Sustainable Development and Public-Private Collaboration: Opportunities and Challenges for Taiwan in US-China Relations

Sustainable Development and Public-Private Collaboration: Opportunities and Challenges for Taiwan in US-China Relations

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Sustainable Development and Public-Private Collaboration: Opportunities and Challenges for Taiwan in US-China Relations

The Reality of an International World Filled with Conflicts

Taiwan is an indispensable partner in the international community’s implementation of sustainable development goals. From both a geopolitical perspective and economic performance, Taiwan plays a crucial role. According to Global Finance’s 2023 ranking, Taiwan, after adjusting for purchasing power parity (PPP) and gross domestic product (GDP), ranked 14th among 193 countries and territories, surpassing Japan and South Korea in Asia. In the same year, Taiwan climbed to the 10th position in the “Democracy Index” published by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), leading as the first in Asia; while the United States regressed to 29th as a “Flawed Democracy,” and China remained beyond 100th under an “Authoritarian” regime. The Economist characterized 2023 as an “Age of Conflict,” with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres noting that “various problems have become more complex, more deadly, and more difficult to resolve.” Addressing these issues requires a broader perspective and integrated solutions. The 17 sustainable development goals advocated by the United Nations compel us to re-examine the relationships between environment, economy, and society, and to integrate resources from both the private and public sectors to tackle these complex and transboundary challenges.

US-China-Taiwan Relations and Taiwan’s International Participation

Taiwan, as part of the global supply chain, is affected by events of all magnitudes. Any instability in Taiwan would undoubtedly impact other economies to varying degrees. Taiwan’s civil power also plays an important role in many places–whether it be businesses, non-profit organizations, or individuals who can integrate into local communities and establish good examples of “global localization.” Indeed, Taiwan often faces many challenges when participating in international affairs through official channels, as Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations. In terms of foreign relations, Taiwan is caught between two major powers, the United States and China, and must consider the stance of the “big brother.” China maintains a consistent position that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China, while the United States oscillates between the official “One-China Policy” and the unofficial position of “strategic ambiguity.” The larger framework behind this is the game between Beijing and Washington, with both sides contemplating what kind of US-China relationship would best suit their desired world order.

In making international friends, Taiwan may find it difficult to break through its current international political predicament officially–but if it can find the right measures, through its rich and dynamic civil organizations, it still has many opportunities to support international affairs and contribute to the global sustainable development goals. Taiwan can take advantage of the global competition and cooperation between the United States and China to establish projects that genuinely impact local communities, economies, and even geopolitics. These projects not only help people and governments in developing regions, but also enhance the Taiwanese people’s opportunities to participate in sustainable development.

The slogan “Taiwan Can Help” is very inspiring and filled with politically correct purposes, but most of the world’s unresolved problems cannot be solved by Taiwan alone, nor can they be resolved by the unilateralism of the United States or China alone. These issues include climate change, poverty and famine, women’s rights, and the global refugee crisis.

Taiwan’s Involvement in Complex International Issues

In addressing these complex global challenges, Taiwan has taken proactive steps to contribute through strategic international collaborations and targeted initiatives. By working alongside allies and leveraging its unique position, Taiwan seeks to make a meaningful impact on the international stage. One such example of Taiwan’s commitment is the establishment of the Taiwan Center in Reyhanli, Turkey.

The Taiwan Center in Reyhanli, Turkey was established in 2019, officially named the “Taiwan-Reyhanli Centre for World Citizens.” It was initially “invited” by the US government, with allies contributing USD $400,000 per unit, to attempt to alleviate the Syrian refugee problem in the Middle East. Under the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP民進黨) administration in Taiwan (and its continued rule after the early 2024 elections), Taiwan’s foreign policy has always been pro-US. Naturally, Taiwan’s government responded to such an invitation, resulting in the first installment of startup funding. The fund was commissioned in the small town of Reyhanli, located on the Turkey-Syria border, to establish a multi-functional refugee center focused on emergency shelter and educational training. Over time, the center successfully launched multiple projects, and continued to receive regular donations from the public and support from other international organizations.

Coincidentally, in facing the most challenging international issues, “The Taiwan Center” provides an interesting case study of the challenges Taiwan NGOs face in being caught between the United States and China. The center primarily focuses on the Syrian refugee issue, especially in the Turkish-Syrian border area. Why Turkey? According to the data from the United Nations Refugee Agency, Turkey is the single largest refugee-receiving country in the world, having hosted over 4 million refugees (mostly from Syria) in the past decade. While the European Union (EU) champions human rights and humanitarianism, it is not keen on having a continuous influx of refugees coming to Europe. Thus, it reached an agreement with the Turkish government: the EU provides 1 billion euros annually as “settlement fees” in exchange for Turkey’s promise to “strictly guard its borders” and keep refugees within its territory as much as possible, preventing them from affecting the stability and peace of Europe. On the surface, the EU upholds humanitarianism but is unwilling to provide a safe haven for Middle Eastern refugees in Europe.

On the other hand, the United States also hopes to extend its influence into the Middle East. It invests necessary resources in the region, not only to compete with China and Russia for regional influence–but more importantly, to create a more stable Middle East situation, which is certainly beneficial to the global interests of the United States and Europe. However, establishing direct US outposts is risky; institutions labeled “American” can easily become targets of terror attacks or require extensive costs to maintain security. Therefore, besides operating official and unofficial institutions directly, the US government often achieves specific objectives through the role of “allies.” For example, to establish a series of pro-American non-profit organizations in the Middle East, such as schools, hospitals, vocational training centers, and cultural exchange centers, the United States can provide necessary assistance, but the actual execution is carried out by other US allies, thereby spreading “American influence” without bearing the relative risks

The refugee issue is extremely complex for Europe, the United States, and even China. The refugee crisis inevitably impacts the politics, society, and economy of host countries and neighboring regions, and even breeds serious problems like human trafficking and the growth of terrorism, thereby severely damaging peace and sustainable development. The influx of large numbers of refugees into developing countries could also exacerbate internal political conflicts. Such a trend is evident in Europe, where countries like Germany and Sweden have experienced political shifts and the rise of far-right movements in response to the large influx of refugees. In Germany, the arrival of over a million refugees in 2015 led to significant political backlash and the strengthening of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Similarly, Sweden has seen increased support for the Sweden Democrats, a party known for its anti-immigration stance, as a result of its refugee policies. In contrast, although the United States does not have “refugees” directly entering its territory, the “immigrants” coming from its borders are quite similar in essence. All countries urgently need more effective and long-term solutions to address the immediate needs of emergency medical care and resettlement, as well as subsequent education, equal rights, community rebuilding, and economic development.

Opportunities and Challenges of the Taiwan Center

For most international organizations or foreign aid projects operating on an “annual budget” basis, they often find themselves in a predicament of “doing as much as the budget allows this year, and doing nothing if there’s no money next year.” Beyond the initial endowment of USD $400,000, the Taiwan Center’s ability to successfully operate and provide services to Syrian refugees largely depends on strategic management methods and creative, dynamic solutions from small and medium enterprises in Taiwan. These include establishing small-scale women’s cooperatives, introducing appropriate vocational education training, transplanting mature and accessible social enterprise models, and embracing the circular economy, waste recycling, renewable energy, and water resource recovery.

For both enterprises and non-profit organizations, “sustainability” means not only covering numerous United Nations goals, but also ensuring that projects and organizations themselves have a sustainable operating mindset. Thanks to the continuous efforts of the founding team, the Taiwan Center has gradually gained international recognition, and become the first sustainable community in Turkey to genuinely address the Syrian refugee crisis. It continuously creates job opportunities locally through small donations and profits generated by social enterprises, indirectly promoting stability along the borders and socio-economic development in the region. This demonstrates the contribution of Taiwan’s civil society to international sustainable development and its ability to build resilient local communities, pragmatically promoting collaboration between the public and private sectors in facing contemporary challenges.

Although the center has not actually received any resources from the United States (besides the initial startup funding), and has not received support from the governments of Taiwan or Turkey, it has largely established a model of civil participation in international affairs. Precisely because of Taiwan’s unique international status, negotiations with the local government in Turkey could be more flexible and less colored by Taiwan’s official stance, allowing for more successful execution of projects. On the other hand, Taiwan possesses rich upstream and downstream industrial chains and a mature NGO ecosystem, making it easy to integrate resources from enterprises and social organizations to execute complex international aid work overseas.

Humanitarian construction and sustainable development work in the Middle East and West Asia region are meaningful and align with the United States’ use of allies to maintain regional stability, serving its geopolitical interests. Although the scope of the projects is not large, once they achieve results, they naturally attract close attention from China. Since proposing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as “One Belt, One Road,” 一帶一路) in 2013, China has been determined to establish a new model of international cooperation different from that of the Western-led model. Originating from China and extending along the ancient Silk Road trade routes to Europe, the Middle East and West Asian regions have become a strategically contested area. 

The activities of various overseas organizations, infrastructure projects, and non-profit organizations in the region inevitably operate in the shadows of great power games. For example, the local government of Reyhanli, where the Taiwan Center is located, once received a letter from the Chinese Embassy in Turkey, requesting a detailed report on the activities of this Taiwan-named refugee center. Furthermore, there were indirect implications that the “Taiwan Center” should be renamed “Taipei Center” according to international conventions to be more appropriate. Thus, although the “Taiwan Center” strives to do good humanitarian work without involving issues of Taiwan’s sovereignty or the question of independence versus unification, it still draws  attention from Chinese diplomatic missions. 

Politics and diplomacy can be both complicated and simple. The controversy over the name of the Taiwan Center was surprisingly resolved in a straightforward manner. After several communications and coordination with relevant departments in Turkey and consulting experts familiar with cross-Strait diplomatic affairs, it was suggested to simply apply the concept of “One China, different interpretations.” What does this mean? The full name “Taiwan-Reyhanli Centre for World Citizens” is a general term, and every participant or observer can use their preferred abbreviation: for Taiwanese, it is the Taiwan Center; for Americans, it can be called the World Citizens Center; and in Turkish media reports, it is often referred to as the Reyhanli Center. This is the ultimate embodiment of “One China, different interpretations.”

With this issue settled, the center can continue to focus its efforts and resources on promoting various refugee services, implementing sustainable development and humanitarianism. In many practical aspects, for those individuals and communities in need of help, the most important thing is to survive and have stable and safe economic and social development, regardless of whether the resources provided come from China, the United States, or Taiwan. On the other hand, complete “depoliticization” in international affairs is almost impossible. How to skillfully handle the balance among different powers may be the most troublesome issue for Taiwan. Taiwan can undoubtedly come up with great ideas and integrate the capabilities of the public and private sectors, as well as organizations and groups willing to create an impact. However, given the ever-changing nature of international politics, ensuring projects are sustainable in operation always encounters different opportunities and challenges.


I would like to recall my participation in the 2011 Strait Talk forum, which discussed Taiwan’s international participation and the potential impact of US-China relations. During the forum, representatives from China and Taiwan had considerable debates over sovereignty issues, with the United States typically playing the role of the central elder brother. At that time, a question was raised: Why must we discuss all issues within the framework of “nationalism”? Can we have the opportunity to step out of the concept of “nation” to examine the problems we face and consider possible solutions? This is naturally a naive, even somewhat foolish assumption, but looking at modern history, didn’t humanity only begin to distinguish between “yours and mine” based on “nationhood” just over 400 years ago? In many places, the people who make up a nation do not necessarily come from the same ethnicity, historical identity, culture, religion, language, lifestyle, etc. So, why does the discourse of nationalism need to be prioritized over any other classification?

There was no answer at the time, and it may not be easy to find one. However, I hope this can provide a direction for sustainable development, regardless of whether the name “Taiwan” is necessary to help people or communities in other regions.

The main point: Despite Taiwan’s limited ability to participate in international fora, Taiwan has the resources and ability to make significant contributions to international development. Still, these problems cannot be solved by Taiwan alone and transnational cooperation with other partners is sometimes hindered by nationalistic tensions and the sensitive issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty status.