Taiwan Fosters the Most Critical Capacity in Pacific Island Nations

Taiwan Fosters the Most Critical Capacity in Pacific Island Nations

Taiwan Fosters the Most Critical Capacity in Pacific Island Nations

Working with the Congressionally-mandated East-West Center (EWC), Taiwan engages efficiently with Pacific Island nations and fosters their critical capacity in leadership, but this quiet effort has not garnered the credit given to Taiwan’s high-profile diplomacy. Taipei has advanced development, democracy, and governance by helping local leaders in the Pacific. Additional international benefits align with the interests and values of Washington and its allies. Taiwan has sponsored the EWC’s Pacific Islands Leadership Program since 2013, even before US senior-level attention to Pacific Island nations intensified in 2019. The Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) requires access to allies across the vast Pacific to secure peace and rule of law. Taiwan seeks to preserve its presence and promote partnerships in a free and open Indo-Pacific. What are the program’s achievements? What are this review’s recommendations?

The Most Critical Capacity is Leadership

The Republic of China (ROC), commonly called Taiwan, has advanced development and democracy in Pacific Island nations by fostering leadership. Leadership is key to any endeavor, from local communities to regional or global cooperation. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has partnered with the EWC, which is centrally located in Honolulu. The US Congress established the EWC in 1960 to promote relations among the United States, Asia, and Pacific.

The Pacific Islands Leadership Program (PILP) with Taiwan is a center of excellence to develop leadership in the Pacific. This program has practical effects. The objective is to build a network of collaborative leaders committed to shaping the prosperity of the Pacific region by taking informed, effective action.

The intensive training has promoted the personal and professional development of 157 leaders in 15 countries. Among the alumni, 57 percent are women, and 43 percent are men. The PILP helps people of the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Inside-Out” Development of Individual Leadership

This program benefits cohorts of leaders by starting at the individual level, including self- understanding of their careers and challenges. The PILP focuses first on the personal advancement of participants and their values, interests, and background.  Then, participants connect their unique, deep personal knowledge to leadership.

Leadership is “extremely personal,” according to PILP’s leadership, Gretchen Alther and Lori Concepcion. The program applies an “inside-out” approach. Participants develop their strengths and definitions of leadership, which are rooted in their places. They start by understanding themselves. For example, an alumnus of the program practiced law in French Polynesia but turned to training leadership in his country and the region. [1]

In addition to personal advancement, professional advancement is the second focus. For example, the chief of staff of Palau’s president previously worked at the United Nations. However, she returned to Palau to support its development and people. The PILP’s leaders say that the program “bears fruit way after the program has ended” for the participants.

Strong Voices for the Pacific

On top of local benefits for their communities or nations, participants have gained achievements at the regional and global levels. The program helps leaders to navigate challenges of national and regional collaboration in a changing world. The program focuses on younger professionals in their early- to mid-careers, allowing for long-term impacts.

An example of local achievements comes from an alumnus from the Solomon Islands, who has implemented a project in his community for the conservation of marine resources. He showed Taiwan what he could do locally. Both “his peers and the program helped him to realize his capacity,” note the PILP’s leaders. Another alumnus is a pharmacist in Fiji, who decided to stay in her nation to serve a local and remote community instead of leaving Fiji.

The reality in the Pacific is that even if leaders work in their small nations, they are working regionally or globally, especially concerning climate change. Alumni are “strong voices for the region,” no matter which nations they return to work after the PILP, according to its leaders. An alumnus in the Marshall Islands worked in a ministry that reviewed her nation’s performance in gender inclusion. The PILP benefits such leaders by connecting them to colleagues for greater impact. The program also supports young professionals to be strong, committed leaders.

“Eye-opening” Experiences about Taiwan

The program particularly promotes appreciation for Taiwan by immersing cohorts of current and rising leaders in the island’s experiences. In turn, Taiwan engages directly with leaders from the countries that benefit from this program. Taiwan’s representative office, or Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), in Honolulu also engages with participants.

One participant, Patrick Balou Wilson, said in 2017 that he gained the capacity and motivation to work out solutions to his country’s needs in development, while he was the chief parliamentary research officer in the Solomon Islands. His experience helped to deepen understanding between his nation and Taiwan.

Before the program, some participants already have interacted with Taiwan, particularly if it has embassies in the participants’ nations. However, some have traveled to Taiwan for the first time as part of the PILP. Indeed, some participants traveled to Taiwan as only their second foreign country after the United States (for parts of the program).

Participants have remarked that, before the program, they did not realize Taiwan’s influence and impact in projects that have helped their nations, such as a project to fight climate change in Kiribati. They have gained “eye-opening” experiences to see how Taiwan helps their countries, the PILP’s leaders point out. The program has offered participants positive perspectives to see where their own countries could advance in technology and inclusiveness, after meeting with Taiwan’s officials who include Digital Minister Audrey Tang (唐鳳). Young Pacific Island leaders also have been impressed by how many of Taiwan’s leaders are women.

Benefits for the Indo-Pacific

In reality, beyond helping individual leaders in their communities, the program contributes to the regional and geopolitical contexts. Participants gain “eye-opening” insights into Taiwan’s place in Indo-Pacific geopolitics that also involve China, the United States, and other countries. EWC President Richard Vuylsteke remarked in 2017 that the PILP “has enabled young Pacific island leaders to develop personal and institutional networks that facilitate the sharing of concerns, insights, and perspectives across the region and with the wider international community.”

The PILP helps to safeguard a free and open Indo-Pacific. However, this environment poses challenges to Taipei’s need to preserve its diplomatic relationships against Beijing’s poaching.

In 2019 under the Trump Administration, Washington pursued important interests to ensure that Pacific Islands stay strategically aligned with the United States. This effort included preservation of Taipei’s diplomatic presence and promotion of shared values. Taiwan’s president and diplomats have worked to sustain diplomatic relationships, including in the Pacific.

However, in September 2019, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic recognitions from Taipei to Beijing, despite an intense, high-level US campaign led by the National Security Council (NSC) to sustain stability in the Pacific Islands and Taiwan’s diplomacy. The ROC (Taiwan) has diplomatic ties with four Pacific Island nations: Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu (out of a total of 15 countries that recognize the ROC).

Taiwan’s diplomacy overlaps with US priorities. The Compacts of Free Association (COFA) govern US links with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau, or Freely Associated States (FAS). Taiwan re-established a representative office in the US territory of Guam in 2020.

Recommendations for Storytelling

This review concludes with six recommendations. [2]

  1. Taiwan could more visibly and vocally promote its projects that help Pacific Island nations and evaluate the effectiveness of grassroots diplomacy. Taiwan has latent links to Polynesia. 
  2. Taiwan could consider whether to emulate this PILP to foster leadership capacities and grassroots diplomacy in another region.
  3. Taiwan could improve how to tell its story, which is critical for strategic communication. Taiwan ought to be able to explain to participants and enhance support for Taiwan’s situation. Taipei could increase public diplomacy to counter Beijing’s divisive disinformation.
  4. Taiwan could build on its reputation for inclusion of women in leadership by setting up a Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) program in the Ministry of National Defense (MND), including in the Reserve Force. For instance, INDOPACOM emphasizes its WPS program
  5. Taiwan could encourage the Biden Administration to re-start the Trump Administration’s high-level attention to Pacific Island nations.
  6. Taiwan could highlight the PILP domestically to show Taiwanese their regional contributions.

But beyond telling Taiwanese people their international impact, the PILP indicates how their identity could break out of the conventional, constrained binary framework. The United States and other countries have struggled with whether to treat Taiwan merely as a sub-set of dealing with China or to treat Taiwan as a partner in its own right. Since Japan lost its rule over Taiwan (1895-1945), Japanese associations have faded in Taiwan. Instead, Taiwanese have dealt with the divisive issue of whether to have a Taiwan-centric or Sino-centric identity. China’s political warfare exploits this binary propaganda of so-called “unification” or “independence” to penetrate media narratives to define or distort Taiwan’s status, fighting against Taiwan’s story.

Nonetheless, Taiwan has a third historical, geographical identity. Taiwan also is a member of Pacific Island nations. In the Polynesian Triangle (an area marked by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island), people often refer to Taiwan. Scientists have identified Taiwan as the main origin of Polynesian ancestors. However, Taiwan does not reciprocate with such common linkages.

The main point: Taiwan has quietly but efficiently fostered leadership in Pacific Island nations, which is the key capacity to sustain shared values and interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific.

[1] Author’s online interview with Gretchen Alther and Lori Concepcion, respectively, the PILP’s Director and Program Officer, on August 24, 2021. This article draws in part from their remarks that are cited here and later.

[2] This author alone is responsible for these recommendations.