Rather than a “diplomatic win,” the recently announced opening of a Taiwan office in Guyana proved to be a source of disappointment and displeasure. The government in Georgetown decided to halt the mutual establishment of representative offices less than 24 hours after the agreement was announced.
Unsurprisingly, the “China factor” appears to have been the primary reason behind this reversal. The Guyanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs explicitly stated that the country would “continue to adhere to the one China policy” as it nixed the agreement with Taipei.
Why does Guyana matter, though? International attention on this Caribbean nation of less than 1 million people has long been sorely lacking. Additionally, given its history of rigged elections, corruption scandals and institutional weakness, Guyana has been unrighteously dismissed as an unimportant player in global politics.
We maintain that Guyana deserves attention due to its growing potential to serve as an important geopolitical node.
Predicted to become a top oil producer, Guyana would also serve as a key logistical link in regional trade. Thus, irrespective of the recent fiasco, Taiwan should devise ways to engage with the country through public diplomacy and effective soft power projection.
A sustained strategy of outreach to Georgetown would allow Taipei to make gains in three key areas: energy security, intensifying exchanges with the broader Caribbean region and engagement in multilateral cooperation with the US.
First, with regard to energy security, importing oil from Guyana on a long-term basis would diversify Taiwan’s energy supply and thus positively contribute to its stability.
Just at the newly discovered Stabroek Block, Guyana’s oil deposits are estimated at 8 billion barrels — a figure comparable to the total volume of deposits in Norway.
Considering that more than 98 percent of Taiwan’s energy consumption relies on imports, the nation is highly susceptible to strategic vulnerability and economic risks. Moreover, 76 percent of crude oil and petroleum product imports come from the Middle East, with more than 50 percent originating from just two countries, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, statistics published by the Bureau of Energy show.
As Taiwan remains excluded from most international energy coordination mechanisms such as the International Energy Agency or the World Energy Council, it cannot benefit from multilateral solutions to energy supply volatilities.
Thus, bilateral partnerships with diversified international players such as Guyana appear to be key in multiplying Taiwan’s opportunities.
“Diversifying energy supply is the core of [Taiwan’s] energy security policy, and cooperation with Guyana should be continued as long as it complements the national interest of Taiwan,” said Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政), a member of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Second, Taiwan has rightly viewed Guyana as a gateway to the Caribbean. When announcing the opening of the Taiwan office in Georgetown, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Joanne Ou (歐江安) said that the office would facilitate the deepening of Taiwan’s “pragmatic relations” with countries in the Caribbean.
Five of the 14 countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with the Republic of China are members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), headquartered in Georgetown. Guyana is an important voice of the community, amplified by its designation as a “more-developed country” within the bloc, shared only by three other members.
Skepticism toward Taipei in Georgetown is hardly staggering, and demonstrates the need for a more gradual approach toward Guyana.
The division over the recognition of Taiwan and China is frequently brought up in debates over international outreach of the CARICOM. It is thus important to consider whether Taiwan has dedicated sufficient resources to establish strong regional branding across the Caribbean — or, in other words, to win hearts and minds.
Collaboration in relatively uncontroversial sectors, such as education, could be strengthened through informal, society-centered approaches and straightforwardly rely on the promotion of existing initiatives, such as the Taiwan Scholarship program.
Strengthening human capital development has proven key in the work of Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF). However, before Taiwan can scale up its outreach across the CARICOM, the nation needs to first strengthen its branding in individual countries of the bloc.
Third, in light of Guyana’s core role within the CARICOM, the presence of Taiwan in the country could allow Taipei to amplify its voice in US-driven multilateral frameworks.
The US has constructively engaged third parties in its regional partnerships. The Japan-US-Mekong Power Partnership serves as a case in point. Aimed at developing regional electricity grids, the partnership demonstrated that the US is willing to work with new regional partners — including foreign governments — in addition to the private sector for common interests.
US President Joe Biden named tackling the climate crisis in the Caribbean as one of his foreign policy priorities. In turn, Taiwan’s experience in providing development aid toward energy transformation suggests potential opportunities for multilateral cooperation between the region, and Taipei and Washington.
This complementarity becomes particularly relevant in light of Guyana’s ambitious goals for its domestic energy transformation: The country is aiming for 47 percent renewable electricity generation by 2027.
Even if, for now, Taipei remains unable to have representation on the ground in Georgetown, the nation should not view Guyana as a lost cause and instead buttress its soft power projection in the Caribbean country.
The necessary instruments are already in Taiwan’s toolbox: Taiwan Scholarships, ICDF-led development assistance programs and initiatives by civil society organizations have proven successful in places as diverse as Sao Tome, Malawi and the Marshall Islands.
Guyana is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and its geopolitical importance would only continue to rise.
While the most recent attempt by Taiwan to gain a footing in the country resulted in a fiasco, Taipei should re-evaluate its outreach strategy, rather than abandon it completely. The most optimal way to reignite the momentum is to start with the basics — building understanding and friendship at grassroots level.
Marcin Jerzewski is a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a Taipei and Chiayi-based policy think tank focusing on Taiwan’s soft power, the New Southbound Policy and the Bilingual Nation 2030 Plan. Chen Kuan-ting is chief executive officer of the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.
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