Even as Taiwan loses diplomatic allies to its bigger rival China, the increasingly isolated government has bested Beijing at a level of international relations that common people can feel: the number of countries that let citizens enter visa free.
Taiwan has persuaded 166 countries to allow their 23 million citizens to enter without visas or with simplified visa applications, sometimes over fears that China would retaliate, foreign ministry sources say. Just 21 countries offer visa-free entry to people from China.
The rise of visa-free countries from 10 years ago to places such as the United States and Europe indicates that Taiwan can expand diplomatically in at least one way despite China’s countermeasures and have something to show citizens who want more foreign policy achievements.
“Because for most of the people foreign relations is a very distant thing, but the ability to travel free around the world is a direct and personal experience,” said Joanna Lei, chief executive officer of the Chunghua 21st Century think tank in Taiwan.
“If Taiwan continues to enjoy visa-free travel, that means a lot of countries recognize the administration and allow the people from Taiwan to their lands, and that will be a major, major foreign affairs achievement,” Lei said.
Beijing has claimed sovereignty over, and insists on eventual reunification with, self-ruled Taiwan since the 1940s and tries to limit its international profile. To cast Taiwan as a part of China rather than a country, Beijing has barred it from joining United Nations agencies since the 1970s. It also offers aid to countries that switch allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. Taipei has 20 allies left following Panama’s recognition of China last month. Beijing is recognized by more than 170 countries.
The push to expand visa-free treatment for Taiwanese took off under former president Ma Ying-jeou, who held office from 2008 to 2016. China and Taiwan had set aside political grievances then to build trust through economic deals, making it hard for Beijing to stand in the way of Taiwan’s informal or people-to-people relations abroad.
“Cables regarding that were sent to all the offices and missions abroad, and we kept reminding officials of the importance and urgency of getting visa waivers or visas upon arrival,” said Huang Kwei-bo, chair of the foreign ministry research and planning committee from 2009 to 2011.
The government in Taipei also tightened passport renewals to “reduce the percentage” of counterfeited documents, allaying another concern overseas, Huang said.
“We tried to tell those potential targeted countries not to feel worried about punishment from the Beijing authorities,” because warmer ties under Ma “would make the visa waiver issue less sensitive in the political term,” Huang said.
Taiwan passports ranked No. 28 in the world in 2015 in terms of visa-free access to other countries, according to the Henley & Partners 2015 Visa Restrictions Index. China ranked 93rd.
Relations could chill waivers
Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen lacks the trust of Beijing, though she hasn’t crossed China’s red line of seeking legal independence to consecrate self-rule. That chill in relations could make it harder for Taiwan to add countries to its visa waiver roster, said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan.
But Tuesday, Taiwan and its diplomatic ally Paraguay agreed to let each other’s citizens enter without visas. The foreign ministry is also preparing to let Filipinos enter visa free, even though Manila still requires visas of Taiwanese.
Countries have let Taiwanese enter visa-free for economic benefits as well as to get along better with Taipei, according to Taiwan foreign ministry spokesperson Eleanor Wang.
“For other countries to want to let in Taiwan passport holder without visas, they can attract more Republic of China (Taiwan) people to go visit, which can help two-way relations and help their economy — all sorts of advantages — so they agree to exempt visas,” Wang told reporters Tuesday.
Taiwanese not eager to flee
China struggles to earn visa waiver rules abroad because its citizens sometimes migrate illegally for economic gain. Chinese use illegal smuggling networks to enter Europe and may be “exploited by traffickers,” said human rights group Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in 2015.
In Taiwan, “the country has achieved a certain level of economic sufficiency, therefore its citizens are not that eager to flee from the country and get settled in other countries,” said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in greater Taipei.
“Most of them want to come back. They find Taiwan more comfortable,” he said. “Countries that give Taiwan visa waivers are not threatened.”