Reviewing the History of Taiwan–Middle East Relations: Official Relations and Citizen Diplomacy

Reviewing the History of Taiwan–Middle East Relations: Official Relations and Citizen Diplomacy

Reviewing the History of Taiwan–Middle East Relations: Official Relations and Citizen Diplomacy

Works on the history of Taiwan-Middle East relations from 1949 to 2020 usually revolve around the economic sphere. Much attention has focused on Taiwan’s large imports of energy supplies from the Middle Eastern countries, as well as Taiwanese technical and agricultural development assistance to the region. Yet despite their robust economic and trade ties, Taiwan and the Middle East lack intimate diplomatic relations, largely as a result of geographic, cultural, religious, and linguistic barriers. For many Taiwanese, their first impressions of the Middle East are usually grounded in stories of mystery and unsettled problems. For governments and people in the Middle East, Taiwan is seldom a top priority either in foreign policy or domestic politics. Besides, Taiwan-Middle East relations are weak in comparison to the relative strength of US-Taiwan relations and US-Middle East relations. However, the history of Taiwan-Middle East interactions over the past seventy years reveals that the relationship has not always been stagnant. Global politics, citizen diplomacy, and political and social transitions in Taiwan have shaped the dynamic of Taiwan-Middle East relations over that period. Accordingly, the history of Taiwan-Middle East relations could be observed from the perspectives of official relations and citizen diplomacy.

Official Relations (1949–1990)

Official relations between Taiwan and the Middle Eastern countries began under the government of the Republic of China (ROC) when it was based in China. The ROC government in China established official relations with Turkey in 1934, Egypt in 1934, Iraq in 1942, Iran in 1944 [1] and Saudi Arabia in 1939. [2] After the ROC government retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the government formed official ties with Lebanon in 1955, Jordan in 1957, Libya in 1959, and Kuwait in 1963. [3]

During the Cold War, Taiwan-Middle East diplomatic relations were in line with the US principle of containment towards communist countries. To curb the incursion of the Soviet Union into global affairs, the United States promoted defensive organizations in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. For example, the United States encouraged Turkey, Iran, and Iraq to join the Baghdad Pact (1955-1979), a major security grouping in the Middle East. Taiwan, under Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) government, also signed a defense pact with the United States in 1954.

Meanwhile, Chiang’s government executed a foreign policy of anti-communism and anti-Russian aggression (反共抗俄), which also served to strengthen relations between Taiwan and the Middle Eastern countries during the Cold War. The new Egyptian government—led by the Society of Free Officers after the 1952 coup—attempted to negotiate with the United Kingdom over British control of the Suez Canal, which had been a longstanding problem for Egypt. Cairo, however, did not make much progress at the negotiation table. Considering that the Soviet Union had offered preferential conditions to Egypt, the ROC ambassador in Egypt Ho Feng-Shan (何鳳山) told Egypt’s deputy prime minister that the ROC government was willing to mediate between Egypt and the United Kingdom. [4] However, the ROC government’s mediation never materialized. Egypt ended its official relations with the ROC in May 1956 when Egypt recognized the PRC [5] and later established firm diplomatic and military relations with the Soviet Union after the Suez Crisis in 1957. [6]

ROC-PRC Competition in the Middle East

The diplomatic competition between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROC was a major variable affecting Taiwan-Middle East relations during the Cold War. Since its inception in 1949, the PRC government had been desperate to marginalize the ROC by any means. China’s representation in the United Nations (UN) was the most contentious issue. To seek full endorsement from the Middle Eastern countries in the UN, the ROC’s Minister of Foreign Affairs George Kung-chao Yeh (葉公超) visited Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Jordan in November 1957. [7] Yeh invited their leaders to visit Taiwan, emphasizing their common interest in anti-communism. [8] As leaders from these countries were Muslims, Yeh also planned to invite them to visit Chinese-speaking Muslims (回教徒) in Taipei. However, he found that the old wooden Taipei mosque used by Chinese Muslims could not meet the standards for receiving the Middle Eastern leaders. Yeh suggested that the Executive Yuan (行政院) sponsor the construction of a new mosque, which became the center of the Muslim community and remains a landmark in Taipei today.

Invited by Yeh, Abdullah, the crown prince of Iraq, Adnan Menderes, the prime minister of Turkey, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the king of Iran, and Hussein bin Talal, the king of Jordan paid visits to Taiwan between November 1957 and March 1959, which was unusual in the diplomatic history of Taiwan-Middle East relations. [9] They met with President Chiang and his top officials and addressed the dangers of communism, corresponding with the ROC’s anti-communist and anti-Russian aggression foreign policy.

However, when the PRC replaced the ROC as China’s representative in the UN in October 1971, Taiwan faced an unprecedented diplomatic crisis. It lost membership in all the international organizations related to the UN, and a large number of countries terminated their diplomatic ties with the ROC. From 1971 to 1990, the ROC lost all of its official diplomatic relations with the Middle Eastern countries. Today, the ROC only has unofficial offices covering economic and cultural activities in Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

After the ROC left the UN, Saudi Arabia became Taiwan’s most important ally in the Middle East. The formal relationship between the ROC and Saudi Arabia lasted for forty-four years (1946-1990), longer than the ROC’s formal relationships with any other Middle Eastern countries. [10] The relationship between Taiwan and Saudi Arabia was reciprocal. Saudi Arabia provided stable oil and loans to Taiwan for ten major construction projects during the oil crisis in the 1970s. In return, the ROC dispatched specialists, such as doctors, nurses, engineers, and aircraft pilots, to assist in Saudi Arabia’s modernization project. [11] Makio Yamada, who specializes in East Asia-Middle East relations, claims that “Taipei’s relationship with Riyadh exemplifies the most successful case of Taiwan’s diplomacy in the Arab world and, perhaps, even that in the developing world in general.” [12]

Citizen Diplomacy and Public Images

Citizen diplomacy between Taiwan and the Middle East can be divided into two stages. The first stage included religious activities during the Cold War. Muslims in Taiwan performed the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and propagated the voices of anti-communism and anti-Russian aggression through their participation in Islamic conferences from the 1950s to the 1980s. [13] At the same time, nearly one hundred Chinese Muslim students and a few non-Muslim Taiwanese students studied in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, and Turkey. Some of them notably became ambassadors to Middle Eastern countries [14] and professors of Middle Eastern studies afterwards. [15]

In the second stage—the post-Cold War era—citizen diplomacy has extended beyond religious activities. In lieu of formal diplomatic relations with Middle Eastern countries after 1990, people-to-people diplomacy has been drawing Taiwan and the Middle East ever closer, aided by democratization, globalization, and the growing social diversity of Taiwan. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey were the most-visited countries in the Middle East by Taiwanese people, who could take regular direct flights. Small communities in both countries are comprised of Taiwanese merchants and students. In addition, Taiwanese non-governmental organizations have provided medical, educational, and social services to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. Meanwhile, a number of people from the Middle East living in Taiwan run Middle Eastern restaurants and speak fluent Mandarin, introducing Iranian, Turkish, Arabic, and Kurdish culture and history to Taiwanese audiences through food, TV, and the Internet.

Despite the fact that Taiwan’s relations with the Middle East have strengthened in recent years, genuine people-to-people interactions have not been far-reaching. [16] While hundreds of people from the Middle East study and work in Taiwan, and most of them have praised Taiwan as a friendly country, their perspectives on Taiwan have never shaken the Middle Eastern governments’ support of the “One-China Policy.” At the same time, most Taiwanese people’s perceptions of the Middle East are often entangled with an orientalist mindset mainly focused on images of war, terrorism, headscarves, and oppressed women across the region. Meanwhile, Taiwanese political elites and intellectuals have often praised Israel as a role model for Taiwan in terms of military and technology, while seldom considering the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, which is facilitated by Israel’s advanced military equipment and technology. However, as growing Taiwanese nationalism shifts the island’s national identity away from an exclusive Chinese identity, young Taiwanese people have started to view the Middle East through the prism of independence and self-determination. Many young Taiwanese sympathize with the conditions of Palestinians under Israeli oppression and have discussed the impact of the global community’s denial of Kurdish independence from Iraq and the US betrayal of Kurdish fighters in Syria. In sum, Taiwan-Middle East relations might not achieve a breakthrough in official relations, but people-to-people interactions could continue to grow in the foreseeable future, particularly if more and more Taiwanese are willing to engage the region through educational institutions, the news media, commerce, and humanitarian aid.

The main point: Overall, the history of Taiwan–Middle East relations is dynamic, determined by shifting global politics, people-to-people interactions, and political and social transition in Taiwan over the past seventy years.

[1] Li-Chiao Chen, “China and Iran’s Efforts for Cooperation 1929-1946,” International Cooperation in China (Taipei: National Cheng Chi University Publisher, 2018), 226-227.

[2] “Reference from the Office of the West Asia,” Archives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Academia Historica, no: 020-029910-0010.

[3] Li Deng-ker, “Middle East” in The Diplomatic History of the Republic of China, eds. The Committee of the Diplomatic History (Taipei: Academia Historica, 2002), 902-925.

[4] “Building Consulates and Embassies and Strengthen Diplomatic Relations between ROC and Middle Eastern Countries (1952.3.15-1956.6.22),” Archives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Academia Historica, no: 020-029901-0021.

[5] “Reference from the Office of the West Asia,” Archives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Academia Historica, no: 020-029910-0010.

[6] Karel Holbik and Edward Drachman, “Egypt as Recipient of Soviet Aid, 1955-1970,” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, Vol.127, No.1 (January 1971), 137-165.

[7] “George Kung-chao Yeh, Minister of the Foreign Affairs, Visited the Middle East (1956.4-1957.10),” Archives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Archives of Institute of Modern History, no: 112.21/0010.

[8] Ibid.

[9] From 1949 onwards, five top leaders from the Middle Eastern countries visited to Taiwan. Four of them visited to Taiwan during 1957 and 1959, indicating that the official relations between Taiwan and these Middle Eastern countries were close in the late 1950s. The last Middle Eastern leader who visited to Taiwan in 1971 was King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.

[10] Makio Yamada, “Islam, Energy, and Development: Taiwan and China in Saudi Arabia, 1949-2013,” American Journal of Chinese Studies, Vol.22, No.1 (April 2015), 77.

[11] Ibid., 89-91.

[12] Ibid., 79.

[13] Chao Shi-lin, “Haj delegations and evaluation of the diplomatic missions in the West Asia” in Islam in Taiwan: Development and Prospect, eds. Chao Shi-lin and Chang Chung-fu (Taipei: Chengchi University Press, 2019), 253-269.

[14] Examples include Ibrahim Chao Shi-lin (趙錫麟) and Abdulhameed Ma Chao-yuan (馬超遠), who served the representative to Saudi Arabia and Libya, Ismail Mae Ruey-ming (買睿明) , who is the current representative to Jordan, and Ali Yang Syin-yi (楊心怡), who is the current Director-General of Department of West Asian and African Affairs.

[15] Chao Shi-lin, “Islamic Educations and its Evaluation” in Islam in Taiwan: Development and Prospect, 284-300; Chao Chiu-ti, “Islamic Knowledge, Language Teachings and Academic Foundations,” in Islam in Taiwan: Development and Prospect, 335-364.

[16] Shirzad Azad, “Unknown and Undetected: Taiwan’s Policy in the Middle East,” Asian Politics & Policy, Vol.11, Issue 2, 289.