Tomorrow, the 11th Legislative Yuan is to elect its speaker. This decision will have important ramifications for Taiwan’s efforts to expand its international space, as parliamentary diplomacy has been a critical tool for Taipei to circumvent its diplomatic isolation. Europe continues to closely observe the lead-up to the consequential vote.
The pertinence of parliamentary diplomacy for Taiwan becomes clear in the context of Taiwan’s recent openness in relations with Europe.
Out of all EU institutions, the European Parliament, with its directly elected lawmakers across the 27 member states, has been at the forefront of efforts to elevate the perception of Taiwan to that of a like-minded partner in its own right rather than a festering sore in EU-China relations.
At the member-state level, legislatures have also proven to be ahead of executive bodies in promoting pragmatic cooperation with Taiwan, while adhering to their respective “one China policies” and remaining aware of the political sensitivities surrounding Taiwan’s absurd international status.
Cooperation between European and Taiwanese lawmakers has succeeded largely thanks to the commitment of the 10th Legislative Yuan’s leadership to the internationalization of the assembly.
In an interview with Nikkei Asia, incumbent Legislative Speaker You Si-kun (游錫?) said that “through parliamentary diplomacy, [Taiwan] has broken China’s diplomatic blockade.”
During his tenure, You made great strides to bolster the Legislative Yuan’s institutional framework for supporting overseas engagements. Soon after taking office in February 2020, he established the International Public Opinion Working Group, which was soon upgraded to the International Affairs Working Group.
More recently, he oversaw the inauguration of the Department of International Affairs, the first unit in the Legislative Yuan responsible for comprehensively managing all matters related to parliamentary diplomacy.
These efforts to expand Taiwan’s international outreach through parliamentary cooperation have strengthened the nations’ ties with Europe.
In 2020, Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil led a historic 89-member delegation to Taiwan. As the first senior foreign politician from a nondiplomatic ally of Taiwan to deliver a speech at the Legislative Yuan, he famously declared “I am Taiwanese” on the floor of the legislature. Beyond its powerful symbolism, the visit also produced tangible results, including the Czech Republic allowing Taiwanese state-run banks to open branches in the country.
Last year, Czech Chamber of Deputies Speaker Marketa Pekarova Adamova arrived in Taiwan with a delegation consisting of nearly 150 members. During Pekarova’s “Taiwan Mission,” Taipei and Prague concluded 10 memorandums of understanding and letters of intent on issues ranging from museum exchanges to lithium battery recycling.
Most recently, Lithuanian Seimas Speaker Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen led a delegation focused on deepening economic and fiscal cooperation between Taipei and Vilnius.
At the level of the EU, You in December 2022 received a 13-member delegation from the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, led by assembly Vice President Nicola Beer. Despite pushback from the European Commission and the European External Action Service, Beer publicly advocated for a bilateral investment agreement as a central feature of the growing partnership between the EU and Taiwan.
Notably, Taiwan’s engagements with the leadership of European legislatures have not been merely a one-way street. In 2022, You led a high-profile cross-party delegation to the Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania.
The visit indicated that under You’s leadership, the legislature maintained a close alignment with President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration regarding Taiwan’s foreign policy outlook. This shared focus has revolved around the diversification of the nation’s foreign relations and the expansion of outreach to the US, Japan, New Southbound Policy countries and, notably, Europe.
As no party secured an absolute majority in Jan. 13’s legislative elections, it remains uncertain who would emerge as the next speaker of the Legislative Yuan and how they would influence the nation’s approach to parliamentary diplomacy.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominated You to continue in his current role, while the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) selected incoming legislator-at-large Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) as their candidate for legislative speaker, along with KMT Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) as his deputy.
Given the composition of the 11th Legislative Yuan, either the DPP or the KMT would need the support of the Taiwan People’s Party, the “critical minority,” to secure the leadership of the legislature. In the case of a KMT victory, tensions between president-elect William Lai’s (賴清德) administration and the Legislative Yuan speaker could have a detrimental effect on the efficiency of Taiwan’s parliamentary diplomacy, a key instrument for bolstering its international profile.
If the new legislative speaker presses for policies aimed at appeasing China or openly fights the Lai administration, European politicians would pay close attention and take action. Such strains would make parliamentary engagements much harder for the Europeans.
It is concerning that Han does not have a strong international profile and boasts ostensibly close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
As he began his tenure as mayor of Kaohsiung, Han visited Hong Kong and Macau, where he engaged in secretive high-level discussions at with China’s Liaison Office without consulting the Mainland Affairs Council. Moreover, the controversial ex-mayor strongly criticized Tsai’s foreign policy of “saving face,” accusing her of guiding Taiwan toward an “increasingly narrow and dangerous path.”
As Lai’s foreign policy would likely be a continuation of the international outreach efforts jumpstarted by Tsai, it remains unclear to what extent Han could maintain or expand exchanges with European parliamentarians.
At the same time, the KMT leadership also has strong connections to Europe, which it could utilize to maintain and expand the Legislative Yuan’s international purview.
With a doctorate in international relations, Chiang has served on the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee for more than 10 years. During an interview in November last year, he said the committee was the one where bipartisan consensus is most likely to occur.
As the chairman of the KMT, Chiang has also sought to raise the international profile of his party. He reinstated the International Affairs Department and held high-profile engagements with EU diplomats to showcase the KMT’s readiness to participate in the process of diversifying Taiwan’s international relations.
If Chiang is in charge of overseeing the Legislative Yuan’s international outreach, he would be able to capitalize on his robust experience to bridge cross-partisan consensus and enhance the global visibility of Taiwan. Yet, it is still concerning that parliamentary diplomacy would be relegated to the responsibility of the deputy speaker, lowering the profile of these critical engagements.
If the incoming speaker is unwilling to further enhance political connections with Europeans, they could severely undermine the progress achieved thus far. While discreet relations between mid-level government officials might continue, the political significance lies in high-profile parliamentary interactions, as legislative leaders often involve other crucial officials within their delegations. They also invite with them the eyes of the world, which Taiwan could leverage to its own advantage.
Marcin Jerzewski is head of the Taiwan Office of the European Values Center for Security Policy, a Prague-based think tank. Jakub Janda is executive director of the European Values Center for Security Policy.
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