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String of High-Level Foreign Visits Boosts Diplomatic Visibility for an Isolated Taiwan

Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil (C) is escorted by Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (R) and Parliament Speaker Yu Shyi-kun (L) during a press conference at the foreign ministry in Taipei on September 3, 2020. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP)
Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil (C) is escorted by Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (R) and Parliament Speaker Yu Shyi-kun (L) during a press conference at the foreign ministry in Taipei on September 3, 2020. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP)

A flurry of high-level visits from foreign officials and legislators has pushed Taiwan’s international visibility to a new peak, despite chronic opposition from China, analysts in Taipei say, and the boost has raised people’s confidence that their normally isolated island is getting international respect.

Scholars caution, though, that the run of encounters will not give Taiwan additional, formal diplomatic recognition nor earn it a seat in international bodies.

A 90-member parliamentary delegation from the Czech Republic is visiting Taiwan this week through Friday. Delegation head and Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil met Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and told legislators in Taipei that he was “Taiwanese."

Last month, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became Washington’s highest-ranking official visitor to Taiwan since the 1970s. A Japanese legislative group led by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori came just after Azar’s trip.

International visibility

Visits such as these have special meaning in Taiwan because China urges its more than 170 diplomatic allies worldwide to avoid relations with the island. China sees Taiwan as part of its territory, subject to eventual unification despite widespread opposition among Taiwanese. The two sides have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to the Communists and rebased their government in Taiwan.

“Certainly, Taiwan’s international visibility has been raised and we have received a lot of empathy if not solid support coming from Washington, but also from European capitals, and I don’t think it will turn into a war [with China] across the Taiwan Strait as a result,” said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. “So, it adds to the sense that Taiwan is a sovereign country.”

The recent visitors lauded Taiwan’s containment of COVID-19, with cases now at a cumulative 489. Taiwan throttled the outbreak early in the year through border closures, contact tracing and checks on flights from the disease origin in China.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Thursday called results of the Czech delegation’s trip “fruitful” and said relations would become more “diverse and comprehensive.”

Overseas attention to Taiwan has stoked confidence among ordinary Taiwanese, who are used to Chinese officials urging that foreign officials avoid Taiwan – and getting their way because of China’s global economic clout. Taiwan has added to the diplomatic momentum over the past two months by announcing the reopening of a representative office in Guam and plans for a new one in France.

China has raised questions in parts of the world this year over perceptions it fumbled the world’s first COVID-19 outbreak and that its maritime expansion violates international law. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that the Czech delegation leader would pay a "heavy price" for his Taiwan trip.

“In addition to the Czech Republic, I think many countries in the world that were once economically dependent on China are now rethinking their relationship with China, and China is gradually not favored,” said Bernie Huang, 31, a Taipei high school teacher.

“The disfavor of China in the world is beneficial for Taiwan to maintain foreign relations,” Huang said, reflecting the view of many citizens.

“The Taiwanese government should definitely seize this promising opportunity,” he said.

'Makes me proud'

Officials in Taiwan will get a boost in trust from citizens via the foreign visits, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

“Taiwanese people will think, look, people have come from the U.S., the Czech Republic and Japan, so I think it helps Taiwanese people’s confidence in the government of Tsai Ing-wen,” he said.

Ruby Liu, 30, who works for a magazine publisher in Taipei, said the number of foreign visitors interested in learning about Taiwan’s disease prevention “makes me proud.”

“In the past, Taiwan is isolated by the world,” Liu, 30, said.

“We should grasp the opportunities to evaluate our international status,” she added.

The recent visits, however, signal no “substantive” change in Taiwan’s foreign relations, Huang Kwei-bo said.

Taiwan, for example, still has just 15 formal diplomatic allies, mostly small, impoverished countries in the Americas and South Pacific. Japan, the Czech Republic and the United States all formally recognize China.

Recognition for Taiwan's COVID-19 control by the World Health Organization cannot get Taiwan into the WHO itself, said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. China blocks Taiwan’s annual bids to participate.

“This year Taiwan has been one of the best countries in terms of disease prevention. It could be called a model student," Chao said. "All countries including the WHO have approved of what Taiwan’s doing but Taiwan has no way of participating in the WHO."

Brisker arms sales to Taiwan may emerge from stronger Taipei-Washington relations, Chao said, but improvements in that two-way relationship will stop there. Japanese officials are trying to strengthen their own ties with China despite the parliamentary delegation’s visit, he added. Taiwan, he said, needs better relations with China to bolster its diplomacy worldwide.

Tsai’s government rejects Beijing’s dialogue condition that both sides identify as part of China. The two sides have not talked formally since Tsai took office in 2016.