Taiwan’s tussle with China for Pacific island allies may have calmed but that hasn’t stopped the push for soft power in the region. Monocle visits Taipei’s embassy hub to discover there’s more than money at the heart of good relations.
For Minute Alapati Taupo to reach his new posting as Tuvalu’s ambassador to Taiwan, he had to embark on an epic journey across the Pacific Ocean. Just two flights a week leave his small, isolated country of 10,000 people, landing in the Fijian capital of Suva. From there it’s another short hop to Nadi, Fiji’s main international hub, and then either Seoul, Hong Kong or Brisbane, before finally flying on to Taipei. It may have been a long way but it was worth it, says Taupo.
Despite the travel hassles and logistical hurdles, Tuvalu had no qualms about opening an embassy in the mini-UN high rise in the Taipei suburbs that houses most of Taiwan’s 22 allies. It’s one of only a few foreign missions for the low-lying smattering of small islands and coral atolls. “Our Tuvalu people have been loyal to this country ever since we became friends,” Taupo says in a rather corporate-looking office that’s been brightened with traditional Tuvaluan weavings, shell necklaces and a miniature wooden canoe.
It certainly helps that Taiwan provides a cash grant to Tuvalu every year to spend on development projects – pre-approved by both governments – without a lot of red tape, Taupo says. “Our mandate here is to make sure we continue the strengthening of our bilateral ties,” he says. “We like Taiwan.”
What’s not to like? Tuvalu is Taiwan’s oldest ally in the Pacific – diplomatic relations date back to shortly after Tuvalu’s independence from Britain in 1978 – and benefited mightily during the heady “chequebook diplomacy” days when Taiwan and China paid handsomely to woo some of the world’s least developed states away from one another in a battle over diplomatic recognition.
In recent years, however, a calm has fallen over the South Pacific. In an effort to improve cross-Strait relations, Taiwan and China have abided by a diplomatic truce since 2008 and stopped pinching each other’s allies, even when they seek to jump sides. (Gambia tried to swing from Taiwan to China last November but Beijing coolly rejected its advances.) Apart from Australia and New Zealand, the Pacific is now evenly split, with six UN member island nations on each side. A few countries, such as Fiji, are even cosying up to both. Although Fiji recognises Beijing, it’s also on good terms with Taipei thanks to the ample funding it receives for medical and agricultural projects.
The détente has brought China and Taiwan closer economically but ironically, neither side has stopped writing cheques in the Pacific. No longer consumed by Taiwan’s diplomatic manoeuvrings, Beijing is thinking big: it’s offering hefty concessionary loans – including a recent package worth €750m – and building massive infrastructure projects in the Pacific to establish itself as a dominant regional power, much to the concern of the US and Australia.
Taiwan, meanwhile, is taking a softer approach. It has quietly strengthened its position among its allies by emphasising its bonds with the islands and focusing more attention on development issues. “Taiwan has certain real links – cultural, ethnic, diplomatic – with the Pacific,” says Fabrizio Bozzato, an Italian academic at Taiwan’s Tamkang University who specialises in Pacific Islands affairs. “It’s increasingly looking south. In the past it used to look just east and west.”
Cultural exchanges emphasising the connections between the South Pacific and Taiwan’s aboriginal communities are now a frequent occurrence, such as a recent indigenous culture workshop involving officials from six Pacific nations and an event to celebrate the Amis aboriginal tribe’s annual harvest. Another key move was Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s decision to reform the country’s foreign-aid programme to make it more transparent, streamlined and effective. This has started to pay dividends with Taiwan’s Pacific allies.
At the new Kiribati embassy in Taipei, which also opened last year in an office tower downtown, ambassador Teekoa Iuta ticks off the numerous projects Taiwan has brought to her country since Kiribati switched allegiance from China a decade ago. In August, Iuta says, she signed a deal for a €14m loan to upgrade the main international airport in the capital, Tarawa.
Agriculture, livestock and aqua-culture projects are helping to reduce Kiribati’s reliance on imported food. And there are now some 50 Kiribatian students enrolled at universities in Taiwan – nearly all on full scholarships provided by the government.
Even the embassy itself, lined with photos of turquoise Kiribatian waters and staffed by a one-woman do-it-all translator, secretary and accountant, would not have opened without some financial assistance from Taiwan. Kiribati has just two other permanent missions abroad – in Fiji and the UN. Having a foothold somewhere in Asia was vital, Iuta says. “We cannot afford to have embassies all over the world so we need to be strategic about where we are.”
And both Iuta and Taupo say Taipei has also been a leader on climate change – a grave concern for both vulnerable nations. Although Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation prevents it from sitting on international climate-change panels, it has provided €3.5m since 2010 to install nearly 50,000 solar lamps and street lights in the Pacific as part of a clean-energy drive. And Bozzato says a Taiwanese official has mooted the possibility of taking in environmental refugees or building artificial islands for the most threatened countries.
Kevin CK Wang, a Taiwan minister on home assignment, got a first-hand glimpse of the problem as the former chargés d’affaires to Tuvalu, one of few foreign diplomats in the country. “We don’t need the scientific evidence, we can use our eyes to see the sea level is rising, sometimes in front of my door,” he says. Such acknowledgments are encouraging, says Taupo, and not something he would expect from China, nor many other large nations for that matter.
Taiwan’s soft-power push is perhaps most notable on its university campuses, which are becoming increasingly multicultural. Taking a break after Mandarin class at the palm-fringed Fu Jen Catholic University outside Taipei is Nauruan student Damon Adeang, accepted into a five-year scholarship to study international affairs in Taiwan because he couldn’t continue his education on his distant island, home to just 9,500 people. He plans to return to Nauru, which has one of the highest emigration rates in the world and lacks local talent in the government and other professional fields. “Especially in law and justice,” says the strapping 22-year-old. “We usually have judges coming from Australia because not that many people pursue a career in law in our country.”
For now though, Adeang and his fellow Nauruan students are enjoying the quality of life in Taiwan. It’s much easier to organise a pick-up football match and take trips around Asia. In Nauru, he says, “there’s not much to do aside from working or school”. Apart from perhaps Mandarin classes, “living in Taiwan is way more fun”.