Rethinking Taiwan’s Diplomatic Relations: Beyond the Term “Diplomatic Allies”

Rethinking Taiwan’s Diplomatic Relations: Beyond the Term “Diplomatic Allies”

Rethinking Taiwan’s Diplomatic Relations: Beyond the Term “Diplomatic Allies”

The website of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA, 中華民國外交部) describes the country’s formal diplomatic relations as “diplomatic allies”, a phrase commonly used by scholarsincluding myselfand the media alike. However, it is crucial to reevaluate and shift away from this misleading and potentially harmful phrasing, which fails to capture the reality of Taiwan’s diplomacy. To this end, I argue for a more nuanced framing of Taiwan’s international standing, one that does not depict Taiwan in such a defensive position. 

Taiwan’s Increasing Diplomatic Isolation     

Diplomatic recognition is a unilateral act conferring acknowledgment of the other’s right to exist and of legal equality within international relations. Taiwan meets all the standard requirements to be recognized as a state, yet its formal diplomatic relations will remain limited absent an unforeseen shift in China’s opposition to dual recognition and its “One-China Principle.” After China’s entry into the United Nations (UN) and China’s rise as a political and economic superpower, most holdouts still recognizing Taiwan opted to switch recognition. Since then, China has sought to isolate Taiwan’s ability to engage in diplomacy, and to ultimately erode competing claims to PRC sovereignty–using its economic and political leverage to pressure other countries to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Such efforts remain effective, leaving Taiwan with formal recognition now from 13 states, down from 22 just a decade prior. 

Calling the countries that maintain formal diplomatic recognition with Taiwan “diplomatic allies” certainly serves a symbolic purpose in that it conveys a sense of solidarity with Taiwan, as well as mutual benefits. For example, when Nauru hosted the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the country refused to allow the Chinese delegation to enter on diplomatic passports as a sign of its relations with Taiwan. One may also read into the phrase a common concern about the influence of China–an issue of concern, for example, among some of the island states of the Pacific region. [1] For example, in June, Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr. restated his country’s commitment to Taiwan’s recognition, linking this to China’s unwelcome surveying of Palau’s coasts.

More broadly, formal diplomatic recognition remains substantively important, as it confers legitimacy to Taiwan, allows for official state visits, and prevents a resolution on Taiwan’s status that favors China. Yet, calling these formal diplomatic partners “diplomatic allies” oversimplifies the nature of these continued formal relationships, ignores the role of unofficial efforts, and may create unintended consequences for Taiwan.     

The Meaning of Diplomatic “Allies”     

First, the term “allies” typically implies a binding commitment to provide military assistance and protection, or an explicit cooperation towards a shared goal. However, countries that maintain formal relations with Taiwan do not have formal defense agreements or obligations; and even if desired, do not have the capacity to aid Taiwan’s defense substantively. Seven of the thirteen states that recognize Taiwan do not have armed forces, while many rely heavily on international assistance, including from Taiwan itself. For example, the Marshall Islands and Palau have no military, relying on the US for their defense—with Nauru relying solely on Australia—even as Taiwan historically outspent China in terms of per capita international aid in the Pacific.

Recognition remains a political decision in which states determine how the act meets their own national interests. Taiwan’s interests gain little from inaccurately equating recognition to conventional alliances, or else implying a security commitment that does not exist and is unlikely to materialize. While nearly every formal partnership parrots the “allies” rhetoric, Taiwan’s informal relations actually have provided some defensive commitments, such as those under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) with the United States. 

If we take a more expansive view of “allies” as encompassing cooperation towards shared goals, here too it is unclear how this fits into current relations with Taiwan. Those countries that maintain formal relations with Taiwan have spoken out on Taiwan’s behalf in international organizations in which Taiwan is not a member–and have, in various forms, stood up to China, although such efforts have not been consistent. While many of the recognizing states speak of shared democratic values or other political similarities, an explicit goal in which they all share has not emerged. In addition, I am unaware of any other situation in which countries have equated formal recognition to that of “allies.” History shows plenty of examples of countries establishing formal relations while remaining adversaries–notably the US and the USSR throughout the entirety of the Cold War–and none of these examples would reasonably be considered “allies.” Worse, this linguistic decision plays into the strategy of China, by framing each “ally” poached from Taiwan as a “loss” of substantive relations and an erosion of Taiwan’s sovereignty.


Image: A sign marking the “Taiwan Representative Office in Lithuania” at the time of its opening in Vilnius in November 2021. Although Taiwan and Lithuania do not have formal diplomatic relations, the opening of the office was an example of expanding unofficial diplomatic ties between Taiwan and other states. (Image source: Taiwan News)

The repetition of the term “diplomatic allies” may also reinforce a narrow view of Taiwan’s global presence, focusing on an area where Taiwan appears weak (as compared to China’s near universal recognition), and marginalizing efforts from economic engagement to people-to-people citizen diplomacy and other creative non-official connections that set to counter China’s efforts. Such informal efforts have been vital in promoting Taiwanese culture and values, and provide a wider opportunity to develop goodwill and cement views of Taiwan as distinct from China both politically and substantively. Without resorting to checkbook diplomacy,” where Taiwan would attempt to outbid China’s aid efforts to maintain formal recognition in a game Taiwan cannot afford, economic cooperation demonstrates Taiwan’s value as a partner—especially in contrast to concerns from aid recipients that Chinese offers lead to debt traps and political concessions. This could take the form of the expansion of free trade agreements, and aid targeted at job training and sustainable development. 

By prioritizing economic cooperation and trade agreements, Taiwan can leverage its economic strength to maintain some of its formal recognition, while also enhancing informal relations with other states to the point that Taiwan receives nearly all of the diplomatic benefits of formal recognition short of formal titles (e.g., ambassador, embassy). Taiwan maintains unofficial relations with most major countries already. Additionally, Taiwanese citizens have visa-free entry (or can apply for visa upon arrival) in over 140 countries, actions that effectively blur the distinction between official and unofficial diplomatic recognition. Yet, none of these unofficial relations are labeled as “allies.” In other words, the term “diplomatic allies” fails to capture the breadth and depth of these multifaceted engagements, and risks emphasizing the one area in which Chinese efforts have already largely succeeded. 

Alternatives for “Diplomatic Allies”

To more accurately depict Taiwan’s international relationships, it is essential to adopt precise terminology. I suggest several alternatives that provide a clearer understanding of Taiwan’s diplomatic standing without defaulting into the language of “allies.” First, to distinguish those countries that do maintain diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, “diplomatic partners” avoids the military connotations of an alliance. Meanwhile, the terms “strategic partners” or “bilateral partners,” acknowledge the two-way, mutually beneficial relationships that Taiwan has established based on common interests and objectives—while remaining ambiguous enough to capture defensive commitments such as the TRA, and avoiding narrow, perhaps outdated, conceptions of diplomacy. Another option, although perhaps more controversial, could be the term “sovereign relations.” This wording would place the emphasis on how these relations explicitly reaffirm Taiwan’s sovereignty claims, and the choice to not have relations with China.  

The main point: The terminology we use to describe Taiwan’s diplomatic relations needs to evolve to reflect the complex realities of its international standing. The term “diplomatic allies” oversimplifies Taiwan’s relationships, misrepresents its level of economic importance and de facto recognition, and overlooks the multifaceted engagements available beyond traditional diplomacy. By reframing the terminology to reflect strategic partnerships, friendships, and bilateral relationships, we can foster a more accurate understanding of Taiwan’s place in the international community: one that does not treat every breaking of formal relations as an existential loss that undermines sovereignty.

[1] For more on this topic, see the Global Taiwan Brief’s special issue on Taiwan’s relations with Pacific island states, published on March 22, 2023.