Written by Colin Alexander.

Taiwan’s recent drive towards greater participation in the World Health Organisation (WHO) provides an opportunity for a wider discussion about modern diplomacy and its motives.

The continued marginalisation of Taiwan from most international fora appears to cause the island’s government and population a great deal of stress and anxiety, with their derecognition by the United Nations (UN) in 1971 a major blow to their legitimacy as a nation-state. It is this marginalisation and desire for formal recognition by international governmental organisations that passively and actively motivates a considerable amount of the Taiwan government’s diplomatic focus.

In international relations terms Taiwan’s diplomatic situation is a product of the formation of the United Nations, membership to which subsequently became an effective ratifier of formal statehood. The presence of the UN in international affairs has also reflected a movement away from the ‘declaratory’ approach to diplomatic recognition described by the Montevideo Convention of 1933 to a more ‘constitutive’ approach.

M.J. Peterson explains:

Those viewing [diplomatic recognition] as constitutive argued that a new state had no international legal personality in the eyes of another state until recognition, while those viewing it as declaratory argued that the legal personality existed as soon as the state existed and recognition was merely the recognising state’s confirmation and pledge of respect. 

As such, under the now unfavoured declaratory approach Taiwan would have achieved much of its recognition status simply by the reality that its government exists, independent to the PRC and achieves many of the criteria that other political entities seeking secession from parent states want to achieve.

Thus, Taiwan’s ‘problem’, so to speak, is that the international community now almost entirely acknowledges the constitutive approach to recognition and this results in Taiwan believing that it is favourable to be formally recognised by other governments. Some of Taiwan’s diplomats and other interested parties appear not to realise that citing the Montevideo Convention as authority for Taiwan’s request for statehood now carries little weight.

The declaratory approach fell out of favour down to issues associated with increases in global trade and the number of territories that acquired statehood during the latter part of the 20th Century. However, the constitutive approach has also been fraught with problems. For example, in 2011 the British government attempted to recognise rebel forces fighting the Gaddafi regime in Libya in order to provide them access to Libyan state assets in British banks. This situation was farcical as the rebels held none of the regularly accepted criteria for statehood.

There is another aspect to Taiwan’s dilemma though and one that some readers may find uncomfortable or controversial. Perhaps Taiwan’s diplomatic limitations are actually its strength and without them Taiwan would be a weaker entity making different political decisions. Gary Rawnsley has said in a recent essay on Taiwan that the island is ‘soft power rich, public diplomacy poor’. This is a fair reflection of Taiwan’s situation as my own research into its public diplomacy has often been a highly frustrating experience accounting ignorance and ineptitude when engaging in international political communications. This when Taiwan has so many positive things to say.

These positive attributes involve aspects of Taiwan’s economy, society and politics that have largely developed since its derecognition by the UN in 1971. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that these attributes have been directly motivated by that derecognition and also the loss of the United States as a formal diplomatic ally during the winter of 1978-79.

Thus, without its marginalisation, would Taiwan have these soft power assets that it has today or would it have remained a more authoritarian regime that suppressed many of its citizens? Perhaps it can be speculated that another liberal democracy without Taiwan’s concerns over statehood would have tackled a protest occupation of parliament like the Sunflower Movement far quicker and far more violently than the Taiwan authorities did. Thus, government reaction to this crisis was restricted by the ROC’s marginalisation and desire not to destabilise its positive international image that provides much of its diplomatic currency.

These questions also provide an opportunity to discuss where Taiwan currently puts its diplomatic energies and tempts the conclusion that Taiwan does not actually need to be recognised at all but is doing just fine without it. Indeed, one should remember that many analysts thought that the days of the ROC were numbered when it was derecognised in 1971 and again in 1978 when Washington announced it was severing formal ties. However, it has grown into a strong and very viable political entity.

The final question then is why does the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) continue to spend a significant percentage of its time, effort and budget in a quest for diplomatic recognition by other governments and formal inclusion in international fora? One answer may come from the notion of the emotional pain that comes with ostracism from a society. In very basic terms, Taiwan wants to be in the international club just because it is absent from the international club. This is the case before any consideration of the merits of membership. The ancient Greeks and a number of the Eastern philosophers argued that death was preferable to banishment and these writings may provide some insight into the seeming distress that has been caused by Taiwan’s exclusion and the thought process behind MOFA’s priorities.

As such, the ROC on Taiwan is a positive outlier in Asia when it comes to democratic governance and other socio-political issues. The imperative for these developments largely comes from a desire to manufacture the international legitimacy in alternate ways to the constitutive recognition that is almost unconditionally received by its regional neighbours.

Thus, when Taiwan’s marginalisation accelerated during the 1970s its government was far from the soft power allure that it is today. The clearest example coming from the collusion with a range of dictatorships including the likes of El Salvador where Taiwan helped to train their ‘death squads’, and with little indication of liberal adjustments on the horizon.

Perhaps then without marginalisation we would be talking about an entity that is soft power poor, public diplomacy poor, or maybe given the shifting tensions in East Asia, it would not exist at all.

Colin Alexander is a Lecturer in Political Communications, Nottingham Trent University. He tweets @rubberdoll82. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.


  1. “The continued marginalisation of Taiwan from most international fora appears to cause the island’s government and population a great deal of stress and anxiety, …”

    Exclusion from international fora does cause Taiwan’s diplomats and its government stress and anxiety. But is this true for Taiwan’s general population?

    It is true in cases like pandemics when exclusion from international cooperation endangers every individual as was the case with the SARS epidemic. However, in day to day life there is little to cause inconvenience for ordinary Taiwanese. They can travel visa-free to most countries in the world and they are no more restricted to do international business than citizens of other developed countries.

    This is different for Taiwan’s diplomats. They most certainly must feel ostracised, lacking the privileges and recognition their colleagues from other states enjoy on the international stage. No wonder then that they crave and work hard for every little step towards formal recognition of Taiwan, not caring if the minuscule successes are worth the effort for the whole of Taiwan.

    It is an altogether different situation again for Taiwan’s government. Every government needs legitimacy to rule. Legitimacy is largely dependant on internal recognition by the general populace and the elite as well as on external recognition by other states’ governments. Does a government lack recognition, external or internal, then it is in peril to be discarded. Does it lack both forms of recognition then it is doomed for sure.

    F. W. de Klerk did not get enlightened suddenly before dismantling the apartheid system in South Africa. He simply had no choice. The majority of the population did not support his government and most other states boycotted South Africa because of its apartheid politics. His government lacked internal and external recognition. Such the white elite feared the turmoil of a collapsing regime and the consequent loss of their livelihood.

    Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui did not transform Taiwan’s one-party dictatorship into a multi-party democracy because they got enlightened and cherished to give up uncontested power. They simply had no choice. Overlording the Taiwanese while loosing international recognition sapped their governments’ legitimacy. Fearing to be toppled by the Taiwanese and subsequently to be swallowed by the PRC, such loosing their refuge, the mainlander elite preferred to yield to pressures for democratisation.

    Still lacking the legitimacy of international recognition, Taiwan’s democratically elected governments are prone to fund wasteful diplomatic ventures while being exceptionally cautious towards its citizens not to jeopardise their support at home, such protecting its internal legitimacy.

    Seeing Taiwan’s government legitimacy from this point of view, the author’s conclusion “… without marginalisation we would be talking about an entity that is soft power poor, public diplomacy poor, or maybe given the shifting tensions in East Asia, it would not exist at all” is convincing. However, I would like to add that the Taiwanese probably would not live as free and as well as they do today, would there have been no diplomatic marginalisation.

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