Taiwan’s international status remains in a state of flux, still plagued by isolation from multilateral institutions such as the UN, the WHO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Denied representation at the high table, Taiwan is shut out of crucial institutional channels for information exchange and intelligence sharing.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began ravaging the world, the WHO’s global COVID-19 cases database was critical in keeping governments informed on the spread of the virus. Similarly, the ICAO was the top source of aviation safety information.
However, Taiwan was excluded.
Where formal institutional channels have failed Taiwan, informal avenues of communication have filled in the cracks. Track two diplomacy has transformed into a vital and dynamic form of international engagement.
Whereas track one diplomacy involves government representation, track two diplomacy empowers civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take the lead on promoting bilateral and multilateral communication. These informal channels benefit from not only avoiding the geopolitical hurdles that come with engaging foreign governments, but also enjoy valuable contributions from regional, local and private actors.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is actively promoting track two diplomatic engagements through her administration’s flagship foreign policy, the New Southbound Policy. The policy is centered around promoting Taiwan’s relations with 18 countries: the 10 ASEAN member states; six South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka); Australia; and New Zealand. The five-pronged approach focuses on cooperation in agricultural development, medicine and public health, talent cultivation, industrial innovation and youth exchanges.
Taiwan’s status as a digital and technological powerhouse makes it an ideal partner in many of these fields, and the New Southbound Policy has already made progress in paving new avenues of informational exchange.
Think tanks in particular have made meaningful contributions in information exchanges, with an increasing number of Taiwanese and foreign think tanks signing memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to engage in collaborative research and policy dialogues.
One example is the three-year partnership between Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation and India’s Observer Research Foundation. An outcome of this partnership was the inaugural Taiwan-India dialogue in October, jointly hosted by the two foundations, examining stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region and potential areas of collaboration in bilateral ties.
The value of consistent think tank communication cannot be underestimated. After signing an MOU with the Institute for National Defense Security Research last year to promote collaboration on security and defense research, the Czech Republic’s European Values Center for Security Policy opened an office in Taipei, the first Czech and second European think tank to do so.
Partnerships between think tanks serve as a vital first step to identify mutually beneficial interests and exchange knowledge on best practices. The Global Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy and the Oslo Freedom Forum hosted their annual conferences in Taipei this year, a testament to the contributions of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy to the international system and the value of convening dialogues that empower Taiwan’s participation.
In the Indo-Pacific context, the Yushan Forum hosted by the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation is the most visible gathering of politicians, academics, civil society organizations and business leaders from East and Southeast Asia. The annual conference serves as a platform to discuss areas of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region and explore avenues for sustainable cooperation and social resilience.
On a broader scale, hosting international conferences has given Taiwan the benefit of convening a wide range of experts on global issues, a worthwhile substitute when attending the general assemblies of multilateral institutions is not an option.
Amid an international system that too often treats Taiwan as a trouble to be dealt with, these track two dialogues and conferences let Taiwan be a part of the solution. Taiwan reaps the benefits of information and intelligence sharing from participants with access to the global organizations, while also offering its knowledge and expertise in digital industries and healthcare services.
The value of this mutually beneficial structure was especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Taiwan used dynamic digital tools to track infections, keeping cases consistently low and sparing its healthcare industry from overcapacity. The Centers for Disease Control hosted an online conference last year funded by APEC, inviting experts in academia, healthcare and tech industries to discuss the role of technology in fighting the spread of infectious diseases.
Taiwanese development aid groups and NGOs, such as the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families, assisted local communities in Southeast Asia with economic relief funds and material aid, including donations of masks, sanitary supplies and medical equipment. These alternative channels of communication allowed Taiwan to demonstrate its value to its neighbors, despite being unable to participate in a WHO assembly.
Track two diplomatic engagements have shown promising results, although further contributions from think tanks, civil society and governments are necessary to secure Taiwan’s future.
Ad hoc engagements and short-term partnerships have already proven fruitful, but formal long-term agreements are necessary to institutionalize communication and maintain regular exchanges. This not only includes institutionalization of the partnerships, but also official consortium agreements between NGOs and free-trade agreements for prosperous bilateral trade. Long-term connections are not only mutually beneficial, but would also enable Taiwanese organizations to build deeper and more personable relationships with non-state actors abroad.
As long as Taiwan’s membership in international institutions remains in flux, social and economic alliances constitute some of Taiwan’s most valuable assets.
Neval Mulaomerovic was previously a research assistant with the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
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