Special Issue on Taiwan-Middle East Relations: An Introduction

Special Issue on Taiwan-Middle East Relations: An Introduction

Special Issue on Taiwan-Middle East Relations: An Introduction

Taiwan’s relationship with the Middle East is an understudied topic in academic research and often an invisible issue in policy debates for governments on both sides. Indeed, policymakers in Taiwan and the Middle East, who face diverse sets of internal and external challenges, have placed greater weight on their relations with the United States and China in their respective policies rather than prioritizing each other. Historically, Japan was the first Asian power in the post-World War II period that made significant in-roads into the Middle East, motivated by the imperative of acquiring the abundant energy resources necessary for economic reconstruction. Since the 1990s, China has emerged as the most consequential Asian partner for the Middle East. Initially motivated by similar energy needs to fuel its economic growth, Beijing has expanded its interests in the region to include cooperation with regional governments on issues relating to peace, security, and terrorism.

In this broader context—in which the United States and China constitute key external powers in the Middle East—Taiwan is often an afterthought. However, small and medium-sized countries such as Taiwan and Middle Eastern states are affected by regional and international strategic environments shaped by major powers and their relations with them. Taipei and Middle Eastern governments have learned of the inherent risks of putting too many eggs in one basket—that is, depending too much on either China or the United States—and thus have adopted hedging strategies. Governments on both sides also understand the utility of diversifying political and economic ties with other major powers, emerging economies, and friendly nations.

Especially for the Republic of China (ROC), the Middle East has historically been an important region to pursue its national interests, including forging economic ties, garnering diplomatic support, and escaping international isolation. As early as the 1930s and 1940s, the ROC realized the importance of newly independent Muslim countries in the Middle East and sent Chinese Muslim delegations to seek their diplomatic support for the ROC’s resistance war against Japan. [1]

During the Cold War, a shared opposition to communism united Taiwan and Middle Eastern powers such as Saudi Arabia. [2] Indeed, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arab Gulf countries were a key source of diplomatic support for the ROC after it lost the Chinese Civil War and retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Repelled by China’s communist and atheistic state ideologies and bound by its strong ties with Taipei, Saudi Arabia was the last Arab country to recognize the PRC on July 21, 1990. [3] One key source of soft power utilized by the ROC was the installation of Chinese Muslim ambassadors and diplomats in Middle Eastern countries, who not only promoted diplomatic objectives but also strengthened transnational religious and cultural ties. The prime example of this diplomacy was the Chinese Muslim warlord Ma Bufang (馬步芳), who fled with the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) to Taiwan and later served as the ROC’s first ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and 1960s. Even after Taiwan lost several Middle Eastern allies and with the rise of Chinese influence in the region, Taipei and many Middle Eastern governments—including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—continue to forge new avenues of cooperation. [4]

This special issue on Taiwan-Middle East relations sheds light on the historical and contemporary development of Taiwan-Middle East diplomatic relations and later unofficial relations, challenges posed by China’s rise, and the expansion of economic links and people-to-people ties. Furthermore, it delves into Taiwanese diplomacy and relations in the Middle East and North Africa, including Taipei’s offers to mediate third-party conflicts, and how its diplomatic priorities have changed over time.

Scholars and experts from the United States, Taiwan, Turkey, and Israel have contributed five articles that reveal the intricacies of Taiwan’s relations with Iran during the Cold War, the ROC-PRC diplomatic competition in the region, Taiwan’s diplomatic history and people-to-people relations, Taiwan’s economic links in the region, and recent developments in Taiwan-Turkey relations.

The articles in this special issue have been ordered chronologically by historical time periods and also thematically starting with diplomatic history, followed by discussions on economic and other relations, and ending with a case study on Taiwan-Turkey relations.

Li-Chiao Chen’s article, “Uncertainty and Instability: Taiwanese-Iranian Relations in the Early Cold War Period,” discusses an early period in the Cold War that tested the ROC’s relations with Iran, a complex relationship between two Asian countries that began with a friendship treaty in 1920. Both sides also faced powerful communist neighbors after World War II. Amid a changing international situation that saw the United States and the Soviet Union vie for alliances and partnerships—including with Iran—and a growth in the PRC’s number of diplomatic allies, Taipei grew anxious about its relations with Tehran. This early Cold War period would foreshadow Iran’s eventual decision to establish formal diplomatic ties with the PRC in 1971.

In his piece, “Will and Capabilities: The PRC-ROC Imbalance in the Middle East,” Yitzhak Shichor argues that the ROC missed opportunities to build relations with Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, and to consolidate its presence in the region. Taiwan belatedly moved to build unofficial ties with Middle Eastern nations after it was expelled from the United Nations and lost its diplomatic allies in the region. Shichor points to the ROC’s mistake of putting all its eggs in one basket, namely its overdependence on the United States.

In his article, “Reviewing the History of Taiwan–Middle East Relations: Official Relations and Citizen Diplomacy,” Hsiu-Ping Bao argues that the Taiwan-Middle East relationship has been dynamic and shaped by international politics, people-to-people ties, and political transitions over the past seventy years. Bao discusses the role of Chinese Muslims in ROC diplomacy towards the Middle East, pointing out that many of Taiwan’s Muslims who studied in Middle Eastern countries later became ROC ambassadors to the Middle East and professors in Middle Eastern studies in Taiwan.

Anchi Hoh’s piece, “Positioning Taiwan’s Middle East Policy in its National Development Plan,” delves into the impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on Taiwan’s ties in the Middle East. Taiwan has developed the New Southbound Policy for South and Southeast Asia, but does it have a regional strategy for the Middle East? Hoh points to the need for a more comprehensive Taiwanese policy towards the Middle East to better respond to challenges from China’s BRI. Hoh argues that closer economic cooperation with the region could also promote Taiwan’s own national development goals.

Selçuk Çolakoğlu’s article, “Turkey’s Policy Towards Taiwan: From Cross-Strait Relations to Syrian Refugees,” discusses the current state of Turkey’s relationship with both China and Taiwan. He argues that the state of cross-Strait relations during successive Taiwanese presidential administrations has affected Turkey’s calculations towards Taiwan in each period. While Ankara has prioritized political and economic relations with Beijing, it has also expanded economic and trade ties with Taiwan and cooperated on humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees.

We hope that this collection of articles on Taiwan-Middle East relations will shed light on the unique nature of Taiwan’s relations with the Middle Eastern nations, in particular Iran and Turkey, and how its diplomatic and economic priorities have shifted in response to changing international strategic contexts and its own national development goals. These articles also provide insights into the transnational religious and cultural linkages between communities in Taiwan and the Middle East. It should be highlighted that despite the challenges presented by international realpolitik and great-power competition, Taiwan has managed relations with the Middle East at various levels and with multiple actors ranging from governments, NGOs, companies, and citizens, making Taipei’s presence and soft power known throughout the region.

[1] 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): 81.

[2] Ibid., 80.

[3] Ibid., 88-92.

[4] Ibid., 79.