How Taiwan’s ‘adorable’ and ambitious diplomacy aims to keep the island safe


TAIPEI, Taiwan — To maintain diplomatic ties with Guatemala, Taiwan is paying the country’s lobbyists in Washington. Along with its allies in the Pacific, Taiwan has pledged to help preserve indigenous cultures, and to thank Lithuania, Taiwan’s new unofficial ally, the government and local buyers have embraced its imports, from lasers to flavored schnapps. bacon.

The fear of being swallowed up by China – increasingly adamant in its authoritarian demands on autonomous democracy – focuses the diplomatic spirit. Few places in the world can claim to be as scrappy when it comes to political art or as starved for company as Taiwan is today, and the effort goes beyond official channels. A digital diplomacy nonprofit has spread pro-Taiwan messages on social media around the world through comic books and product giveaways.

“Taiwan is receiving international attention more than ever,” President Tsai Ing-wen said in her speech on October 10, Taiwan’s National Day.

While it has fewer embassies than a decade ago, Taiwan now has more substantial ties with a wider range of nations.

“It’s a new trend, a new fashion,” said Hsiao-ting Lin, curator of the Modern China and Taiwan Collection at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “They are thinking creatively about ways to repackage or elaborate on what diplomacy means.”

The freewheeling approach has actually been around for decades – in the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwanese diplomats and officials hopped on planes for golf matches in foreign capitals. But the latest surge in diplomatic activity has been fueled by Taiwan seizing on a moment of growing insecurity, caused by more vocal demands from China, and new opportunities for connection, created in part by the United States. .

The contest between two superpowers increasingly seems to have Taiwanese characteristics.

Under the leadership of the country’s highest leader, Xi Jinping, China has made Taiwan a priority. In his opening speech at a major Communist Party meeting this week, where Xi is expected to win a third term, he called unification “a natural requirement” and stressed that his government reserved the right to use “all necessary measures”.

The longer written version of his speech also said that China had strengthened its “strategic initiative for the complete reunification of China”, suggesting greater urgency for its future plans.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Monday that China was now operating on a “much faster timetable” to annex Taiwan, although neither he nor Mr. Xi provided dates of any kind.

Mr Xi also mentioned “foreign interference” in his speech – a sign for many that China is increasingly concerned about US and international support for Taiwan, as evidenced by a flurry of visits and strong comments from many countries, including Canada, France, Japan and Australia.

“For the world, especially Western countries, Taiwan is a useful political instrument to signal dissatisfaction with China,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Taiwan Studies Program at the Australian National University. .

In Washington, Taiwanese diplomats have approached the White House and members of Congress from both parties, while Ms. Tsai promotes every meeting she has with visiting US officials and scholars. Around the world, the Biden administration has also tried to muster allies to deter Beijing, with a clear and oft-repeated message.

“The idea is ‘Don’t leave them isolated because it can lead to more problems later,'” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund. “Bring Taiwan on board – to make it part of the solution.”

Only a handful of nations officially recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China, a name used since 1912 and waged from the Chinese Civil War in 1949 by the losing side in the flight to Taiwan. For decades, much of the world didn’t know what to do with the self-governing island. These days, it’s a magnet for international interest.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry budget released in September included a huge increase as it plans to host 2,368 meetings with foreign guests in 2023, up 304 from this year. This translates into more than six meetings a day, every day of the year.

This week, King Mswati III of Eswatini, one of Taiwan’s official allies, came to Taipei. Last week, Ms. Tsai hosted a lunch for Japanese officials and met with delegations from Canada and Washington. Two weeks ago, German parliamentarians were celebrated by Taiwanese leaders.

“Across party lines, we want to have more exchanges with all countries,” said Alexander Huang, a senior official in the opposition Kuomintang party. “No matter where, no matter who, we want it.”

Official allies have traditionally been seen as more valuable because in the United Nations and other international bodies they can demand that Taiwan be included. China has refused to allow Taiwan to join the World Health Organization, for example, because only nation states can be members, she says, and Taiwan is simply Chinese territory.

“One China,” along with Taiwan, is Beijing’s policy — a policy the United States and most countries honor in word if not deed. Taiwan’s allies reject the concept, which is why Xi has prioritized their conquest, usually with promises of development. Since President Tsai took office in 2016, eight countries have moved to China’s side, with 14 remaining.

Most of their embassies occupy a single office building in northern Taipei. In the hall, a silver board shows empty spaces where Nicaragua, the Solomon Islands and half a dozen others once announced their presence.

Some of the remaining countries show no signs of changing, in part, according to their ambassadors, because Taiwan supports important sectors, especially education and culture; partly because they come from small countries where personal ties to Taiwan are common.

Dr. Robert Kennedy Lewis, Saint Lucia’s ambassador to Taiwan, said he visited Taipei three times when he was minister of education.

Ambassador Andrea Clare Bowman of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said when she arrived in Taiwan in 2019, Joseph Wu, the foreign minister, met her at the airport to accept her credentials – at 5 am.

“We have a friendship,” she said. “Diplomatic allies tend to talk about interests, but Taiwan has been with us since 1981.”

Taiwan’s most loosely affiliated friends – the 60 or so countries that do business with the island – can be found a few miles away, in office buildings near the Taipei 101 skyscraper that dominates the skyline. Lithuania is the latest arrival. Its offices are still being renovated, but in a nearby exhibition center a government-sponsored trade group has set up a showroom of Lithuanian products.

Amber jewellery, chocolate and a Lithuanian rum called Propeller – it’s all there, with QR codes linking the distributors of the products. Winnie Chiang, 26, a former tour guide who works at the showroom, said hundreds of people have visited since it opened a few months ago.

“They want to support Lithuania,” she said.

In many ways, Lithuania is a case study of how Taiwan works.

About a year ago, Lithuania drew ire from China after rejecting a popular Chinese cellphone that included a censorship log of 449 terms banned by the Chinese government. Beijing has made it nearly impossible for many Lithuanian companies to sell their wares in China, so Taiwan rushed to open a de facto embassy last November. In January, Taiwan announced the creation of a $200 million fund to invest in Lithuania and the region, as well as a billion-dollar program to finance joint projects, particularly in semiconductors.

Since then, the Taiwanese government and people have rallied around Lithuania as if its 3 million citizens were K-pop stars. Shops sold Lithuanian products. Some Lithuanians in Taiwan reported that taxi drivers refused to let them pay.

Chiayo Kuo, 30, founder of the Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association, a nonprofit that helps Taiwan get its message across, said the response shows how keen Taiwanese are to make international friendships.

To capitalize on this urge, she and her team of six multilingual employees have produced social media content for countries where Taiwan is active and trained hundreds of volunteers in social media messaging so they can help keep Taiwan in mind.

For example, before the recent elections in Honduras, which flirted with the reversal of its allegiance to Beijing, the association created a viral cartoon which showed the vice president of Taiwan with one of the presidential candidates and the Vice President Kamala Harris on a bench eating baleadas, a plush tortilla is the national dish.

“The best baleadas should be shared between good friends,” said a popular tweet.

For Ms. Kuo, who is also working with Czech officials to prepare for a visit, Taiwan’s standing in the world has improved because traditional diplomacy and more informal approaches have been combined.

China has more money to offer, she said, so Taiwan must find other ways to build loyalty.

“We need to be more creative and more adorable,” she said with a laugh over dinner at a Czech restaurant. “We’re trying to make friends, make more friends.”