With its 23 million people, Taiwan represents one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia, with free and fair elections, regular political alternatives, media freedom and diversity, strong recognition of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, the recognition of language and cultural rights of its indigenous populations, a strong environmental policy, and forward-looking digital regulation, among other features.
This democratic development is remarkable in two ways: a bit more than three decades ago, Taiwan was a military regime that banned political opposition and did not hesitate to imprison and torture its domestic critics. Meanwhile, in the rest of Asia, democracies are under attack, while populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism are dominating the political discourses and realities of the most populated part of the globe.
But while Taiwan may have earned its democratic credentials, it remains isolated in the international arena because of the Beijing-imposed “One China principle” (一个中国）that can be summarized by two major claims: first, that Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China and thus Beijing is the sole legal representative of the Chinese people, Taiwan included; and second, that any country supporting this principle can only establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, and not with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
The historical and diplomatic realities are much more complex than Beijing’s One China principle: Taiwan, while having been part of the Chinese Empire for around two centuries (1683–1895), was still under Japan’s occupation (1895–1945) when the Republic of China (ROC) was established on January 1, 1912. During China's civil war in the 1940s, the Chinese Communist Party won and started to rule mainland China in 1949, the Kuomingtang (KMT), the ruling party of ROC fled to the island of Taiwan and continued to rule unchallenged until 2000. Japan only formally renounced its sovereignty over Taiwan on April 28, 1952, through the Treaty of San Francisco.
Since 1949, Taiwan/ROC has operated as an independent state with its own government, army, passports, currency, economy, and cultural identity, including maintaining the traditional forms of Chinese writing and medicine. While KMT-led China was one of the four establishing members of the United Nations in 1945, Beijing ended up replacing Taiwan/ROC in 1974 in the institution as a larger number of countries started establishing relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Since that period, the diplomatic status of Taiwan has entered a gray area: 14 countries maintain full diplomatic relations, yet Taiwan is losing allies to China. At the same time, since 1974, a large number of countries maintain Chambers of Commerce and other representative offices with Taipei that are not called embassies but play the same role, issuing visas and fostering diplomatic cooperation.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s application to join UN organizations, like the World Health Organization, keeps getting rejected due to Beijing’s veto, despite global emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Faced with this reality, Taiwan still tries to find ways to voice its concerns in the international community. In the last few years, it has demonstrated Taipei’s efforts to combine official, economic, cultural, and even medical diplomacy to strengthen existing ties, reinforce alliances, and gain visibility. Taiwan’s global efforts continue, despite Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance that it will use force if necessary to “regain control over the province of Taiwan.”
One region for Taiwan is of key importance: Southeast Asia, because of its proximity but also because of direct competition with China in the region. While no country in Asia has diplomatic relations with Taipei, Taiwan is an important investor and trade partner. More recently, activists from Taiwan have also joined the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a citizen movement in places such as the Philippines, Thailand, India, Myanmar, and Hong Kong to foster common support for democracy, media freedom, and pluralism across the region and offer mutual support. While this movement is not affiliated with the government of Taiwan, it creates heightened visibility and establishes networks across Asia for Taiwanese civil society.
Another unexpected opportunity for Taiwan’s international visibility came about in early 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic in what is now termed medical or humanitarian diplomacy. As Beijing rushed to offer masks, tests, and vaccines mostly to its Belt and Road initiative allies, Taipei extended similar help to a number of regions, including in Central Europe. This created a new form of alliance with countries such as Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia that have distanced themselves further from economic cooperation with China. Taiwan opened a Representative Office, a de facto embassy, in Vilnius in November 2021.
The latest major change in international relations has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Taiwan maintains economic relations with both countries but eventually decided to apply trade sanctions on Russia. In Taiwan, many consider the war and Western countries’ reactions are very important as they see a parallel with the US and Japan’s commitments to Taiwan’s security. Partially related to this issue has been US House speaker Nancy Pelosi's August 2 and 3 visit to Taiwan, which caused renewed military threats from Beijing but also brought Taiwan to the forefront of international politics. Her visit reaffirmed its position as a de facto independent country by certain members of the international community.
Global Voices Special Coverage brings stories to provide context and local views from Taiwan and how it is perceived internationally.
Stories about Highlighting Taiwan’s international invisibility from January, 2021
WATCH: ‘The Milk Tea Alliance'—Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong's unified fight for democracy’
Missed the live-stream of the Global Voices Insights webinar on the "Milk Tea Alliance"? Here's a replay.