"Viable diplomacy" in Taiwan

Fri, 10 Jan 2014

Mark Friesen

In fall 2013, the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs extended an offer to sponsor a delegation of SFU students to visit Taiwan to foster a greater awareness of Taiwan and its role in international society. Mark Friesen was one of the 12 students selected from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to journey to Taiwan December 16–23, 2013 with Dean Dr. John Craig.

Upon embarking on this journey, our delegation had no idea what to expect. The opportunity to visit Taiwan at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs both excited and perplexed the 12 of us. What did they expect from a group of SFU students? A wide range of government and civic organizations hosted our group for discussion sessions over one week. We were given complete discretion over the questions we could ask of the leaders and decision-makers, so long as we were respectful, and thereby heard both the good and the bad.

The first thing to note about Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China) is its status in the global economy and supply chain. If you have a cell phone, there’s a good chance it operates using a chip made in Taiwan. Taiwan is one of the 20 largest economies in the world in terms of GDP, and is one of the top 20 importers and exporters of merchandise worldwide.

However, despite its global influence, only 23 countries officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. Canada, the United States and other major European trading partners are not among this group, for reasons related to Taiwan’s complex and contested political history. 

In 1949, the government of the former Republic of China—the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-shek—relocated to Taiwan along with 1.2 million mainland Chinese after losing the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. The Chinese Communist Party subsequently established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland, and the KMT re-established the Republic of China (ROC) on the island of Taiwan. Today, maintaining full diplomatic relations with the PRC on the mainland means not having full diplomatic relations with Taiwan (ROC).

Up to 1986 Taiwan was governed under martial law, and the first full and free elections were not held until 1991. However, with a still nascent democracy, voter turnout in Taiwan has always been above 70 per cent. There are a minimum number of seats in the Taiwanese parliament that must be allocated to women, and six seats are reserved for aboriginal members. In many ways, democratic standards in Taiwan surpass those of other nations.

We first heard of the "viable diplomacy" strategy, which relies on informal ties with other countries as well as domestic partners, at our initial meeting with the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei. This strategy encourages trade offices to bring in external academics and experts to advise on economic development, governance capacity building, and human rights. One representative noted the efforts the government is undertaking to facilitate education, knowledge exchange, and relationships with citizens from China and around the world. 

When asked about the future of Taiwan’s relations with China, many of the senior representatives with whom we met replied that there are too many variables outside of Taiwan’s control to be sure of the future, but agreed that of utmost importance is the avoidance of violent conflict in the region. I couldn’t help but wonder: how many government leaders around the world today would admit complete uncertainty if asked about the future?

The honesty and humility with which this uncertainty was shared with us was powerful. Our invitation to hear from the two major political parties, and from civil society groups, conveyed an openness to discuss Taiwan’s past and future. Our hosts would sometimes contradict one another. There are groups in Taiwan calling for full independence, and during a visit with the opposition party we were told of abuses that occurred in the 1980s. We also heard about the ongoing work needed to address discrimination and human rights issues in Taiwan.

The willingness to engage in genuine discourse and diplomacy may prove to be Taiwan’s most important long-term strategy, and stands in stark contrast to many regimes in the region which exert tight control over public discourse, decision-making and society. If Taiwan can maintain these efforts in the face of political uncertainty, then perhaps the Taiwanese success story can continue and serve as an example for other nations struggling to manage increasingly pluralistic societies in a globalized world.

As we departed, our host indicated her hope that our visit would strengthen diplomatic ties between Canada and Taiwan—a daunting proposition. But perhaps, in today’s world, a commitment to knowledge sharing and discourse is more powerful than a seat at the United Nations.


Mark Friesen is a graduate student in the SFU Urban Studies program and a former community outreach coordinator for SFU Public Square.