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Explaining Taiwanese Recognition in the Pacific

Author: Nathan Hotter


In 2019 both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, raising the question of why states choose to recognise Taiwan. This essay will find that the main determinant of whether a state recognises Taiwan is domestic political influences with primary reference to the Solomon Islands and Palau. Finding the answer to this question is necessary as a means to direct future research focus, especially on the two aforementioned recognition switches, to determine what specifically caused them. By finding the primary determinant the necessary scope of future research can be reduced and a theoretical framework for answering diplomatic recognition changes can be built.


This essay will first analyse direct domestic influences over the recognition position and how Taiwan in particular utilises these factors to build support, followed by an assessment of primarily international factors and whether these factors can answer the question of what determines Taiwan or China recognition. Generally the international factors fail to answer the question of why recognition switches occur, but they must still be studied to demonstrate the strength of the domestic political factors themselves.


Within the domestic political factors discussed this analysis shall focus on how aid fulfils domestic demands, particularly the immediate needs of the state, but also through the “purchasing” of politicians through various slush funds in the Solomon Islands. This will build an argument that the domestic missteps of Taiwan in regard to financing particular politicians came to be viewed as corrupt, having little effect on the strength of Taiwanese recognition with the domestic public, if not undermining their opinion of Taiwan. Furthermore, this failed to insulate Taiwan against a potential higher bidder for the loyalty of the particular politicians.


Palau on the other hand offers a strong counter view of how Taiwan effectively built domestic support by ensuring it’s actions were viewed as less corrupt and by focusing on real programs that developed parts of the state, rather than just funding individual politicians. Furthermore, the reinforcement of soft power links, from cultural similarities to saving individuals lives through medical assistance reinforced the positive perception Taiwan enjoys, at least within political circles.

From an international perspective this essay will consider international pressure, trip/summit diplomacy and trade. First, international pressure will be shown to have little effect and therefore irrelevant as a causative factor. Second, trip/summit diplomacy will be shown as one potential international factor, however, as an international factor it is more relevant from Taiwan’s side, the cost if you will for Pacific States. Finally, trade will be demonstrated as a preference determined by domestic factors in of itself and therefore simply a reinforcement of those very factors.


Liberal IR Theory


Within the context of domestic politics liberal international relations theory is particularly useful in this study to demonstrate how state preferences are formed. Hence, within the context of each factor the branches of republican, ideational and commercial liberalism[1] as identified by Andrew Moravcsik will be used to expand on the various explanations and clarify their position within theory. Using this theoretical framework at times will help demonstrate how the arguments within this piece connect to broader concepts and ideas. Liberal international relations theory is inherently designed as a possible explanatory factor for international choices and the policy of states and it would therefore be neglectful not to include it within the context of this analysis.


Moravcsik’s work focuses on how state institutions support specific individuals and groups in society, having an impact on who steers and influences policy[2]. The trade offs made by the state are influenced by a number of competing domestic factors[3]. Throughout this discussion the clarity of the various competing domestic factors will become clear, and how these can add up into the recognition choices made by Pacific States. The preferences of the Pacific States are “causally independent”[4] from other actors and therefore how Taiwan or China play to those preferences and meet them effectively determines recognition.


In brief, republican liberalism has a specific focus on how demands are turned into policy by the institutions and procedures of the state[5]. This means that not all societal actors will be represented equally.

Ideational liberalism focuses on the ideas of societal actors within the state about the concept of the state and the preferences those actors have[6]. Within this context ideas about democracy, or culture can be represented depending on the aforementioned republican institutions.


Finally, commercial liberalism analyses the preferences of commercial actors for economic gain[7]. In this manner the state pursues policy which reinforces the economic strength of those actors to grow the economy. All of these subsections of the theory are heavily interlinked, overall, it is often more constructive to consider each element together. For example the clear link between the commercial interest of the state and the idea to grow the economy to improve the wellbeing for those within it, for example, directly connect up. This theoretical framework will therefore have some relevance in explaining and clarifying individual domestic factors throughout the analysis.


Taiwan in the Pacific


Taiwanese recognition and influence across the Pacific is long-standing. Currently of the 15 states that recognise Taiwan four are in the Pacific: Palau, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu. The reality for Taiwan is that this diplomatic recognition is more important for the state than it is for any other country[8]. It is a matter of national security for Taiwan, as without diplomatic recognition its status in the world is slowly eroded and under threat from China. Hence, the amount of emphasis put on the importance of recognition is large. However, due to it’s importance the actions taken by Taiwan to receive recognition are not always in the best interests of those receiving support, or the long-term interests of Taiwan itself.

For some time there was a diplomatic truce in the Pacific under president Ma from the KMT in Taiwan, he pursued a “viable diplomacy”[9] framework where neither China or Taiwan would compete to take any more allies off each other. For some time this held, but with the election of Tsai Ing-wen this truce seems to have broken down, with China actively negotiating again to take allies from Taiwan, with Taiwan losing both Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. At the time the truce was initially pursued it was described as “wishful thinking by the Ma administration”[10], yet it held. Some states that considered turning to China were actually turned down by China in the midst of the truce, indicating reciprocity[11]. Furthermore, there was tentative hope as the truce was ongoing that it might hold[12]. However, Yang also stated the long term future of the truce remained uncertain[13]. With the increasing diplomatic competition between China and other actors around the world the truce has clearly fallen apart, with many contributing factors. The results have so far played out as expected with China able to outbid Taiwan.


With the loss of the truce it is important to establish what influences Pacific State decision making on the question of recognition. Then potential switches can be anticipated before they happen by the international community and any negative consequences can be foreseen.


Domestic Political Influences


One of the primary determining factors for the recognition of Taiwan are domestic political interests and demands. These factors are reinforced as a primary driver by Kabutaulaka, arguing that many western policy experts “do not acknowledge that Pacific Leaders are intelligent individuals actively making rational decisions that reflect national interests and complex domestic policies.”[14] With this in mind it is critical that the driving factors of domestic demands are taken seriously and explored in depth.


Republican liberalism focuses on how domestic demands are turned into policy decisions by the institutions of the state[15]. One of the key demands domestically across small Pacific Islands States are the immediate benefits to the family. Many people struggle on the poverty line and as Tobias Haque points out their immediate material incentives must be met[16]. These direct material incentives drive a strong need for aid and other support to the small island developing states in particular. These driving factors create ripe competition for aid flows across Pacific Islands, something China and Taiwan are quite happy to use as a primary bargaining chip with the institutions of the state.


Solomon Islands


In the Solomon Islands Taiwan was the only one to continue their aid programs amidst the civil unrest from 1999-2003[17]. Because of this factor Taiwan was hailed as “the only helper in Solomon Islands’ dark days” by the Solomon’s Governor General Sir Nathaniel Waena in 2005[18]. However, this continued aid has also come under intense international criticism from Australia and academics[19]. By financing the governments during this time many of the contributions ended up as peace payouts, directly in the hands of rebels and other groups[20]. This intense criticism is not unfounded, and many of the aid practices of Taiwan have had similar issues across their duration. Yet, the international criticism did not change the governments feelings about that contribution domestically, at least in the short term. This is an important factor to consider in the long-term stability of the Taiwan Solomon’s relationship and potentially part of the explanation for the intense conflict about the relationship we observe domestically today. By continuing to finance and support parties that may not necessarily be in the states best interest the long term negative effect on Taiwan’s image is able to grow, not just as a supporter of the state during “dark times” but as a contributor to said times. Separating the two in the minds of politicians and the people can be difficult as history leaves its mark.

A fundamental issue with Taiwan’s aid policy in the Solomons was the direct financing of politicians. This support included accusations of funding particular politicians campaigns[21] and direct stipends granted to all politicians in the Solomon parliament to be spent in their respective electorates[22]. This aid program again guaranteed short term support for Taiwan within the institutions of government in the Solomon Islands, as it created a cycle where politicians receive funds, spend those funds in their electorate and then get re-elected as Kabutaulaka argues[23]. Though on that point it would be remiss to mention the fact that there is very high political turnover in the Solomon Islands, with representatives often losing their seats[24]. Due to this high turnover it seems more reasonable to state that these funds provided directly by Taiwan do not necessarily increase re-election chances, but they do effectively buy-out politicians support for Taiwan the minute they arrive into office, a position reinforced by the late Ron Crocombe[25]. By influencing the domestic politics in this way Taiwan could guarantee short-term political support from members of parliament.


However, as time has shown support for Taiwan has not lasted in the Solomons. There appear to be many long term negatives to the strategy of stipends that undermine the idea in the long run. There are many allegations that funds provided by Taiwan have led to corruption[26]. These actions have been used by politicians to speak directly against Taiwan as the examples across 2006 of Tahanuku and Alfred Sasako former members of parliament speaking against Taiwan indicate. They used this as a rallying cry for supporters[27]. With such controversy in the political discussion it is no doubt over time citizens would grow weary of these issues and link them directly to Taiwan as a source of some of the troubles faced by the state and the Solomons fractured politics. Furthermore, this support simply builds relations with politicians but does not necessarily reinforce any measure of soft power with voters themselves, if not undermining that power. Taiwan can effectively buy out politicians and continue to do so but that purchasing power is simply that, purchasing power, up for renegotiation when larger economies such as China come along with more extensive offers.

As the Solomon’s logging industry grew it is also worth taking into account the growing contributions to politicians from other actors[28]. Logging in particular had grown substantially as a contribution to politicians funds from bribes and corruption[29] fundamentally lowering the value of the contributions Taiwan gave to politicians. By undermining that value it was no longer as effective as a means to buy the support of the institutions of the politic. Furthermore, the project proved so popular among MPs that by 2019 the regional development funds that Taiwan started were now contributed to primarily by the Solomon’s government itself, with 80% of the funds coming from the local government rather than Taiwan[30]. This further reduced the clout Taiwan had in the program which was further undermined in 2019 when Chinese officials said they would match Taiwanese contributions towards the funds[31]. In this manner China could overturn Taiwanese support by guaranteeing the minimum of what Taiwan already provided, while not having to worry about any other potential detriments in the action. These slush funds, seen as corrupt by civil society and a means of plundering the resources of the state[32] did nothing to improve Taiwan’s position in the Solomon’s and further contributed to perceptions of corruption in the state, creating a link between Taiwan and these sources of corruption. Jian Yang has reinforced how China has near bottomless pockets, and Taiwan’s are by no means comparable[33]. By relying on a strategy of influencing domestic politicians without considering other avenues of domestic support Taiwan failed to develop any assurance of long-term recognition from the Solomon Islands and left itself open to being outbid, with no real moral high ground to stand on.

One counterargument to this view is that the current domestic troubles in the Solomon’s due to the recognition switch are in fact an indicator of wider domestic support Taiwan did in fact manage to build. On September the 1st Daniel Suidani the premier of Malaita province (the most populous in the Solomons) announced they would be holding an independence referendum[34]. Suidani released a statement that “our conviction is that the … administration has become so obliged and indebted to China that it can no longer provide essential services to protect its citizens’ public health”[35]. However, from this statement it seems more apparent that the demands have been a response to the current COVID-19 crisis rather than an outpouring of domestic support for Taiwan. Furthermore, Malaita province is only home to approximately a third of the Solomon Islands population and can therefore not be considered fully representative of the internal views of the state by any means. In many ways the Taiwan-China struggle in this case is being used for leverage by local actors due to the diverse cultures and languages across the Solomons that are not entirely united. Conflict within the Solomon Islands has been a continual aspect of their political history, from the previously mentioned troubles in the late 90’s to early 2000’s or the riots in 2006[36]. There is a strong history of ethnic tension and cleavages in the Solomons that can be used by local politicians for support. This particular example of an independence referendum is therefore not an example of the domestic support Taiwan actually built, but more of an action by local politicians to shore up their own domestic support, with Taiwan being a handy tool to use. In this manner it is a domestic political factor, but it fails to be a concrete example of any domestic support Taiwan realistically built itself. That if the fundamental failing of Taiwan in this case.

Clearly Taiwan’s methods to build and hold support in the Solomons were fundamentally flawed and did little to create long-term stability in the relationship. As Kabutaulaka points out there were many moments of rockiness in the relationship when Taiwan was not forthcoming with funds[37]. By failing to create a comprehensive campaign to build domestic support at all levels Taiwan did not ensure its own stability and has also contributed to the current ongoing crisis in the Solomons with calls of independence. Some of Suidani’s statements reinforce the clear differences Taiwan has that it can use as purchase in reinforcing its soft power. Suidani is concerned about the impacts on democracy and freedom of religion the current recognition of China will have[38]. The unique position of Taiwan’s government is one of its strongest assets when aligning domestic interests in foreign states, yet this factor was neglected and instead Taiwan focused on dubious aid programs that left a negative stain on it’s image, which eventually led to the diplomatic switch occurring because Taiwan had no feasible means to outbid a higher offer. There were no other avenues of domestic support besides monetary funding available. These specific aid programs were a byproduct of the nature of Solomon Islands politics, but by directly buying into that system Taiwan did little to help itself or the Solomon’s as a whole, especially in the long-term.


Palau


Palau offers a stark divergence from the view of the Solomons. In many ways Palau is an example of how Taiwan can achieve the right settings to encourage recognition, again primarily at the domestic level. One of these primary influence factors that was effectively used was Taiwan’s soft power influence, the very thing its strategy undermined in the Solomons.


According to former President of Palau Kuniwo Nakamura, despite being courted by both parties he made the decision to recognise Taiwan in 1999. The main determining factors for him were, Taiwanese democracy, its status as an island nation, shared cultural similarities and its potential for economic partnership[39]. Of these reasons the majority relate to similarities in perspective and soft power arguments. It stands as an example of how domestic values can influence the decision to recognise Taiwan above simple monetary or trade policy. Nakamura goes on to say that these shared characteristics make a relationship with Taiwan easier to manage[40]. In 2007 ambassador Toribiong further reinforced these primary similarities, emphasising Taiwan being a small country, its democracy, respect for human rights and its economic position in the region[41]. Taken together these reasons present a concrete argument for recognition and build on the shared relationship Palau and Taiwan share, unlike the Solomons where the policy choices of Taiwan undermined any discussion of these shared values. By demonstrating to national leaders the similarities Taiwan offers, in this case Taiwan could strengthen and continue to maintain an effective relationship.


Furthermore, Taiwan’s aid projects in Palau are “small in scale, but rapid, flexible and responsive to the community needs”[42]. This responsive aid interlinked with the needs of domestic society allows Taiwan to grow its image with the domestic politic of the state. Furthermore, Taiwan offers technical cooperation across education, agriculture, aquaculture and medicine[43]. All these factors build a more positive view beyond providing direct funding to politicians who are seen as corrupt as was the case in the Solomon Islands. The differences in these two policies are very stark and offer a view of how Taiwan should focus its influences over small island states.


Taiwan is renowned for its health system, “characterised by good accessibility, comprehensive population coverage, short waiting times, low cost, and national data collection systems for planning and research”[44]. This has offered a unique resource with which Taiwan can build domestic support, especially from todays perspective. Palau has a number of growing medical challenges as outlined by the WHO, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity[45]. Taiwan is in a unique position to offer complex support to the smaller island state, support that the state simply does not have the domestic capacity for. Rebluud Kesolei, deputy chief of staff for Palau president Tommy Remengesau was saved after having a brain haemorrhage by being flown to Taiwan to receive lifesaving support[46]. These sorts of actions build a strong good will for Taiwan domestically. Of late Taiwan has been able to capitalise off it’s medical excellence by providing COVID-19 support and testing to Palau[47]. Amidst COVID-19 there is no doubt this support will be strongly appreciated and further build domestic favour for the recognition of Taiwan. By building up this domestic good-will Taiwan can rely on a strong ongoing relationship.


Beyond healthcare, the cultural connection of austronesian heritage has been regularly highlighted across events and actions by Taiwan[48]. Taiwan has contributed to funding of the Belau National Museum and the Ngarachamayong Cultural Center[49]. These concrete on the ground projects demonstrate a commitment to sharing cultural similarities and provide tangible observable benefits for the domestic population, projects which local government can also be proud of creating, demanding more such projects, creating an effective cycle of support. Cultural exchanges provide a way for Taiwan to broaden and strengthen soft power in the state[50], something that builds domestic support and good will for Taiwan. This in particular is one of the main clauses (6.4) of cooperation with Taiwan that arose from the Second Taiwan-Pacific Allies Summit: to set up a shared Austronesian cultural heritage office in Palau, with branches in all Taiwan’s allied states[51]. Taiwan in Palau has made a clear commitment to culture and it’s reinforcement.


It must be stressed how clearly this strategy diverges from the one utilised in the Solomon Islands and how that clear comparison demonstrates how Taiwan can maintain a relationship in the long run. The domestic political factors that influence support for Taiwan allowing recognition must be constantly and carefully managed. Mismanagement of the support can lead to clear repercussions and loss of recognition. The domestic political demands of Pacific Island states must be approached carefully and with long term constructive policies to maintain the relationship across successive governments, as has happened in Palau. The soft power of Taiwan has added a certain strength to the relationship that targeted funding of supporters and purchasing of politicians can not do on its own. Humanitarian diplomacy will help raise Taiwan’s soft power by sharing its outstanding medical capabilities and volunteers[52]. Domestic political demands have clearly led to this windfall in the relationship across multiple administrations. Sometimes the relationship has even strengthened after power transitions as is the case from Nakamura to Remengesau[53]. Even the politicians who have indicated a willingness to re-approach China have stated they do not want to change the official recognition status[54]. By building comprehensive domestic support on both sides of the aisles Taiwan has created a stable relationship in Palau.

The preference of Palau has been support of Taiwan due to the domestic influences filtering through the state, from aid demands, ideational perspectives on shared values to economic benefits. The domestic factors of the liberal IR theory work together to create a clear choice for Palau. The social identity[55] of Palau, especially in the political class, the one who wields power within the institutions of the state aligns with recognition of Taiwan.