People-centric diplomacy and Philippine-Taiwan Relations
Taiwan is still facing the greatest challenge concerning its statehood: the lack of critical mass support from other states to recognize the island-nation as their equal. Despite these limitations, Taiwan has been successful in establishing amicable relations with other states that sustain and correspond to some of its foreign policy objectives.
In 2016, Taiwan launched a recalibrated foreign policy to guide its engagement with states located southward from its location. Called as the New Southbound Policy (NSBP), the new policy is a response from the economic coercion imposed by China in the previous years. With the guidelines of the NSBP, Taiwan pursued a repackaged mode of relationship among states in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and with Australia and New Zealand by focusing on four crucial designated areas, namely, economic and trade collaboration, talent exchange, resource sharing and regional connectivity. In addition, President Tsai Ing-wen noted that the NSBP is unique because of its “people-centric” orientation.
While the Philippines is constrained by its adherence to the One China Policy, Taiwan’s people-centric diplomacy presents opportunities for deeper collaboration and exchange. However, before enumerating these opportunities, it is necessary to establish the following premises.
First, we need to understand and accept that the practice of diplomacy is no longer an exclusive venture of states. Offering diplomatic studies scholarship gradually accepts the reality of pluralizing the definitions and versions of diplomatic engagements, the case of Taiwan fits this narrative. While Taiwan asserts its sovereignty from the People’s Republic of China, the island-nation has only 15 diplomatic allies that recognize it as an independent nation. Hence, Taiwan has an ambiguous status if we will look at it from the Westphalian criteria of statehood.
Second, although Taiwan does not fit in the Westphalian criteria of diplomatic practice, its successful reach beyond Asia such as Europe and even Africa proves that Taiwan can negate and outsmart the constraints imposed by China. While other states refuse to recognize it as an equal, these countries – especially those from the developing world – continued engagement through the establishment of paradiplomatic offices. In the case of Philippine-Taiwan relationship, these institutions are manifested in the existence of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in the Philippines. Beyond these official channels provided by pseudo-diplomatic entities, Taiwan’s engagement with the Philippines persists due to the presence of other initiatives that- in some cases -are outside the conventional methods of official diplomacy. These include sister-city relationships between Taiwanese and Philippine sister cities, engagement and collaboration by university alliances, and exchanges between religious and/or humanitarian organizations. Since the occurrence of these activities are extra-official in nature, the impact of these engagements is difficult to assess whether they align, complement or contradict the recommended channels placed to facilitate Philippine-Taiwan exchanges.
As Taiwan highlighted the people-centric dimension of its New Southbound Policy, the presence of multiple and overlapping initiatives of Taiwanese entities to Southeast Asia ranging from its government agencies, businesses and industries, educational institutions and civil society organizations presents avenues to latch on. Among these include:
Labor and Education. Taiwan is currently experiencing a demographic winter that impacted its labor and educational sectors. Shortage of native laborers led to the growth of a significant portion of Southeast Asian blue-collar workers in several industries. On the other hand, with reduced childbirth in the previous years, Taiwanese universities are facing drops in enrolment rate that threatens their existence. As a response, Taiwanese universities have been marketing itself as an alternative destination for international students especially those coming from developing countries. Scholarships provided by both the Taiwanese government and universities provide opportunities for Filipinos to contribute and cultivate people-to-people exchanges between the two nations.
Language. Last year, Taiwan announced its intention to become a bilingual society by 2030. This vision is an opportunity for the Philippines since the country is one of the Southeast Asian nations with a population that has a good command of the English language. In addition, to accommodate Southeast Asian migrant families, Taiwan decided to become a multicultural society by requiring elementary and secondary students to learn a Southeast Asian language including Filipino.
Tourism. Prior to the implementation of the NSBP, China utilized its iron hand against Taiwan through economic coercion by discouraging Mainland Chinese tourists to travel to the island by halting the issuance of individual travel permits. Due to this imposed barrier, Taiwan looked for alternatives to assist its affected tourism sector. One step pursued by Taiwan is to provide visa-free privilege for Filipino tourists. In exchange, a 55% increase of Taiwanese tourists entering the Philippines was recorded in 2019 – the year before the pandemic.
Regional connectivity. While Taiwan is being excluded from several regional trade agreements and projects such as the recent RCEP, efforts from its private sector may emerge as nodes to override exclusion and connect businesses between Taiwan and Southeast Asia where the Philippines can participate. A good example is the efforts of the Edu-Connect Southeast Asia Association, a Kaohsiung-based alliance of universities, industry associations and MSMEs (micro-, small, and medium-scale enterprises). Members of this civil society organization have been consistently reaching out to Philippine local governments, universities, and small entrepreneurs since 2018.
Unfortunately, these developments were hampered by the mobility restrictions placed to address the pandemic in early 2020. The travel restrictions serve as a big challenge since people-to-people exchanges are reliant on access to mobility particularly with the ease of aviation travel experience during the pre-pandemic years. With most of extra-official engagements temporarily halted, diplomatic interactions at present are concentrated to the official channels as facilitated by the paradiplomatic offices. While virtual platforms can offer solace to sustain the already established extra-official linkages between the Philippines and Taiwan, it is still a question whether engagements conducted in the virtual world will compensate to cover the milestones achieved by pre-pandemic exchanges and collaboration between the two nations.
Brian U. Doce is an Assistant Professorial Lecturer and currently serves as the Chinese Studies Program Coordinator of the International Studies Department of De La Salle University. He has a master’s degree in International Relations from Jilin University in China. He previously worked in the Taipei and Manila branches of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (the Philippine de facto embassy in Taiwan) for two years from 2018-2020.