Issue: 2021: Vol. 20, No. 1

“To Deepen and Broaden Our Presence:” Taiwan’s Strategies for Participating in the International System

Article Author(s)

Dr. Butler Cain

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Dr. Butler Cain is chair and professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama. He is also special assistant to UNA’s Senior Vice Provost for International Affairs. He received a Ph.D. in Communication and Information Sciences with a focus in Media History (’07) from the University of Alabama. Before transitioning into higher education, Dr. Cain spent many years working professionally as a broadcast journalist. He is a member of the Fulbright Specialist Roster ... 
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Describing Taiwan as an island is appropriate both literally and figuratively. Located in the western Pacific Ocean, it lies about 100 miles off China’s southeastern coast. It is surrounded by the South China Sea to its southwest, the East China Sea to its north, and the Philippine Sea to its east. Taiwan is also an island separated from the international system of sovereign states. Encircled by China’s successful campaign to deny it the recognized statehood it seeks from the global community, Taiwan charted its course toward international relevance with specific initiatives to pursue intergovernmental cooperation, adopt global norms, and provide humanitarian assistance. This strategy has enabled Taiwan not only to survive but also to thrive internationally without the benefits and protections associated with state sovereignty.

This essay examines how Taiwan has navigated the international system from three distinct vantage points: its activities and relationships with intergovernmental organizations; its domestic adoption of international agreements that it cannot legally join; and its use of humanitarian assistance to aid other states and promote the island’s political and diplomatic interests.

Intergovernmental Organizations

Forging relationships with intergovernmental organizations is perhaps the most wide-ranging and complex component of Taiwan’s international strategy. Despite lacking state sovereignty, Taiwan maintains membership in many international organizations (Hickson, 2003). In the 1990s, Taiwan’s government began “seeking to expand its presence on the international stage by emphasizing that the territory… and the people within that territory deserved to participate in international forums” (Hickson, 2003, p. 1). Though not an exhaustive list, the following examples reveal how Taiwan has leveraged its intergovernmental organization memberships to improve its international standing.

World Trade Organization

Under the name Chinese Taipei,” Taiwan became the 144th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on January 1, 2002 (Chinese Taipei,” 2020). It took almost 12 years of negotiations to gain membership (WTO,” 2001). This was a momentous achievement for Taiwan on the global stage because the WTO is a large, robust, and highly important international organization(deLisle, 2011). Unlike other such groups, the WTO does not require its members to be states, and WTO membership is arguably Taiwans most important achievement in revitalizing its status on the international plane(Charnovitz, 2006, p. 402). At the time of its accession to the WTO, former Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian called it a significant milestone” and promised the Republic of China was willing to engage in constructive cooperation and play a more active role in the international community” (McMillan, 2002).

WTO membership offered immediate benefits for Taiwans global standing by providing recognition of the islands ability to function as a state. Charnovitz (2006) noted that while WTO membership did not grant state status to Taiwan, it did afford greater economic and political respectinternationally (p. 424). Membership provided Taiwan with more room to conduct international trade relations (Meltzer, 2013). It essentially granted Taiwan most favored nation treatment in accessing other WTO membersmarkets, and it relieved pressure on Taiwan to negotiate free trade agreements (Meltzer, 2013). Furthermore, WTO membership gave Taiwan a voice in creating and administering global trade rules; Taiwan also gained the ability to invoke the WTO dispute settlement process against other organization members (Charnovitz, 2006, pp. 424-425). It is the only international tribunal in which Taiwan has standing to insist upon the rule of law” (Charnovitz, 2006, p. 425).

Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation

When Taiwan entered the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1991, APEC was the first intergovernmental organization Taiwan joined since becoming a contested state in 1971 (Chu, 2016). It participates as an APEC member economyunder the name Chinese Taipei” (U.S.-APEC,2019), and it joined the organization at the same time as the Peoples Republic of China and Hong Kong (Chu, 2016). The mission of APEC member economies is to create prosperity for people throughout its region by “accelerating regional economic integration” (“About APEC,” 2020). Economic integration through APEC membership has been a boon to Taiwan’s regional standing. Chu (2016) suggested APEC participation has enhanced Taiwan’s external recognition as a de facto state, and has enabled better cooperation with APEC member economies on numerous global issues (p. 186). Its association with APEC also has improved Taiwan’s image domestically as a government capable of international engagement, and it provides a platform to promote Taiwan’s interests through bilateral diplomacy with individual APEC members (Chu, 2016, p. 186).

Association of Southeast Asian Nations

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is another regional intergovernmental organization that has provided Taiwan with an opportunity to pursue global engagement. Taiwan does not have diplomatic ties with ASEAN because the organization adheres to the One Chinapolicy recognizing the Peoples Republic of China as the countrys sole legitimate government (Hsieh, 2020a). However, Taiwan has strong economic ties with the organization (Hoang, Truong, & Dong, 2020). Trade between Taiwan and ASEAN members increased significantly during recent decades, and by 2015, ASEAN had taken the top spot as Taiwans biggest trading partner (Hoang, Truong, & Dong, 2020). That year, ASEAN accounted for almost 31% of Taiwans total trade, which was significantly higher than trade with mainland China (23%), the United States (12%), Hong Kong (12%), and Japan (11%) (Hoang, Truong, & Dong, 2020, p. 2).

Its relationship with ASEAN has also created a system in which Taiwan enjoys several of the diplomatic privileges that traditionally come with recognized sovereignty. Taiwan’s representative offices in ASEAN countries are not embassies, and their leaders are not ambassadors (Hsieh, 2020a). However, they are treated as “functional equivalents” that have received a wide range of diplomatic privileges and immunities (Hsieh, 2020a, p. 213, 221). By providing better treatment to Taiwan, ASEAN member countries ensure similar treatment for their diplomats and representative offices (Hsieh, 2020a). Hsieh (2020a) concluded that successful bilateral trade and investment agreements between Taiwan and ASEAN have enhanced Taiwan’s treaty-making capacity and increased its legitimacy in official cooperative endeavors (p. 221).

European Union

Taiwan has established a strong economic relationship with the European Union, as well. European Union member states, and the EU organization, adhere to the “One China” policy and therefore maintain non-diplomatic relations with Taiwan (Hsieh, 2020b). That has not damaged Taiwan’s standing as a partner in global trade and investment. Taiwan is the EU’s sixth largest trading partner in Asia, and the EU is the largest investor in Taiwan, accounting for about 30% of its foreign investment stock (Hsieh, 2020b, p. 689). The EU-Taiwan Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA) permits the EU to cooperate with Taiwan and confer varying degrees of legal recognition upon it without formally recognizing it as a state (Hsieh, 2020b, p. 694). For example, the European Union has stated that the EU and Taiwan “share the same values of democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law, and are seeking closer cooperation where their interests and values converge” (Hsieh, 2020b, p. 694). Hsieh (2020b) determined that the EU-Taiwan BIA provides recognition of Taiwan’s “legal competence to effectively exercise jurisdiction and represent nationals” while also bolstering “Taiwan’s status claim associated with sovereign equality in international affairs” (p. 704). Taiwan’s participation in the EU and other intergovernmental organizations gives it access to information, provides an opportunity to follow international standards, increases its visibility as an actor in the international system, and strengthens relationships with other countries through organizational networks (Winkler, 2011). This strategy has helped Taiwan achieve both diplomatic and political gains (Li, 2006).

“As-If” Participation

Hickson (2003) suggested Taiwan revealed its modern internationalization strategy in November 1999 when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) issued its “White Paper on Foreign Policy for the 21st Century.” Historically the political opposition in Taiwan but the majority party in 2020, the DPP recognized that:

Taiwan is unfairly excluded from many international organizations. But as an important member in the international community, Taiwan should commit itself, as a sovereign nation, to abide by the U.N. Charter and various international conventions, and to exercise its proper rights and obligations by contributing to world peace and development. (“White,” 1999)

Describing this principle as “new-internationalism,” the white paper stated Taiwan should not “passively subject itself to the rules of the game played by the great powers” but instead should participate in international activities and establish “sustainable, long-term friendships” (“White,” 1999). deLisle (2011) called this strategy “as-if participation” (p. 5). In practice, Taiwan commits to act as if it is a member of an international organization and pledges to uphold the organization’s standards (deLisle, 2011). Fulfilling the obligations of international membership strengthens Taiwan’s case for access to global institutions, but:

(M)uch of the point of “as if” participation is about the question of Taiwan’s international status…. The more Taiwan can walk and talk and act like a member of a regime that is open primarily or exclusively to states, the more hope it has of securing the benefits of state (or nearly state-like) status in the international system. (deLisle, 2011)

Taiwan has employed a strategy of following international covenants by approving them domestically. Yu-chiao (2019) noted that Taiwan’s exclusion from United Nations membership also excludes it from U.N. human rights bodies, meaning “Taiwan must go its own way to meet international human rights standards.” Taiwan addresses this by “endowing U.N. human rights treaties with domestic legal status” (Yu-Chiao, 2019). In 2009, Taiwan’s legislature passed the Two International Covenants Enforcement Act, which included the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Yu-Chiao, 2019). The United Nations General Assembly adopted both multilateral treaties in December 1966. Taiwan also has granted domestic legal status to other U.N. human rights treaties, and all of them include provisions requiring scheduled reviews by international experts (Yu-Chiao, 2019). Bringing non-governmental organizations, international specialists, and Taiwan officials together to monitor domestic human rights practices gives Taiwan a global platform to promote its commitment to the international system (Yu-Chiao, 2019).

Global nuclear proliferation and weapons controls agreements provide additional examples in which Taiwan does not hold official memberships but adheres to international standards. It is not a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) because Taiwan is not a recognized sovereign state (Stricker, 2020). However, it still observes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it applies the IAEA’s highest standards for safety to its civilian nuclear program, and it follows the IAEA’s Additional Protocol verification agreement (Stricker, 2020). Because it lacks recognized state sovereignty, Taiwan is not a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, or the Missile Technology Control Regime, but the Taiwan government has repeatedly stated it will follow these conventions (Bullard, 2005). Because statehood is required for membership in multilateral export control regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, Taiwan cannot officially join but has chosen to follow global non-proliferation standards as if it were a member (Kassenova, 2012). Kassenova (2012) stated Taiwan’s non-proliferation policy has been driven by its desire to be part of the international community. Through its “as-if” strategy, Taiwan demonstrates its capability and commitment to adhere to global norms and expectations.

Humanitarian Efforts

Taiwan’s unresolved status made it necessary to pursue unconventional means to establish its place in the international system (Brown, 2010), and its approach to humanitarianism has been described as “unique” (Guilloux, 2016). Guilloux (2016) argued that while many governments provide humanitarian assistance, Taiwan’s history and practices make it different because of its status as a non-state. Though this area is “a limited resource for Taiwan’s effort to break its isolation in the global arena,” Guilloux (2019, p. 209) stated that Taiwan has expanded both its ambitions and capabilities. There is a strong belief domestically that humanitarian aid from the United States helped Taiwan survive and prosper, and it is Taiwan’s duty to repay its debt to the international community (Guilloux, 2016). The International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) is Taiwan’s main international development assistance agency (Alexander, 2015). Its mission includes “boosting socio-economic development, enhancing human resources and promoting economic relations in a range of developing partner countries” (“About us,” 2020). The ICDF has undertaken humanitarian or technical assistance projects in Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Asia Pacific (“Projects,” 2020).

Taiwan’s global humanitarian work has been criticized as a tool to advance its political and diplomatic interests (Guilloux, 2016). The ICDF has adjusted its conduct to match domestic political movements, bringing Taiwan into the international mainstream regarding universal values and engagement with the underdeveloped world(Alexander, 2015, p. 136). Alexander (2015) observed that the ICDF is dedicated to communicating with foreign elites who look favorably on Taipei,and it continues to engage with international fora as de facto representatives of the Taiwan government(Alexander, 2015, p. 136). Alexander (2015) identified four primary audiences for Taiwans development assistance: publics of countries with ICDF missions, elites of formal diplomatic allies, wider international audiences, and Taiwans domestic audience (p. 127). Regarding the elites of diplomatic allies, Taiwans motivation for engagement includes maintaining formal diplomatic recognition and ideological patronage (Alexander, 2015, p. 127). Its motivation for engaging wider global audiences includes creating opportunities for positive international discussions of Taiwan and demonstrating compatibility with international projects and norms (Alexander, 2015, p. 127).

Taiwan-based non-governmental organizations also play a significant role in Taiwans global humanitarian efforts. NGO engagement in international activities has emerged as an alternative approach to the expansion of Taiwans international spaceand represents an important forum in which Taiwan can share its experiences, learn from the experiences of others, and develop networks of connections(Lee, 2012). Taiwan NGOs have extended cooperation to more than 90 countries despite only having official recognition from 14 of them (Lin & Lin, 2017). This suggests Taiwan NGO expertise in international development and cooperation is highly sought despite the countrys diplomatic situation” (Lin & Lin, 2017, p. 487). Taiwan NGOs’ specific efforts to expand their geographical boundaries across several continents make them an indispensable component for Taiwans international development and cooperationstrategy (Lin & Lin, 2017, p. 487). Their efforts contribute positively to Taiwans global reputation, as well (Lin & Lin, 2017, p. 488).

The work of Taiwan NGOs is also lauded for implementing the islands warm power” initiative regionally and globally (Taiwan,” 2020). Warm power” is Taiwans practice of sharing resources, experiences, and support, and Yang and Chen (2019) identified three of its primary features. First, Taiwan wants its Asian neighbors to feel the good will and warmth of [the] Taiwanese government and people(Yang & Chen, 2019). Second, Taiwan promotes inter-governmental cooperation and civic collaboration regionally (Yang & Chen, 2019). Third, Taiwans warm power” focuses on establishing stable, long-term collaborative frameworks with its international partners (Yang & Chen, 2019). NGOs have played such an indispensable role in Taiwans efforts to create space in the global arena that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs established an NGO International Affairs Committee in 2000, which became the Department of NGO International Affairs in 2012 (Non-governmental,2020). The department has cultivated partnershipsto support international development and cooperationand has empowered NGOs to expand their global activities (Non-governmental,” 2020). Taiwans Ministry of Foreign Affairs planned to celebrate the departments 20th anniversary in October 2020 with an awards ceremony that included foreign representatives of the nations that have collaborated with the NGOs(Chia-nan, 2020). Through its global humanitarian efforts, Taiwan portrays itself as a dedicated, responsible, and cooperative member of the international community.


Taiwan’s strategy for navigating the international system without recognized state sovereignty has been remarkably effective. Its successful participation in intergovernmental organizations has granted Taiwan political and economic standing that has been traditionally reserved for sovereign states. Though not officially recognized by its global partners as a state within the international system, Taiwan is often treated with a similar level of privilege and consideration. Taiwan’s domestic adoption and implementation of international agreements have earned plaudits from human rights groups and security experts, and in some cases Taiwan’s adherence to established requirements and expectations outperforms efforts by legally-recognized convention signatories. Taiwan also has significantly expanded its humanitarian assistance efforts across a wider geographic area, placing it in a stronger position to cultivate diverse relationships and shape its own narrative.

Taiwans narrative includes successes and failures. The United States remains Taiwans most powerful political ally in the international system, and lawmakers recently expressed support for expanding Taiwans global memberships (Stricker, 2020). In March 2020, Congress approved the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019. It directs the United States government to advocate, as appropriate:

for Taiwans membership in all international organizations in which statehood is not a requirement and in which the United States is also a participant; and for Taiwan to be granted observer status in other appropriate international organizations…. (S.1678,” 2020)

Taiwan also has recently undertaken a new effort to enhance its position in international society through President Tsai Ing-wens New Southbound Policy (NSP) (Marston & Bush, 2018). Calling it a regional strategy for Asia, President Tsai said Taiwan will work with countries regionally and globally to deepen and broaden our presence in South and Southeast Asia(Marston & Bush, 2018). The NSP aims to create a new model of cooperation by promoting economic collaboration, conducting talent exchanges, sharing resources, and forging regional links (Marston & Bush, 2018).

However, Taiwan is frustrated by its persistent failure to gain United Nations recognition and join the World Health Organization (WHO). China has used its One Chinapolicy and its status as a permanent UN Security Council member to block Taiwans membership in both organizations (Chen & Cohen, 2020). Taiwan achieved a promising victory in 2009 when the World Health Assembly granted it observer status under the name Chinese Taipei,” and supporters had hoped the change would provide Taiwan with an eventual pathway into WHO networks (van der Wees, 2016). That has not happened, and in May 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, Taiwan was not invited as an observer to the World Health Assembly meeting (Ching, 2020). The Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed deep regret and strong dissatisfactionwith the decision and promised that Taiwan will never give up our quest for international participation(Wu, 2020). The United States issued a statement that it was deeply disappointedby the decision and strongly urged WHO to resume its practice of inviting Taiwan to participate as a WHA observer (U.S. statement,2020). As of early November 2020, however, Taiwan had not received an invitation to join that months World Health Assembly meeting to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic (Taiwan not,” 2020).

Taiwan is able to use these snubs to push for increased access within the global community. Its continuing campaign for greater recognition by the United Nations and World Health Organization is intended to “rally domestic support and challenge deficiency and injustice in the current [international] system” (Li, 2006, p. 612). Jaushieh Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed assurance that “as the voices around the world supporting Taiwan continue to grow louder, we are getting ever closer to achieving our goal” (Wu, 2020). Even with such high-profile disappointments, Taiwan has achieved enviable international success through its persistent efforts to engage with the world community. By pursuing relationships with intergovernmental organizations, adhering to global norms and expectations, and providing intercontinental humanitarian assistance, Taiwan has honed a strategy that could prove useful for other non-recognized states seeking a path through the international system.<


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