Many have viewed Taiwan’s recent inclusion by the US in its Visa-Waiver Program as a huge breakthrough for Taiwanese diplomacy. The government has always made this a priority and worked hard at increasing the number of countries Taiwan has visa-free agreements with, of which there are currently 127.
I have no intention of challenging the government’s policies here; I merely hope that Taiwanese society as a whole can think about the issue in a broader sense, otherwise this could have some very negative consequences in the near future.
Let us ignore the question of whether the decision to offer Taiwan visa-free status had anything to do with the lifting of restrictions on US beef imports to Taiwan or the resumption of talks on the Taiwan-US Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.
If we look at things purely from the perspective of Taiwan being a country with a special international status, there is no way anyone could say this decision was merely some “diplomatic breakthrough” or some “benefit secured for the Taiwanese.”
Instead, it is something that contains a potential crisis that could result from a decrease in the amount of international exchanges Taiwan enjoys with other countries.
For the majority of nations, it is not very important whether they have a representative office set up overseas.
This is because they can get things done in embassies that have official diplomatic ties with their nation.
It is also for this reason that the question of whether the collection of visa processing fees help in the upkeep of an overseas representative office becomes a major factor for many nations when it comes to the decision of whether they want to establish such a representative office overseas.
However, since Taiwan is a country that has official diplomatic ties with only 23 countries, carrying out exchanges with other nations via their representative offices here is a very important way for us to maintain non-official diplomatic links. However, now that more visa-free agreements are being made, many foreign representative offices in Taiwan are going to being shut and this will not be good for Taiwan at all.
Moreover, most visa-free setups are limited to tourism purposes.
For businesspeople or students who have to apply for business or student visas, if the representative office of the country they wish to travel to has been closed down in Taiwan, they have to spend more money to obtain their visas. For example, they may have to obtain the documentation via a travel agency for a fee or fly to a third country to process their applications.
What is worrying about this is that it is precisely travelers like students and businesspeople who are the most capable of helping Taiwan carry out public diplomacy with other nations.
In addition, many people mistakenly believe that visa-free means that all one has to do to enjoy this benefit is buy a ticket and board a plane. However, this is not the case, because there are different preconditions to visa-free status.
For example, in March this year, a Taiwanese traveler went through Los Angeles International Airport on the way to Costa Rica to attend a conference. Upon arriving in Costa Rica, the passenger was detained while going through customs and was sent back to Los Angeles. Why? Because one of the conditions of visa-free entry to Costa Rica for Taiwanese is that they must have 30 days left on their US visa and unfortunately, this particular passenger only had 28 days left on their US visa.