population. In facing the rise of China, Taiwan faces a strategic dilemma: it needs to ameliorate the threats that China poses, while taking advantage of the huge Chinese market. More recently, however, there has been a concerted effort by Taiwan (Republic of China) to see a window of opportunity, rather than threat, in the relations between Taiwan and China. Since assuming office four and a half years ago, ROC President Ying-Jeou Ma has proposed a new approach – 'viable diplomacy.' This approach offers a new paradigm: That, with improved cross-strait relations, both sides could end their counterproductive and resources-squandering diplomatic tug-of-war, in which each side has tried courting more diplomatic allies than the other.

This new policy also means supporting a more proactive diplomacy internationally, one in which Taiwan aims to strengthen relations with countries with whom it doesn't currently have diplomatic relations, to integrate Taiwan further in the Asia-Pacific and ASEAN region, and to expand the country's participation in international institutions.

The State of Israel is one of 129 countries and territories that have reached visa waiver or landing visa agreements with Taiwan, and from the beginning of November, Taiwan-domiciled nationals will be able to travel to the United States visa-free. The freeing-up travel to and from Taiwan is just one successful result emerging from determined diplomatic pragmatism.

The change in policy has already led to progress in other areas as well. Three years ago, the U.S. removed Taiwan from the Special 301 Watch List of countries that provide inadequate and inefficient protection for intellectual property rights, and two years ago, Taiwan acceded to the World Trade Organization's Government Procurement Agreement. This year marks the fourth year that Taiwan is participating in the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making assembly of the World Health Organization, after an absence of over three decades. Those are no big deals to Israelis, but they are achievements of inclusion that for us have been hard to come by.

For Israelis, the visits of high-ranking U. S. officials to Jerusalem for talks are a common occurrence. But for Taiwan, such visits on home ground have been non-existent. A breakthrough came in September this year, when former ROC Vice President Lien Chan and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held formal talks at the APEC Leaders' Meeting in Vladivostok, Russia. It was the first high-level meeting of this kind in many decades, and one that expressed how relations between Taiwan and the U.S. are at their warmest in 30 years.

This month, the annual meetings of two more international groupings will serve as a litmus test for how the global community responds to viable diplomacy. The first meeting is of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which comprises 190 members and in which the Palestinian Authority has observer status. Taiwan has not been a member for over 40 years, even though its airports handle over 30 million passengers a year, and more than 50 airlines operate flights to and from Taiwan. During the period of Taiwan's exclusion, the country has voluntarily followed the rules and regulations set by the ICAO to ensure passenger safety. The second meet is of the UN's next Climate Change conference in Doha. Again, Taiwan has voluntarily set in place stricter criteria on cutting greenhouse gas emissions than that requested by the international standard and has developed a significant green technology sector. Taiwan has been excluded from being a member or even an observer at both of these organizations in the past. Now, we are seeking observer status, rather than full participation, as the first step in contributing officially to the international community's flight safety norms and its fight against global warming. The 23 million people of Taiwan want to join such global initiatives, which tackle issues that transcend borders.

Recently, territorial disputes between China and Japan over the Diaoyutai islands (Senkaku in Japanese) flared up once again. Even though these small islands, from the perspectives of geography, geology, history, international legal status and practical use, are an inherent part of the territory of the ROC (Taiwan), mainland China and Japan still compete to claim sovereignty. Guided by viable diplomacy, President Ma has called for all parties to refrain from antagonistic acts and instead to move towards conducting talks aimed at a peaceful and negotiated settlement. This summer, the Taiwanese president proposed creating a code of conduct and an accompanying mechanism for cooperation in exploring and developing the region’s resources, a peace initiative that has since gained momentum and support from the international community.

Taiwan has also become an international humanitarian aid provider. For example, US$400 million was raised by the government and popular donations for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in China and of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan. The empathy and charity of the Taiwanese people received international recognition, even by China’s own political leaders.

In the past four and a half years, Taiwan’s international status and image has greatly improved, though an uphill battle still lies ahead. Cross-strait relations are now more stable and promising than they have been for decades, thanks to the new diplomatic approach, and despite the daunting challenges it has faced, Taiwan has not only survived but prospered.

Archimedes once declared: “Give me a lever….[and] I will move the earth.” Viable diplomacy can serve as Taiwan's lever to reach out to the world, and in the process, it offers a new paradigm for international diplomacy.

Liang-Jen Chang is the representative of the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Israel.

China and Tawain sign an investment protection pact between China and Taiwan, August 9, 2012. Credit: AP



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