Taiwan has rightly won considerable international praise for its handling of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. The speed and effectiveness of this are reflected in the low rates of infection and mortality, especially when compared to the stumbling efforts of many other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. Above all, it stands in marked contrast to China’s own handling of the outbreak and its subsequent attempts to use it in support of its wider diplomatic objectives— attempts which the Financial Times has described as an “own-goal.”
As President Tsai Ing-wen explained in an article for Time, there was no magic in Taiwan’s response, just a readiness to learn from past experiences and a wariness about taking Chinese assurances at face value, especially given those experiences. She attributed the success of this response to “a combination of efforts by medical professionals, government, private sector, and society at large,” undergirded by strong and effective central control and coordination of all aspects of the response. Does this success have wider lessons that Taiwan can apply elsewhere, especially in its ongoing struggle against China for international space and influence?
This struggle is at the core of Taiwan’s foreign policy, which Tsai has described as “full of tough challenges at the highest level.” Among four main priorities that she highlighted for the successful pursuit of this, two are particularly notable. First and foremost according to Tsai is the need for “experienced people with international perspective” to face the challenge. The second is to help Taiwanese companies gain business opportunities in international markets. In other words, she argued that Taiwan’s sovereignty and economic success are inextricably linked. They cannot be separated, and an effective foreign policy is critical for both.
Taiwan’s foreign policy is spearheaded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). In terms of real estate, its overseas presence is extensive, with offices in 73 countries, as befits a country of Taiwan’s population and economic size. However, most of these missions are unofficial, with no formal status. MOFA is also fortunate to have many highly skilled and experienced diplomats. Nevertheless, as the international response to the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted once again, Taiwan continues to be denied membership in almost every international organisation of any note. Furthermore, almost all of its formal diplomatic allies are microstates, in many of which the Taiwanese embassy is either the only diplomatic mission, as in Tuvalu or Nauru, or one of very few.
Without resident missions in such countries, Taiwan’s diplomatic relations would almost certainly shrink further, so maintaining them must be central to the country’s foreign policy. Yet crucial though they are, formal missions in microstates are hardly representative of, or suitable preparation for, Taiwan’s broader diplomatic efforts more generally. Diplomacy today is driven by the need for international cooperation to tackle transnational challenges, be they global warming, terrorism, drug and people-trafficking, or barriers to trade. The cultivating of wider contacts, the building of networks, the lobbying, the negotiating, and the working for a consensus that are crucial to dealing with these issues are generally absent in relations with such small countries. Yet these skills are also essential if Taiwan is to effectively combat the insidious spread of Chinese influence. This is one reason why China is so determined to deny Taiwan access to international organisations, even as an observer. China knows that the formal sessions of these organisations are of far less importance than the opportunities they provide in the margins for seeking and building influence. The result is that Taiwanese diplomats are expected to work for their country’s interests and recognition on the international stage while having few significant opportunities to acquire the experience and international perspective that President Tsai has rightly identified as being so important.
Taiwan is not barred from international organisations entirely. It is a full member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)—albeit in the name of “Chinese Taipei”—an important forum given the vital importance of trade to Taiwan as it seeks new global opportunities for its private sector. Despite the rise of regional trading blocs and bilateral trade arrangements—and notwithstanding US President Donald Trump’s open feud with the organization—the WTO continues to play the leading role in setting the rules of global trade and in negotiating new multilateral agreements, for example to cover trade in services or Information Technology. Here, almost uniquely, Taiwan’s representatives participate on an equal basis with their counterparts from other countries. Here, more than anywhere else, they are exposed to the everyday realities and practicalities of modern diplomacy: the behind the scenes negotiations, the networking, the lobbying, the consensus building, and the compromises that go into reaching agreements. Time spent at the WTO or similar organisations should therefore be invaluable experience for Taiwanese diplomats. It represents an opportunity both to acquire the necessary wider skills but also to put them into practice; an opportunity to engage with counterparts peers from other countries in a way that is otherwise rarely possible, and to acquire the perspective that President Tsai has rightly identified as being so important.
But in contrast to the centralized, carefully coordinated way in which Taiwan has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s participation in the WTO is the responsibility of the Bureau of Foreign Trade (BOFT), which reports not to MOFA but to the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA). This separation of foreign and trade policy is by no means uncommon: in the United States, trade negotiations are the remit of the US Trade Representative (USTR), rather than the State Department, while in Japan, trade policy falls to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). But the USA and Japan are both G7 countries, the world’s largest and third largest economies respectively, with a global diplomatic presence and major trading relationships. For example, each has embassies in almost every African country, while Taiwan has just three offices on the entire continent.
Consider, by contrast, Korea and Australia, both members of the G20 whose economies are more comparable in size to that of Taiwan. Until 2013, Korea’s foreign and trade policies were handled by a unified Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade before being separated during the administration of Park Geun-hye. Similarly, Australia has long handled the two in a single Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, seemingly without any difficulties or problems. Smaller countries such as Ireland also seem comfortable with a single ministry responsible for both foreign and trade policy.
The question for Taiwan, however, is not just—or even primarily—about whether merging MOFA and the BOFT makes bureaucratic sense. China’s relentless squeezing of Taiwan’s international space means it faces a unique threat to its very survival that is every bit as challenging as the one it has faced from the coronavirus pandemic. As President Tsai has made clear, sovereignty and economic prosperity go together. But at present, the two are dealt with by separate parts of the Taiwanese administration. Like many bureaucracies, coordination and cooperation between them appear limited, valuable experiences are probably not shared, opportunities to cultivate friendships and long-term relations are missed, and worse, anecdotal evidence even suggests a basic reluctance between the agencies to work together. Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts are weakened in consequence. When Taiwan needs to call on all the diplomatic weapons it can muster, Taipei cannot afford to see its efforts weakened by this division of responsibilities and bureaucratic infighting.
Merging MOFA and BOFT may not be the answer. But Taiwan has won so many international plaudits for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic because of its demonstration of crisis management at its best: clear leadership combined with effective coordination of policy and widely understood objectives. By contrast, few observers would consider diplomacy to be a matter of crisis management. Taiwan has long since grown accustomed to the steady hemorrhaging of its diplomatic allies, such that to describe its diplomatic relations as being in a state of crisis may be dismissed as alarmist. But if Taiwan is to preserve successfully its remaining international space in the face of an ever more assertive China, it should consider carefully whether its handling of the pandemic may have wider lessons for its diplomatic efforts.
The main point: Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has shown the Taiwanese bureaucracy at its best. It now needs to apply the lessons more broadly.