Issue: 2023: Vol. 22, No. 2

Taiwan Symposium: Taiwan, the Almost Invisible Not Quite Country

Article Author(s)

John Givens

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John Wagner Givens is an Associate Professor in the International Studies Department at Spelman College. He earned his Doctorate in Politics from the University of Oxford and his Masters in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley. He has been interviewed by Grid News, Georgia Public Broadcasting and Chinese Central Television and has published in a variety of venues including: China Quarterly, Global Policy Journal, The Review of Policy Research, Fordham Urban Law Journal, Wisconsin International Law ... 
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As a liberal democracy that protects human rights, the only country in Asia that legalized same-sex marriage and adoption, a longstanding U.S. ally, and the lynchpin of the world’s high-tech industry, Taiwan should be in a strong position to build soft power and support, especially among rich liberal democracies. But according to Morning Consult, only 34% of U.S. voters can find Taiwan on a map, the same percentage that could identify Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion in 2022. For a variety of reasons, Taiwan has been unable to capitalize on its many advantages. Consequently, it is almost invisible.

Taiwan faces a more imminent and credible threat to its existence than almost any country. It may well need both U.S. military support and general global backing to survive. Wars in Ukraine and Israel demonstrate how powerful Western, and especially U.S., assistance can be, and how staunchly the Unites States may support those it deems allies. In any potential conflict with China, Taiwan may have some branding advantage: 65% of respondents had favorable views of Taiwan in an August 2023 Pew Research Center poll. This line of thinking reinforces a common complaint by Taiwanese, that the U.S. only pays attention to Taiwan in terms of its relationship with China. Still, this compares well with other Pew polls which show 83% of Americans with unfavorable views of China. Yet, 91% of Americans view Russia unfavorably and the ongoing example of Ukraine shows that this may have its limits. On diplomatic, cultural, and economic fronts, Taiwan has advantages it can and should press.

Partially, Taiwan’s invisibility comes from the profound disadvantage of not generally being recognized as a country or even a self-governing entity, forcing the expenditure of soft power and resources simply to gain recognition. Some rankings of soft power do not even include Taiwan, which is, in some sense, the ultimate condemnation of its soft power. The Soft Power 30, a report by Portland, a strategic communications consultancy, and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy ranks Taiwan fifth in its Asia Soft Power 10, behind China, Japan, Korea, and even tiny Singapore. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index ranks Taiwan 22nd out of 26 in Asia for diplomatic power, arguing its lack of “participation and influence in multilateral forums and organizations” is the low point that drags it down. Yet even in diplomatic matters where Taiwan is at its biggest disadvantage, there are opportunities. With impressions of China having become quickly and dramatically unfavorable in many democracies, Taiwan has a unique opportunity to step into the gap. Confucius Institutes, once common on U.S. campuses as educational and cultural promotion programs, have declined from almost 100 to five as of November 2023. These closures “reduced opportunities for Chinese language learning and China-related cultural and academic programming.” Leveraging its Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Offices, Taiwan should be doing more to facilitate education and cultural exchange, providing Chinese teachers, support for cultural events, and making itself an alternative destination for study abroad as China has become less popular. Taiwan has strong cultural assets and good timing on its side. This is not the same as getting a seat at the UN or WHO, but it is still an opportunity for Taiwan to expand its soft power and thereby global support.

The Lowy Institute ranks Taiwan 13th out of 26 on its cultural power, below countries like Russia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. This shows how Taiwan has been unable to capitalize on what should be a substantial cultural impact. Taiwanese beef noodle soup and guabao cannot compete in popularity with ramen or tacos, but the global market for bubble tea is worth billions with more than 3,000 bubble tea shops in the U.S. alone. This easily makes it Taiwan’s most popular and profitable cultural export, yet many people in the United States do not associate it with Taiwan. K-Pop devotees can speak at length about their idols’ connections to South Korea, yet even regular consumers are often unaware of the Taiwanese origins of bubble tea.

The Taiwan Creative Content Agency was established in June 2019 and is supervised by the Ministry of Culture. In this respect it lagged the creation of the Korea Creative Content Agency by just over four decades. Taiwan and Taiwanese Americans have had a meaningful impact. Director Ang Lee, Taiwanese American basketball player Jeremy Lin, and singer Jay Chou are all prominent in their fields. Taiwan cannot come close to competing, however, with the dominant trio of East Asia cultural products: Korean pop-music (K-pop), Korean television (K-drama), and Japanese animation, comics, and video games (anime). 

Taiwan’s economy has continued to enjoy relatively rapid and steady growth over the past four decades and its GDP is essentially level with South Korea and Japan on a per capita basis. Yet, the Lowy Institute ranks Taiwan 12th out of 26 in economic relationships. Its score is lowered by a lack of free trade agreements, another result of its difficult diplomatic status. Despite its very real economic success and importance in global trade, Taiwan lacks the hyper-modern glitzy veneer that K-pop, K-drama, and anime have provided Korea and Japan, or the wide brand recognition of their biggest companies.

By market capitalization Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC) is larger than any non-American company bar Saudi-Aramco, making it bigger than China’s Tencent, South Korea’s Samsung, or Japan’s Toyota. Yet, it has nothing like the brand or name recognition of these companies. In part, this is due to a low-profile business model focused on making chips for other better-known brands. People recognize the name Samsung on their phone and associate it with Korea. They might recognize that the chip inside is branded as Qualcomm, a San Diego based chip designer, but they are unlikely to know that it was made by TSMC in Taiwan. Initially, this was part of Taiwan and TSMC’s strategy to make themselves indispensable as the manufacturer for chip designers — especially American — rather than competitors to them. Similarly, the Taiwanese company Foxconn produces 70% of iPhone shipments for Apple, but their name is hardly recognized. The founders of TSMC and Foxxcon, Morris Chang and Terry Guo, are well known in Taiwan, but are hardly global household names on par with Zuckerberg, Gates, Musk, Jobs, or Bezos.

 This vital but business-to-business focused economy means that the average global citizen does not see Taiwan in the devices and brands they so strongly identify with. According to Theodora Ting Chau and other scholars, another part of the low profile of Taiwanese brands may be associated with the Chinese practice of dividing assets between heirs (coparcenary). Historically, this led to a lack of emphasis on developing a valuable brand which could not be easily split. By contrast, the style of inheritance practiced in Japan and Korea (primogeniture) led to an emphasis on the value and continuity of a brand. This is why so many of the world’s oldest companies today are famously Japanese. It also helps explain why even though the economies and exports of greater China (comprising the People’s Republic of China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) are much larger, far more Japanese and Korean brands are global household names: Sony, Uniqlo, Seiko, Hitachi, Canon, Asics, Nissan, Toshiba, Panasonic, Yamaha, Subaru, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Hyundai, Kia, Samsung, and LG.

Despite tremendous economic success and substantial cultural offerings, Taiwan remains the almost invisible almost country.  This seems to be partly by design, as with TSMC, and partly due lack of emphasis, for example a lack of government backing for Taiwanese cultural exports. There is, however, no time like the present. If relations between China and the world’s democracies continue to sour, there will be a China-sized hole to be filled, from manufacturing to Chinese language and culture. Film, TV, music, and education could all offer opportunities for Taiwan to highlight its open and democratic values and respect for human rights. In a neat illustration of this conundrum, Taiwan’s government claims it ranked seventh in the world and first in Asia according to the U.N.’s Gender Inequality Index. Yet, the claim and underlying data are provided directly by Taiwan’s government because the U.N. cannot include Taiwan. If Taiwan can enhance its global reach, it has a compelling story to tell.

The expansion of soft power will not immediately secure a seat at the U.N. or WHO, but it can increase global awareness and support for Taiwan’s unique position on the world stage. Taiwan’s successes — from democracy to bubble tea to semiconductors — indicate potential pathways for it to assert its identity. By weaving these threads together, Taiwan can enhance its global narrative and become more visible in a way that would not only help it claim its place in the international community but continue to exist.