Taiwan lost two formal diplomatic partners in 2016. This drops its list of diplomatic allies from 23 to 21 after the PRC recognized Gambia in March 2016 and São Tomé and Principe in December 2016. Taiwan media reports suggest that São Tomé and Principe asked Taiwan for $200 million dollars, ostensibly in exchange for maintaining formal diplomatic relations (Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to officially confirm this number). Taiwan apparently refused São Tomé’s sum and subsequently both sides ended their formal relationship. This is just a case of one diplomatic partner among 20 other partners that expect Taiwan to make monetary contributions. Though Taiwan’s list of official diplomatic partners has shrunk, it has cultivated strong and abundant informal diplomatic relations for decades. What does Taiwan gain from cultivating diplomatic ties, considering what it spends on the relationships?
At face value, Taiwan’s loss of The Gambia seems insignificant when measured by Gambia’s relative population size and economy. Gambia’s population is 2 million people compared to Taiwan’s 23 million, and The Gambia’s GDP is around $1 billion compared to Taiwan’s GDP of $500 billion. The Gambia’s entire population adds up to the size of Taiwan’s sixth largest city Tainan. It was a lopsided partnership to begin with, but looking at population and GDP numbers alone misses the point.
By these same measures, the significance of São Tomé and Principe is even more questionable with its 200,000 population size and $400 million GDP. The Taiwan – São Tomé and Principe relationship was extremely asymmetrical. Its economy is half the size of The Gambia’s and its population is ten times smaller. For São Tomé and Principe to allegedly request $200 million dollars from Taiwan to continue their formal diplomatic relations is an astronomical number. The numbers look miniscule by global population and economic standards, but these countries are important by other measures.
Though Taiwan’s diplomatic partners do not count among the major powers of the world, they are nonetheless critical to Taiwan’s geopolitical interests, and therefore Taiwan has carefully cultivated these relationships by contributing to each ally’s public health, education, agricultural development, and more. Taiwan’s health workers in São Tomé have brought the incidence of malaria from 50 percent in 2003 down to 1 percent today—basically eradicating it—and the locals are aware and appreciative of Taiwan’s efforts. Taiwan built an advanced medical facility in Burkina Faso, as well as helped with local rice production, drinking water projects, vocational training, among other aid projects. Taiwan provides development assistance to its diplomatic partners, and for the most part its grassroots approach benefits the majority of people within the partner country, rather than just a small minority of political elites. However, is the cost of sustaining Taiwan’s diplomatic partnerships worth the benefit? Yes, for at least two reasons:
First, Taiwan’s diplomatic partners are priceless because they speak up for Taiwan and defend Taiwan’s interests in the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). Support in these multilateral forums is vital. As China continues to press its claim that Taiwan is part of the PRC’s territory and squeeze Taiwan’s international space, it is increasingly important for Taiwan to have formal diplomatic partners to speak on its behalf. Without voices to counter the PRC in the UN and other IGOs, then the PRC’s assertive claims gain more legitimacy and broader recognition, even if they are contrary to the will of the large majority of people in Taiwan, which violates political self-determination, and is incongruent with official US policy toward China and Taiwan.
Second, it is difficult to argue rational calculation when considering identity politics. Can there be a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to giving up on one’s identity or self determination, or abandoning a struggle for international recognition? Political scientists would question even the application of such a rationalist calculation to a constructivist, existentialist, question.
In light of current diplomatic circumstances, Taiwan’s informal diplomatic relations with the world are a promising alternative to its dwindling number of formal diplomatic partners. Taiwan maintains strong unofficial diplomatic relations with many more countries in the world than its formal relations reflect. Approximately 50 countries operate representative offices in Taiwan. In addition, Taiwan operates representative offices in over 60 countries. Taiwan has additional diplomatic offices in each its closest informal partners, such as 13 economic and cultural offices within the United States, six in Japan, four in Germany, and four in Australia. Taiwan’s representative offices are simply called trade, cultural or economic resource offices, though they function as de facto embassies, and include consular sections that issue visas, defense attaché sections, cultural sections, and economic sections.
The United States is probably the most important partner to Taiwan despite the lack of a formal diplomatic relationship. Diplomatic relations between the two ceased on January 1, 1979, but subsequent presidents have reiterated the United States’ resolve to protect Taiwan, such as in the Six Assurances toward Taiwan, and the US Congress’s Taiwan Relations Act. These show that there is much cooperation and mutual engagement even when relations are informal.
Furthermore, Taiwan still maintains meaningful relationships with countries despite a lack of formal diplomatic partnerships. It still provides help to countries that do not share formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, such as by sending medical missions to Fiji, although Fiji formally recognizes the PRC. In addition, Taiwan can sign bilateral trade agreements with countries that do not formally recognize it, such as with New Zealand and Singapore, both signed in 2013. The prospect of signing additional bilateral trade agreements, especially among ASEAN countries—regardless of which officially recognize China or Taiwan—are especially important to Taiwan’s economic future.
Taiwan’s loss of The Gambia and São Tomé and Principe has dropped its list of 20 plus formal diplomatic partners down by 10 percent. Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners are critical because they give Taiwan a voice in international forums, welcome Taiwan for state visits, and in general support Taiwan’s way forward in its political self-determination. Taiwan has likewise loyally assisted each of its diplomatic partners in a range of public health, education, and agricultural projects—often in robust relationships spanning decades. Beyond Taiwan’s formal relations, it hosts over 50 foreign informal diplomatic missions within Taiwan, and has over 70 Taiwanese offices abroad in over 60 countries; Taiwan has cooperative relationships with each of them.
The main point: Though Taiwan has recently lost Gambia and São Tomé and Principe as formal diplomatic partners, Taiwan still benefits from a strong network of informal diplomatic partnerships with over 70 offices that span more than 60 countries around the world.