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Taiwan’s Flexible Diplomacy: A New Approach to Cross-Strait and International Relations

In a video conferencing with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on May 12, 2011, President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China (ROC) Taiwan outlined three important national strategies for Taiwan: one,  institutionalizing cross-strait rapprochement with mainland China; two, enhancing Taiwan’s contributions to international development; and three, aligning Taiwan’s defense and diplomacy. These could be termed as the three pillars or the ‘defense lines’ as president Ma call them of Taiwanese new foreign policy ever since he took office in 2008. Why has Taiwan initiated such a policy?

At the outset between the year 2000 and 2008, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under the presidency of Chen Shuibian advocated stronger Taiwan identity, vociferously advocated Taiwan’s Independence, and sought Taiwan’s membership to various United Nation organizations. In turn, China adopted Anti-Secession Law in 2005; enhanced and strengthened its military deployment against Taiwan; and unequivocally reiterated the use of force against the renegade province. In the process, it enhanced the precision strike capability of hundreds of missiles of the Second Artillery Force (SAF) that has been assigned to attack strategic targets inside Taiwan.

The period under Chen could be categorized as the period of confrontation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and of extending doles to various African and Latin American countries for maintaining their affiliation to the ROC. The policy won ROC three diplomatic allies, but lost 9 including Costa Rica to the PRC; the ‘cheque diplomacy’ proved disastrous, and the first thing Ma Ying-jeou did after resuming office was to abandon this policy and initiate a policy of readjustment introducing the ‘flexible diplomacy’ or the so called huoyue waijiao, which calls for political reconciliations.

Under ‘flexible diplomacy’ Taiwan sought diplomatic truce and opportunities to participate in international organizations and events. The truce called for consolidation of ties with its 23 diplomatic allies across Pacific, Europe and Africa, while the latter offered it opportunities to participate in rehabilitation work in Ache and Haidi etc. earthquakes; it also secured the observer’s status in World Health Assembly (WHA) of the WHO since 2009.  In fact the “three-no’s” policy toward cross-strait relations: “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” could be regarded as an important ingredient of the ‘diplomatic truce’ under ‘flexible diplomacy.’ this approach of handling the cross-strait affairs in Ma’s words would create a “virtuous cycle.” It has indeed created a “virtuous cycle” in terms of increased trade and investment with the PRC, expanded educational and cultural exchange, and eased visa regimes across the straits. Between 2008 and 2011 Taiwan and mainland China have concluded 15 agreements including the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). The flexible diplomacy was the need of the hour, which enabled Taiwan to avoid trade and economic marginalization; criticism from the domestic public opinion, as well as further jettisoning of the cross-strait relations.  According to President Ma, the arrival of nearly 3million mainland Chinese has created a tourism boom in Taiwan.  There are at present over 5000 mainland Chinese students studying in Taiwan universities. The increase in cross-strait trade also boosted Taiwan’s total trade volume to a record high of $526 billion in 2010.

As far as Taiwan’s foreign aid policy is concerned, it was changed substantially, and the May 2009 White Paper on Foreign Aid Policy is a pointer in this direction.  The so-called ‘cheque diplomacy’ paved way for a foreign aid policy that is in line with the international standards. With an aim to promote partnership, Taiwan has committed to be a responsible stakeholder in the international community by supporting humanitarianism and safeguarding human security. It has contributed to disaster relief efforts around the world and is the largest donor so far to Japan’s Tohoku earthquake relief effort. Taiwan has also diversified the modes of aid and cooperation in to the GIS, hospital management, environmental protection, as well as renewable energy etc. fields. President Ma is of the view that such efforts will help Taiwan reach a higher moral ground in international politics.

The third strategy that President Ma pronounced during the video conferencing is ‘to align defense with diplomacy.’ In this respect he said that Taiwan must build credibility and trust with its allies but also be able to defend itself. Rebuilding of mutual trust especially with its strongest ally, the US has remained on top of President Ma’s priorities for it almost touched the nadir during Chen Shuibian’s time. DPP’s irritating PRC tactics and Chen seeking transit opportunities in the US and other countries for his foreign visits irritated Washington, which ill afforded any trouble with the PRC in AF-Pak region. The US has expressed its happiness over the ‘flexible diplomacy’ and has announced arms sales  worth  6.4 billion US dollars to Taiwan albeit the delivery is still awaited. Furthermore, Taiwanese request for F-16C/D has been received positively by the US but so far has been stalled due to obvious pressure from the mainland. Nevertheless, the US is going to act in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and is obligated to provide defensive weapon systems to Taiwan, for it is aware of the fact that a weaker Taiwan will damage the stability in Asia Pacific; increase undue pressure on Taiwan and its allies. It is in this context that president Ma has asked the United States to help “level the playing field” by providing weaponry to keep Taiwan’s aerial and naval integrity intact.

There is yet another dimension to the flexible diplomacy of Taiwan, which Present Ma did not pronounce in his interview to the CSIS – the people to people and cultural diplomacy. The policy has provided Taiwanese citizen and NGOs various opportunities to participate in international affairs and exchange ideas with foreign civil societies. Under the aegis of this policy, Taiwan has initiated various programs such as national development seminars for youths, international youth ambassador program, Taiwan scholarships and fellowship, Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Huayu Enrichment Program and Taiwan Study Camps, International Cooperation and Development Fund’s (ICDF) Mandarin Scholarship etc. programs. All these initiatives have helped Taiwan to boost its image internationally and enabled international community to have a better understanding of Taiwan, its culture customs and values.

The flexible diplomacy has worked well for all the stakeholders so far. Low profile, gentle giant Ma will add another feather to his cap if he is successful in concluding confidence building measures (CBMs) and cross-strait peace agreements. President Ma has repeatedly called on the PRC to dismantle over a thousand missiles that have been targeted on Taiwan’s cities, and we have heard Xu Caihou, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, PRC saying that it is possible if a peace agreement is signed between the two sides.

(The Writer is Dr B R Deepak, Professor of Chinese and Dean, School of Languages, Doon University. He could be reached at

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