Use + Remix

Taiwan is smaller and has less access to normal diplomatic avenues but does have one advantage over mainland China.

Taiwan was the first place in Asia to recognise same-sex marriage. : Taiwan Scenery Gallery/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 Taiwan was the first place in Asia to recognise same-sex marriage. : Taiwan Scenery Gallery/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Taiwan is smaller and has less access to normal diplomatic avenues but does have one advantage over mainland China.

In March 2023, Honduras ended its formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognised the People’s Republic of China. This leaves Taiwan with just 13 diplomatic allies, including the Vatican. Nine countries have severed relations since Tsai Ing-wen, representing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was elected President of Taiwan in May 2016.

The DPP is considered ‘pro-independence’, meaning it is the political party most likely to advocate and declare Taiwan’s formal independence from China, a move the Communist government in Beijing – which still regards Taiwan as a ‘breakaway’ or ‘renegade’ province of China – promises will carry severe retribution.

The lack of formal diplomatic allies contributes to what we might call the ‘disabling environment’ in which Taiwan exists. It is not a member of the United Nations (no one can enter the UN buildings in New York or Geneva using a Taiwan passport for identification). Neither is Taiwan a member of other international organisations, including Interpol and the World Health Organization, even though the British Medical Journal acknowledges “Taiwan was the first nation to implement proactive measures against the novel coronavirus” in December 2019.

Taiwan must compete for attention and influence with its much larger neighbour, which contests and even threatens its very existence. Washington DC’s commitment to  ‘strategic ambiguity’ means Taiwan cannot count on support from the US if China decides to launch military action against the island.

However, Taiwan does possess a significant advantage over mainland China in terms of its soft power capacity.

Soft power, defined broadly as the attraction of values, ideas and culture, is located in Taiwan’s liberal-democratic political culture: in the competitive multi-party elections for all positions in national and local government; in the frequent alternation of political power in the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament) and in the Presidential Palace; in the vibrant media voicing opinions from across the political spectrum free from the threat of political interference; in the freedom of religion and the growing recognition of minority and indigenous rights and cultures; in the vigorous and autonomous civil society that mobilises and protests against government decisions and behaviour; and in the power of example, such as Taiwan being the first place in Asia to recognise same-sex marriage and the first in the world to hold a Pride march during the Covid pandemic.

In 2009, the conviction of President Chen Shui-bian and the life sentence handed down (subsequently reduced to 20 years) on charges of embezzlement, bribery and money laundering communicated a powerful narrative that not even former presidents are above the law.  Taiwan’s democratic political culture demands transparency in its legislative processes and institutions, and accountability when controversial decisions are taken or when political figures behave inappropriately.

In short, Taiwan’s soft power communicates a direct contrast to the way it’s more authoritarian neighbour exercises its authority.

Taiwan’s democratic political culture makes it attractive to other democracies, especially in the United States.

During her transit through the US in April 2023, President Tsai met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy spoke of Taiwan and the US working together ‘to promote economic freedom, democracy, peace and stability’. McCarthy added: “We must continue to promote our shared values on the world stage.”

Using similar language, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who also met with President Tsai, revealed: “We … discussed our shared commitment to democracy and freedom.” Reflecting on the meetings during her transit, Tsai said: “We once again find ourselves in a world where democracy is under threat and the urgency of keeping the beacon of freedom shining cannot be overstated.”

This agreement around ‘shared values’ provides Taiwan with soft power that means the fate of Taiwan is never far from the top of the US’s foreign policy agenda. Moreover, opinions polls conducted in the US by YouGov in March 2023 suggest that Americans support both Taiwan and the US’s need to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression if necessary.

This comes at a time when Taiwan is visible in the world’s media – on the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera – covering news of President Tsai’s transit through the US and the Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait that followed. But coverage does not just focus on Taiwan’s democracy under threat from China; it also highlights the strategic importance of Taiwan, especially in terms of its production of semiconductors that drive global computing. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company produces 84 percent of the world’s semiconductors prompting Time magazine to publish in October 2022 the headline: ‘The Chips that Make Taiwan the Center of the World’.

Soft power is not something that governments can strategise because it is a natural by-product of how they behave and the political culture in which they operate. To maximise soft power capacity the Taiwan government must maintain its democratic credentials and continue to govern ethically, with full transparency and accountability.

If the Democratic Progressive Party loses the presidency in the election scheduled for January 2024 it is likely the result will be uncontested and considered legitimate and there will be a smooth transfer of power to the winning party. If that happens, this will be the fourth such transfer of presidential power since direct elections were introduced in 1996. Again, there is a clear contrast with Beijing where in 2018 President Xi Jinping abandoned the constitutional stipulation that the president could not serve more than two terms (in March 2023 Xi was re-elected by the National People’s Congress for a third term).

It is unlikely the limitations to Taiwan’s international influence will change any time soon. The reality of international politics is that while Taiwan has moral authority and legitimacy because of its democratic political culture, mainland China retains an amount of hard diplomatic, economic and military power and influence that Taiwan is unable to match.

Instead, if Taiwan continued to develop its public diplomacy it could communicate its soft power capacity to a global audience, increase Taiwan’s visibility and gather moral support. As late as 2016 Taiwan’s global communications struggled in terms of structure and content, prompting the description of Taiwan as ‘soft power rich, public diplomacy poor’.

During Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency, Taiwan has developed a more sophisticated communication mechanism that embraces digital and social media and which provides an alternative narrative to the one offered by China’s global media platforms. Under President Tsai, expansion of Taiwan’s ‘Southbound Policy’ represents a significant economic, political, and cultural push to strengthen ‘shared values’ in the region and grow Taiwan’s influence in its neighbourhood.

While Taiwan now has a stronger presence in the international information and communication space, it needs to use it to maximise the projection of its soft power capacity. Instead of engaging with critical and often hostile narratives from the mainland, leaving Taiwan looking defensive, a stronger focus on telling Taiwan’s story to the world, emphasising Taiwan’s democratic credentials and its rich cultural heritage, would let audiences draw their own conclusions about the regime on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

In strategic communications, actions always speak louder than words and Taiwan’s soft power is the power of example.  Taiwan may have limited capacity in the diplomatic landscape, but its presence in the soft power space can more than compensate.

Gary D. Rawnsley is Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences and Professor of Public Diplomacy at the University of Lincoln, UK. He was the founding Dean of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) and returned there in 2018 as the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. His most recent publications are The Research Handbook of Political Propaganda co-edited with Yiben Ma and Kruakae Pothong (Edward Elgar 2021) and the forthcoming second edition of the Routledge Handbook of Soft Power (2024), edited with Naren Chitty and Lilian Ji. 

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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