Shifting policy agendas and perspectives on key global issues are inherent in all political transitions. The Trump administration is no different. While the fluctuations and shocks of high politics may grab headlines and influence political priorities, US-Taiwan relations find coherence, continuity, and stability in sectors often overlooked and underappreciated as diplomatic vehicles, such as citizen and student exchange programs. Although each year hundreds of scholars, students, business leaders, and military personnel travel between the US and Taiwan, many programs that orchestrate these exchange opportunities are currently threatened by President Trump’s proposed cuts to the State Department’s budget. Moreover, Taiwan currently faces American criticism on the grounds of exploiting migrant workers, many of whom are victims of domestic violence. Such worries surrounding the future of U.S-Taiwan relations are justified, but there are methods to help curb the uncertainty. Organic, people-to-people diplomacy should continue unobstructed in the form of bilateral exchange initiatives between Taiwan and the United States.
The informal nature of the US-Taiwan relationship necessitates creative communications strategies, which can serve as a galvanizing force to sustain unofficial relations. Programs such as Fulbright Taiwan, Education USA, the Huayu Scholarship, Mosaic Taiwan, and the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), pay dividends in that they ease the diplomatic and political constraints that Taiwan and the United States face. While the Huayu Scholarship and Mosaic Taiwan receive funding from the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, US-funded programs such as Fulbright Taiwan, Education USA, and the IVLP are vulnerable to potential budget cuts. Fulbright Taiwan has sponsored the exchange of over 1,300 US grantees and 1,600 Taiwanese grantees respectively; both Presidents Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian are alumni of the IVLP, and Education USA has advised thousands of Taiwanese students regarding university studies in the United States. Grantees and exchange participants have returned to their home countries to pursue careers in foreign affairs, education, and public service, all with unique and powerful knowledge of American and Taiwanese societies. It is essential to the stability of US-Taiwan relations that these exchanges are not only supported, but strengthened.
These initiatives show that Taiwanese and American exchange participants adopt a wide array of roles of in order to build the organic relationships that political representatives cannot. They simultaneously serve as ambassadors and educators; as business and thought leaders. In many cases, participants and leaders use their experiences to contribute to the larger economic, entrepreneurial, and infrastructural goals of both nations. Dr. William Vocke, the Director of Fulbright Taiwan, has ardently supported international exchange by identifying that alumni of Taiwan’s program currently work in a variety of important institutions in Washington, such as the White House and Congressional Offices.
Emerging policy priorities could offer excellent opportunities for potential exchange, cooperation, and growth. For instance, President Tsai announced in 2016 her intention to revitalize Taiwan’s strategic industries and entrepreneurial resilience by creating an “Asian Silicon Valley” in Taoyuan City. Moreover, Thomas Debass, the Department of State’s Acting Representative for Global Partnerships, visited Taiwan during “Meet Taipei 2016,” a startup event taking place during Global Entrepreneurship Week, and explained that US and Southeast Asian partnerships would be key in its efforts to develop Taoyuan as a burgeoning tech hub. This is especially relevant to President Tsai Ying-wen’s nascent “New Southbound Policy” and for bolstering incentives to invest in Taiwan. In addition to technological innovation, the Tsai administration has also asked the Ministry of Economic Affairs to lead Taiwan’s transition to renewable energy. All three policy initiatives are excellent opportunities for the expansion of professional exchanges between the United States and Taiwan.
US and Taiwan officials are not just engaging in civilian bilateral exchange, they are also creating exchange opportunities with other nations. In 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs collaborated with the East-West Center to found the Pacific Island Leadership Program, or PILP. PILP provides young leaders of Pacific Island nations the opportunity to participate in educational programs, both in Taipei and at the East-West Center in Hawaii. These programs foster leadership, educational, and cross-cultural development as citizens witness shared values, vibrant cultures, and in turn, develop a more granular understanding of their respective countries. Moreover, working together to craft such partnerships, enhances the cooperative abilities of US and Taiwanese partner institutions.
Though Tsai’s transit meetings must adhere to certain conventions in the discrete US-Taiwan relationship, scholars, teachers, and cultural ambassadors can facilitate these interactions in a more transparent, economic, and meaningful way. As Taiwan’s exports slowly increase after a rocky start to the Tsai presidency, the United States should continue to encourage educational and business exchanges to support Taiwan’s economic objectives. Moreover, scholarly and business communication fills the empty space between Washington and Taipei left unoccupied out of political necessity. Combined, they serve as a launchpad for Taiwanese and American human capital. Free from political constraints, members of civil society, such as scholars, teachers, and cultural ambassadors can facilitate a deepening of US-Taiwan relations while supporting the expansion of Taiwanese assets and of the investor pool. Rather than risk geopolitical confrontations with the People’s Republic of China, Taiwanese and American exchange programs operate in a diplomatic gray area that provides grantees with a unique responsibility.
Continued investment in citizen and educational exchange will serve to divert attention from the inherent ambiguities that plague state-to-state relations between the United State and Taiwan, due to their unofficial nature, and will lay the groundwork for Taiwan’s globalization. As Peter Navarro asserted, “Taiwan needs all the American help it can get integrating this island democracy into as many international organizations as possible.” The US-Taiwan partnership, through cultural and education programs, has both the potential to reaffirm diplomatic commitments and demonstrate the long run productivity of such undertakings. The Trump Administration should be careful not to disrupt the longstanding and beneficial nature of US-Taiwan exchange programs; doing so would only serve to cloud the waters of an already complex relationship with one of America’s key geopolitical allies.
The main point: Scholarly and cultural exchange programs between the US and Taiwan facilitate diplomatic and economic relations where official political exchanges are constrained by the lack of formal diplomatic relations. Leaders in Washington and Taipei should continue to push for such programs while recognizing their often-overlooked market and geostrategic benefits.