This month the Solomon Islands became the sixth country to break relations with Taiwan since the election of Tsai Ing-wen, reportedly after a Chinese commitment of USD $500 million in aid. Kiribati followed, after Taiwan refused to provide assistance to purchase commercial airplanes, leaving Taiwan with only 15 countries maintaining formal diplomatic relations. Diplomatic recognition remains one of the hallmarks of state sovereignty for international relations. Compared to other states of similar size and capabilities, Taiwan would appear weaker by this measure, solely due to China’s opposition to dual recognition that forces countries to choose between the two. Efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically are likely to continue as China attempts to entice others with assistance packages, notably Haiti.
Despite the challenge of formal diplomatic recognition for Taiwan, and a sizable literature on why a particular country or group of countries maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, surprisingly little research addresses an important related question: what does the Taiwanese public think of diplomatic recognition? Only occasionally have surveys attempted to assess the public’s view on diplomacy, while diplomatic recognition in particular seems ignored. Part of this ignorance is a pervasive view that the public is not particularly knowledgeable on the subject. Few Taiwanese, if surveyed, likely would be able to name a diplomatic partner unless recent news suggested that country was about to break diplomatic ties. Meanwhile, interviews with government and party officials suggest that the public views the gains and losses of diplomatic partners as symbolically important and influence perceptions of the incumbent administration’s commitment to Taiwan’s diplomatic space. Others suggested that the trend of countries breaking relations with Taiwan has left the public accustomed to such losses and that whatever visceral reaction from loss in the past does not apply now. Others, especially the more ardent independence-oriented Taiwanese, may view the decline of formal recognition as a catalyst for a push for formal independence. Still, others across the spectrum may view it as an opportunity to save money as Taiwan would likely spend less on foreign aid.
How the Taiwanese government portrays diplomatic recognition to the public likely affects the public evaluation, yet this crucial role of the government’s own narrative remains virtually absent from research on Taiwan’s diplomacy. The public’s views on diplomatic recognition are not set in stone but can be potentially influenced by two major factors.
First is China’s effort to limit Taiwan’s international space. China’s opposition to dual recognition may seem counterproductive to China’s goals of unification as dual recognition in two other cases—between West and East Germany and between North and South Korea—improved relations between the two sides. China’s efforts to court Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners since Tsai’s election could be expected to create public resentment. Such efforts are consistent with broader efforts by China to deny Taiwan’s ability to engage in diplomacy and participate in the international community as a sovereign state.
In the immediate aftermath of a loss of a diplomatic partner, we should expect public scrutiny. For example, the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation asked the Taiwanese public about China’s actions to lure diplomatic partners away from Taiwan following Burkina Faso breaking relations, finding that 79.1 percent of respondents disapproved of China’s actions. Furthermore, less than a third (32.7 percent) stated they had confidence in the Tsai administration to safeguard Taiwan’s international participation. Such results suggest that the public, at least in the wake of diplomatic losses, desires a stronger response. Yet, any effort by Taiwan to expand its international space, including formal diplomatic recognition, predictably leads to Chinese condemnation and has the potential to complicate further cross-Strait relations. The question thus becomes, to what extent does the Taiwanese public value diplomatic relations over aggravating cross-Strait relations?
The second factor revolves around what would be necessary to keep Taiwan’s diplomatic partners. Critics have accused Taipei for decades of using international aid as a means to influence countries to recognize Taiwan. The Tsai administration denies such “dollar diplomacy” as was common with previous administrations, often claiming that they ended the practice inherited by their predecessors. Yet, numerous scandals prior to Tsai’s presidency have been associated with Taiwanese aid, whether due to the lack of transparency in the amount of aid or due to allegations/suspicion that the aid has been connected to bribery or embezzlement, which lead to the public’s skepticism for continued aid packages. Often it remains easier to identify the total amount of aid received by a recipient country not by analyzing Taiwanese sources, but recipient sources. The Taiwanese public, aware of the decades of such non-transparent aid, may perceive additional offers as part of a never-ending cycle of increasing demands, preferring instead that the money is spent on various domestic programs. More problematic is that aid, even if well-intended, could hasten diplomatic departures. For example, this author’s previous research suggests that if aid allows a country to develop into a more export-driven economy, as measured in exports as a percentage of GDP increases, that country is more likely to recognize China.
The Taiwanese public’s views on maintaining diplomatic relations appear to be influenced not only by references to how China would respond, but also the potential increases in international aid necessary to keep diplomatic partners. In April of this year, this author conducted an experimental web survey with 504 respondents through PollcracyLab, administered through National Chengchi University’s (NCCU) Election Study Center. Respondents received at random one of four prompts about support for Taiwan’s efforts at formal diplomatic relations and then were asked to evaluate the statement on a five-point scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree). The versions intended to capture two distinct challenges to Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts: exacerbating tensions with China and increasing costs if partners request additional international aid. The versions were:
Version 1: Currently seventeen [sic] countries recognize Taiwan. It is important for Taiwan to maintain these formal diplomatic relations. [At the time of this study Taiwan’s diplomatic allies were 17 and that is why these versions do not account for the Solomon Islands’ very recent switch in recognition from Taiwan to the PRC, which took place on September 16, as well as the one by Kiribati which took place on September 20]
Version 2: Currently seventeen [sic] countries recognize Taiwan. It is important for Taiwan to maintain these formal diplomatic relations, even if this hurts relations with China.
Version 3: Currently seventeen [sic] countries recognize Taiwan. It is important for Taiwan to maintain these formal diplomatic relations, even if this encourages these countries to ask for more international aid from Taiwan.
Version 4: Currently seventeen [sic] countries recognize Taiwan. It is important for Taiwan to maintain these formal diplomatic relations, even if this hurts relations with China and encourages these countries to ask for more international aid from Taiwan.
The figure below shows the percentage of respondents that agreed or strongly agreed with the statement received. Here we see the extent in which framing and priming matters. Mentioning that maintaining diplomatic partnerships may hurt relations with China increases support for these efforts by over 11 percent, while mentioning that countries may ask for more aid had a stronger influence, decreasing support by 17 percent. A closer analysis finds that while the general patterns endure regardless of partisan identification, Version 2 more positively persuaded supporters of the Democractic Progressive Party (DPP), which is the party of President Tsai, while Version 3 more negatively persuaded Kuomingtang’s (KMT) supporters. These findings were consistent with the author’s previous experimental surveys on diplomatic recognition in March and November of 2018.
Figure 1: Public support for maintaining diplomatic relations (in percentages), separated by experimental version received.
For additional insights into the public’s view on diplomatic recognition, an open-ended question was included that followed the experimental question. That question read: In your opinion, who or what is to blame for Taiwan losing diplomatic partners since 2016? Below is a word cloud of the results. To summarize, most respondents either: 1) blamed the Tsai administration or the DPP more broadly, or 2) blamed China. Unsurprisingly, this distinction largely fell on party lines, with DPP supporters more likely to blame China, and the KMT more likely to blame Tsai or the DPP. Of particular note, little difference emerged in the open-ended responses based on the experimental question version received. In other words, once one factor in party identification, it appears that public blame regarding Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition is far more stable than perceptions of how Taiwan should maintain relations.
Figure 2: Word cloud of responses to question “In your opinion, who or what is to blame for Taiwan losing diplomatic partners since 2016?”
Understanding Taiwanese public opinion on diplomatic recognition has several policy implications. The first is that the Tsai administration, if not downplaying the role of foreign aid to diplomatic partners entirely, may wish to think of ways to reframe the presentation of foreign aid. For example, if the public appears concerned about increasing demands for aid or the efficacy of aid, focusing on the type of aid (e.g. educational grants) may elicit less criticism than simply reports of money allocated. Secondly, the results suggest that emphasizing diplomatic efforts as a means to stand up to China is a winning strategy, one that could be used to deflect some of the criticism of the current state of cross-Strait tensions.
Third, it is important to consider how heavily the public weighs diplomatic recognition when evaluating the administration and its policies more broadly. If the conventional wisdom is true, then the importance the public attaches to Taiwan’s efforts here is just one small factor within a broader array of concerns and likely gains greater salience only periodically. In other words, the Tsai administration should be cautious in overemphasizing formal diplomatic efforts when the public may care more about unofficial relations.
The main point: Taiwanese perceptions of maintaining diplomatic recognition are influenced by views of China and concerns about aid requests from recognizing countries, with little variation by party. However, party identification largely explains who the public blames for recent diplomatic losses.
 Graph title: “In your opinion, who or what is to blame for Taiwan losing diplomatic partners since 2016?” The main words are Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), China (中國), President (總統), Chinese suppression (中國打壓), Government (政府), DPP (民進黨), Mainland (大陸), Chinese mainland (中國大陸), Xi Jinping (習近平), Chinese Communist Party (中共).