Taiwan is a nation without a country. This small island the size of Maryland is endowed with few natural resources, was a colony of Imperial Japan until the end of World War II, and for 38 years after the Chinese Revolution endured the longest period of martial law anywhere in the world. Yet despite these inhibitions, Taiwan’s economy grew by leaps and bounds during the final decades of the 20th century. This rapid development is largely attributable to an opportunistic and enterprising population. During this time, the Taiwanese were quick to move into emerging industries (e.g. production of bicycles, toys, and consumer electronics) and effective at ramping up output to meet new global demand.
Today Taiwan is an advanced economy with a high standard of living and relatively equitable wealth distribution. Its self-ruling government is a stable democracy, and the body politic partakes in open and lively national discourse. The level of political and economic cohesion present in this society is a sufficient condition to establish a sovereign state. Yet it continues to be deprived of this status due to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) vehement opposition to a fully independent Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan. Beijing remains adamant that the government in Taipei rules a rogue province of the mainland. Thus, Taiwan finds itself sidelined in international forums, and hindered in conducting foreign policy via formal channels. My life in Taiwan has granted me insight on a person-to-person level into how both Taiwanese and foreigners from many countries regard one another, and how each view the place of the ROC in the international community.
Having studied economics and international relations as an undergraduate, I chose to pair the two by pursuing a master’s degree in agricultural economics abroad. Revamping the global food system holds the potential to improve the outlook on many sustainable development challenges, including climate change, public health, and poverty. I chose to study this subject in Taiwan because at the time I applied the government was keen on joining the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. This ill-fated trade agreement would have formed the largest trade block ever in terms of combined GDP of member states. Major sticking points in the negotiations revolved around agricultural regulations and standards. Notably, in Taiwan there was major resistance from consumers to chemically treated US pork imports. I wanted to investigate the validity of their concerns, along with what impacts Taiwanese farmers could expect from joining the deal. Beyond this research interest, I hoped to gain broader insight into East Asian markets, where increasing demand for agricultural imports is set to continue in lockstep with burgeoning middle classes. One thing I did not expect when I applied was how the ambiguity surrounding Taiwan’s unique nationhood status would reshape the way I thought about development assistance as a strategic tool of foreign policy.
In the past month Taiwan has lost two more diplomatic allies who officially recognize the ROC government, bringing the total down to eighteen. Taiwan cannot compete with the PRC when it comes to offering substantial monetary investment packages to foreign governments. Therefore, in order to retain the favor of its mainly Central American and Pacific Island allies, Taiwan has sought to offer value-added development assistance programs tailored to the individual needs of its partners. Along with public health and business promotion programs, the governmental International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) carries out many agricultural knowledge extension projects that leverage Taiwan’s expertise in cultivating certain crops. For instance, many Pacific Island nations with which Taiwan maintains relations are plagued by high levels of obesity due to a lack of arable land suitable for fruits and vegetables. As a result, they are greatly dependent on food imports high in calories and low in nutrients. Taiwan has a long history of intensive farming that makes efficient use of finite land. ICDF knowledge extension programs focused on establishing the viability of nutritious crops, such as taro and certain rice varieties, have proven effective at diversifying local diets in Kiribati, Palau, and other nations with similar conditions.1
My peers in the international agricultural economics masters program at National Taiwan University mostly hail from nations with which Taiwan retains diplomatic ties. Soon after arriving, a few of these classmates and I attended a student-organized department barbeque, where we met many of our Taiwanese counterparts in the Chinese language agricultural economics masters program. Good barbeque and Taiwanese strawberry beer quickly bridged the gap between the parallel programs. Subsequent conversations over lunch and in the department library have brought many perspectives to discussions on Taiwan’s outward assistance, and how such engagement shapes country-to-country relationships.
The majority of students in my international program view the relationship Taiwan maintains with their home country positively. Favorable endorsements would seem to come as no surprise from students who more often than not are the beneficiaries of cultural exchange scholarships funded by the Taiwanese government. However, I have found their support for continued diplomatic ties goes deeper than a mere appreciation for personal gain.
One day in our shared office space, a friend of mine from Guatemala described a project Taiwan was conducting in his home province that aimed to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Unlike the other three Asian Tigers, whose main engines of growth were large native conglomerates (e.g. Samsung, HSBC, Trafigura, etc.), the backbone of Taiwan’s economic success was made up of an abundance of dynamic SMEs. These dispersed companies were highly specialized, took advantage of an extensive network of subcontractors, and had low fixed capital levels, allowing them to swiftly shift their production in response to changing consumer demand from overseas markets.2 In the eyes of my friend, small and medium-scale enterprises in Guatemala counter the destructive practices of large multinational agribusinesses that extract a torrent of profits, but leave only a trickle for domestic workers. In this way, a robust network of SMEs can act as a bulwark to shield local communities from an exploitative global trade system.
Another example of unique Taiwanese value for a friendly nation came not from a citizen of a diplomatic ally, but from my friend and language exchange partner from Malaysia. Her day job is as a freelance journalist writing on immigrant issues for an independent news outlet based in Taipei. One day, during a respite from my painful attempts at Mandarin chitchat, she described to me how her options for higher education were limited in her home country. She is part of an ethnic Chinese minority in Malaysia, and affirmative action laws there give priority for university seats to ethnic Malays. Though well intentioned, these laws push many bright Malaysians like her away to study abroad. Taiwan has extended a hand to this group, providing them with a world-class education and an opportunity to reconnect with their Chinese ancestry. A free press and strong democracy were also major draws for her, and she doubts she would have been accepted to the London School of Economics for graduate studies starting next year without the hospitable environment to both journalism and foreigners she found in Taiwan.
Though Malaysia does not maintain diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, the two seem to be growing closer as a result of the New Southbound Policy. Unveiled by Tsai Ing-wen’s government in 2016, it is a pillar of the administration’s foreign policy platform. By further opening business and trade channels, promoting agricultural and technical assistance programs, and expanding student exchanges, Taipei hopes to strengthen ties with eighteen South and Southeast Asian nations.3 I play soccer with a group of Indonesian classmates every week on our department team. While having lunch with them and a few Taiwanese teammates after a game, the older Taiwanese students observed that the number of foreign students at National Taiwan University has steadily increased over their three or four years, and in particular they perceive more are hailing from ASEAN nations. (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional cooperation framework of ten countries headquartered in Jakarta.) Indeed, from 2015 to 2016 NTU logged the largest uptick of foreign degree students in almost ten years, adding nearly 150 and bringing the total up to nearly 2,000, or 1 out of 15 students.4 Both my Indonesian and Taiwanese peers regarded this to be a positive trend. One of the Taiwanese stated that befriending Southeast Asians has made him feel almost as if Taiwan is a part of this eclectic and increasingly prominent regional community.
Practically all of the Taiwanese students and most ordinary citizens I encounter are excited to meet and speak with foreigners. Many express to me a sense of Taiwanese identity that they feel the rest of the world might not often hear about or recognize. They jump at the opportunity to show how welcoming and hospitable they are as a people. A classmate in the same program year as me from Burkina Faso and I experienced this hospitality recently while visiting traditional Hakka farms in the region of Miaoli. After lunch, he and I strayed from the group to do some exploring. It was not long before we were welcomed in by a farmer and his two helpers, who sat us down in a lean-to and offered us half their lunch of fresh guava and hard-boiled eggs. Even though our stomachs were full and despite our clear declinations in Chinese（我們吃了，吃飽了！）, dissuading them from giving up their meal proved impossible.
With the recent severing of ties between the government of Burkina Faso and Taiwan, this classmate’s future is uncertain. If he is unable to return next year to complete our masters program, he believes he will have the option to go and study in China. His main reservation about this prospect is the restrictive research environment foreign students often encounter at Chinese universities. A personal goal of mine when I began this journey was to keep an open mind about the PRC, even though I knew it would be hard to resist the inevitable sympathy for the Taiwanese plight I would take on just from living here. Painting with a broad brush when it comes to diverse and complex societies composed of individuals can be detrimental to one’s worldview, and should always be avoided. I hope in the future to spend time in the mainland forging friendships and experiencing this rich and fascinating culture, and since I have no personal reference for how mainlanders engage with foreigners beyond the anecdotes of friends who have visited China, I make a point to reserve all judgment until this day comes.
Beijing’s approach to foreign assistance, however, is observable. It differs from that of Taipei in some stark ways. The Chinese government’s investments overseas often involve large-scale infrastructure projects that are financed by Chinese banks, use Chinese construction companies, and, in the case of projects pertaining to the One Belt One Road initiative, often directly serve Chinese interests in their objective to secure access to scarce resources vital for sustained growth. The Chinese frame their foreign engagement as win-win, contending that their model has the potential to unlock rapid economic growth across the developing world. The sheer scale of these projects supports this logic. When compared to the underwhelming track record of aid initiatives from the UN and Western governments going back decades, the readiness of poor nations to jump on the Chinese gravy train is understandable. However, the lack of transparency of the Chinese government in disclosing data on official development assistance (ODA) and other flows of funding raise legitimate concerns about accountability and questions of who stands to benefit most from these transactions.
Taiwan has proven its competence in providing value to official and unofficial partners through foreign assistance projects, and offers a high degree of support in the implementation and follow-through of overseas programs. On a personal level, all of the positive interactions between Taiwanese and foreigners I witness daily have left me with a favorable impression of how the people of this island engage with the rest of the world. This impressive society has much to offer, and the global community stands to benefit from bringing them more into the fray. Until then, it is remarkably admirable that a self-governed state deprived of recognition by the world remains committed to assisting nations in need.
Managing Editor: Carolyn Ho
1 Regional Projects: Asia-Pacific. Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund. 2017. Web.
2 Levy, Brian. Transactions Costs, the Size of Firms, and Industrial Policy: Lessons from a Comparative Case Study of the Footwear Industry in Korea and Taiwan. Journal of Development Economics. 1991.
3 Funaiole, Mathew P. The New Southbound Policy: Deepening Taiwan’s Regional Integration. The Center for Strategic and International Studies. 2018.
4 Annual Statistics Report. National Taiwan University. 2015. <http://acct2016.cc.ntu.edu.tw/final-e.html>