Taiwan’s foreign relations with the major states are normalizing. Even though these states all maintain official “One-China” policies, they also have de facto “one China, one Taiwan” policies with substantial “representative offices” that act as embassies in Taipei, while Taiwan has de facto embassies and consulates throughout the world. The overseas foreign affairs representatives of many countries in Taiwan are “normal” foreign service officers, who enjoy the same rights as diplomats including diplomatic immunity, use of the diplomatic “bag,” and tax privileges. Taiwan’s foreign affairs officers overseas in many states without “formal” diplomatic relations also enjoy similar privileges. In other words, most of the world’s important democratic states now interact with Taiwan as a “middle power” in East Asia that has democratic politics, a population of 23 million people, a developed economy, considerable trade, and substantial military forces.
Australia very much fits this pattern. The first two Australian representatives in the upgraded Australian office in Taipei, Colin Heseltine (1992-1997) and Sam Gerovich (1997-2001), were previously deputy heads of mission in Australia’s Beijing embassy. This original pattern was broken with the appointment in 2001 of Frances Adamson (who later became Australia’s ambassador in Beijing and is now the secretary or chief public servant in Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade). Since 2001, none of Australia’s representatives in Taiwan have come directly from Beijing. Kevin Magee, the previous Australian representative in Taipei (2011-2014), came from Saudi Arabia where he served as Australian ambassador. He clearly desired Taipei as his next post—an indication in Australia’s foreign service of the importance vested in the Taipei office. Under Mr. Magee, Australia changed the name of its Taipei post from the Australian Commerce and Industry Office (ACIO) to the Australian Office (AO).
Similarly, Taiwan has sent senior people to Australia as both “ambassadors” in Canberra and “consuls-general” in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. For example, the last four Taiwan ambassadors to Australia have been Timothy Yang (楊進添), who later served as ambassador to Indonesia, Minister of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and Secretary-General of the Presidential Office; Gary Lin (林松煥) who later became secretary-general of MOFA, ambassador to Norway and currently is ambassador to the Philippines; Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Katherine Chang (張小月), formerly spokesperson and vice-minister of MOFA, and ambassador to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; and Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee (李大維), former ambassador to Belgium, the United States, and Canada. Current Ambassador to Austria, Vanessa Shih (史亞平), was number two in Canberra, and later became director-general of the Government Information Office, ambassador to Singapore, and vice-minister of foreign affairs. The newly appointed Taiwan Ambassador to Australia is Elliot Charng (常以立), who has a strong background in trade. Australia’s current Representative in Taiwan, Catherine Raper, also has a strong trade background.
In terms of global trade, Australia is Taiwan’s 14th largest export market and Taiwan’s 10th largest source of imports, while Taiwan is Australia’s 8th largest export market and its 13th largest source of imports. Australia’s main exports to Taiwan are natural resources like coal, iron ore, aluminium, and crude petroleum as well as medicaments. Australia imports refined petroleum, telecom equipment and parts, computers, and motorcycles and bicycles from Taiwan. Total trade between the two countries is about US$9 billion. Foreign investment by the two countries in the other during 2015 totals about US$10 billion with Taiwan investment in Australia accounting for about 57 percent. The two countries also provide each other services totalling about US$1 billion annually, with Australia providing about 80 percent of these services. Such figures are not insubstantial for two middle powers, each of which also has very substantial trade and investment with large powers.
The Tsai government has established a New Southbound Policy (新南向政策) headed by former foreign minister James Huang (黃志芳) and located in the Presidential Office in order to develop trade, investment, tourism and educational ties with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand. As of mid-October 2016, this office has been criticized for lacking budget and failing to develop concrete plans (but contacts within Taiwan and Australia suggest that President Tsai is pushing this policy vigorously and concrete plans are now being prepared). Thus, the New Southbound Policy could enhance relations between Taiwan and Australia as well as with Southeast and South Asian countries.
The development of the relationship between Taiwan and Australia has enjoyed bipartisan support in both countries. Under both Labor and Coalition governments in Australia, senior Taiwanese officials have made quiet visits, though not when a senior Chinese visitor is in the country. While the number of Australian ministers visiting Taiwan declined under both Coalition and Labor governments, the current Coalition government has promised to increase these ministerial visits.
These developments in Australia-Taiwan relations have occurred while China is still the leading export and import trading partner of both Australia and Taiwan. At least part of the explanation for the good relations between Australia and Taiwan are their shared democratic values. Furthermore, as revealed in released Wikileaks documents, Australia confidentially made it clear that it would side with the United States in the event of ‘war’ between the United States and China over Taiwan.
In the past, the South Pacific was an area of friction between Canberra and Taipei. Australia is particularly active in the South Pacific, advocating “good governance,” and Taiwan has six diplomatic allies in the region. Although Australia felt that Taiwan’s aid money was responsible for increasing corruption in the South Pacific, two factors have improved the situation. First, the tacit “diplomatic truce” (外交休兵) between China and Taiwan has meant that the two countries no longer spend huge funds bidding for recognition from these small Pacific countries, hence lowering Taiwan’s spending in the Pacific. Second, some sources suggest that Taiwan has been included in South Pacific multilateral aid forums, an action that would increase Taiwan’s de facto diplomatic space.
Relations between Taiwan and Australia should continue to improve quietly as each side learns more about the other. Such understanding is enhanced by the increasing number of Taiwanese students studying in Australia, as well as large numbers of Taiwanese youth combining travel and employment in Australia. Thus, in 2014-15 over 26,000 young Taiwanese participated in Australia’s Working Holiday program, consistently the second highest number after the UK. Under these circumstances, Australia and Taiwan are learning to respect each other as important, democratic Asia-Pacific middle powers.
Main Point: While the relationship remains quiet and constrained, Australia and Taiwan have developed stronger ties, demonstrated by the high level of diplomatic exchange, trade, and investment between the two democratic, Asia-Pacific middle powers.
This article revises and updates an article originally published on the University of Nottingham China Policy Institute blog (2014) and later in Australian Outlook (2014).
For further reading on Australia-Taiwan relations, see the very important book by Joel Atkinson, Australia and Taiwan: Bilateral Relations, China, the United States, and the South Pacific (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013), the earlier work of J. Bruce Jacobs, “Australia’s Relationship with the Republic of China on Taiwan,” in Re-Orienting Australia-China Relation: 1972 to the Present, edited by Nicholas Thomas (Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), and the important pioneering work of Gary Klintworth, Australia’s Taiwan Policy 1942-1992 (Canberra: Australian Foreign Policy Publications Programme, Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, 1993).