Taiwan’s global prominence grows in 2021

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By Lev Nachman, Harvard University

Taiwan is living in an unprecedented time. At the end of 2020, it was still one of the few places in the world not ravaged by COVID-19. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government enjoyed broad support, but people were nervous about the transition of power in the United States from former US president Donald Trump to Joe Biden and how the transition could impact Taiwan.

In 2021, Taiwan was finally hit with COVID-19 but it recovered back to normalcy shortly thereafter. Tsai’s public support took a hit along with the COVID-19 spike, but her support remains strong overall. The United States transitioned to president Biden and the US–Taiwan relationship has never been stronger.

At present, Taiwan is arguably in the strongest position it has been for decades. But it is much more than just enjoying ‘rock solid’ support from the United States. More countries see Taiwan as a legitimate world player. In the last number of months, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland and Estonia all began to increase their (still informal) ties with Taiwan despite anger from China.

Yet it is no secret that much of Taiwan’s newfound international favour is to a degree an effect of souring US–China relations. Contention over the structure of the global order has created an opening for Taiwan.

US–China rivalry has helped boost Taiwan’s international image and made Taiwan a sympathetic talking point for democracies around the world. But states proactively engaging with Taiwan must be cautious. Policy that increases uncertainty without accounting for Taiwan’s safety ultimately hurts Taiwan more than it helps.

The other challenge Taiwan faces is that China unfailingly retaliates when Taiwan increases its international status. In 2021, Chinese military threats reached new records – hundreds and hundreds of Chinese jets flew into Taiwan’s Air Identification Zone in response to Taiwan’s growing international diplomatic interactions. The faster Taiwan gains international legitimacy, the faster instability and uncertainty in the Taiwan Strait increases. In 2022, the challenge for the Tsai administration – and all of Taiwan’s new democratic allies – is to find a balance to help Taiwan in a way that creates meaningful change without increasing the likelihood of war with China.

Yet the current state of events should not be overstated. Taiwan (as the Republic of China) is still formally unrecognised by most countries. It has not found its way into many international organisations and still faces a host of domestic challenges that no amount of international recognition will fix. It would be an exaggeration to say the status quo over Taiwan has changed, even if it is currently leaning in Taiwan’s favour.

Domestically, 2021 had ups and downs. When COVID-19 spiked in May, the popularity of all Taiwanese politicians and political parties took a hit. But now that COVID-19 has largely dissipated, domestic politics has been focussed on referendums and electoral recalls.

After a tense battle over four controversial referendums, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) successfully fought against the opposition Kuomintang to block all four referendums. The results not only halt the Kuomintang’s momentum to push back against the DPP’s popularity, but also shows the unreliability of referendums as a political tool for opposition parties to use as an attack against ruling parties. But the Kuomintang continues to use recalls against pan-green politicians as a political tool, some of which have passed and more will be voted upon in the upcoming year.

One of the most heated referendums over ractopamine treated pork’s failure to pass also creates an opportunity for the DPP to further pursue bilateral trade with the United States, which will likely be pursued in the upcoming year.

These referendums and recalls matter in the lead up to 2022 because it will impact the local election strategies of all political parties. Local elections are often focussed on support over issues at the local level, but how the Taiwanese public views its political parties still carries weight. The 2022 elections will be a critical precursor to the 2024 presidential election when Tsai bows out as president.

There are also a host of political issues from 2020 that lasted through 2021. Low wages and high housing prices hurt Taiwan’s younger generation. COVID-19 highlighted Taiwan’s ongoing structural discrimination against Southeast Asian migrant workers and nothing has been done to get Taiwan off the US Labor Department’s 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. In 2021, online harassment against women legislators over fake sex videos became a national issue – highlighting Taiwan’s under-addressed problems with gender violence.

The range of attitudes on Taiwan’s year ahead range from nervous optimism to nervous pessimism. So long as US–China relations continue down their current tense road, Taiwan will stay in the headlines. The hope is that Taiwan and its allies are able to successfully navigate these uncharted waters.

Lev Nachman is a Hou Family Fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University and a Visiting Scholar in the School of Social Sciences, National Taiwan University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.

This article originally appeared on EastAsiaForum on December 31, 2021.  

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