Taiwan | Building ties through citizen diplomacy

Philip Anstrén

In the latest installment of our series on engagement with Taiwan, Philip Anstrén analyzes the unofficial ties between Europe, Taiwan, and the United States, and looks at how innovative diplomatic initiatives, as well as different types of unorthodox diplomacy, can help strengthen ties with Taiwan. This week, he looks at citizen diplomacy.

Visitors at the Keelung Night Market, Taiwan (Image: Pixabay)

Diplomats are not just men and women in grey suits. Visitors to tropical islands can be, too.

Citizen diplomacy is the idea that individual members of society, through interpersonal contacts, can help strengthen ties between countries. Government-run academic exchange initiatives, such as the Fulbright Program, are one example. Global service organizations, like Rotary International and Children’s International Summer Villages, are another. But in the broadest sense, citizen diplomacy is just normal people working in one way or another to build connections and cultural relations across borders — sometimes without being aware that they are doing it.

Citizen diplomacy can be a uniquely powerful tool for promoting relations between the West and Taiwan in particular. Citizen diplomacy has this potential because it is decentralized and democratic, and since it leverages the vibrancy of civil society in the West and Taiwan. Western governments and people should take this to heart and promote citizen diplomacy with Taiwan.

To start with, it can proceed without the approval of central authorities. This is crucial, because, as explained in the first installment of this series, many governments are unwilling to speak clearly on Taiwan. Under such circumstances, citizen diplomats and their organizations can serve as moral tribunes for Taiwan. Groups like American Citizens for Taiwan and the Danish NGO Taiwan Corner monitor their own governments and call them out when they fail to engage Taiwan. By creating this kind of grassroots pressure for official action, such actors can be key to ensuring that state actors do not get to stay passive with respect to Taiwan.

Fear of Chinese retaliation is one reason why so many governments are reluctant to champion relations with Taiwan. Citizen diplomacy is one good way to get around this, because its decentralized nature makes it difficult to surveil. According to sources familiar with the matter, in Chinese embassies, it usually falls on a junior officer to monitor relations between the host country and Taiwan. It’s just not practicable for this official to keep track of the myriad initiatives that citizen diplomats can launch to strengthen ties with Taiwan.

Normally, citizen diplomacy consists of nothing more than the exercise of basic democratic rights: expression, movement, and assembly.

Likewise, trying to deter them all is impracticable. It’s also risky,because citizen diplomacy is an intrinsically democratic approach. Normally, citizen diplomacy consists of nothing more than the exercise of basic democratic rights: expression, movement, and assembly. Citizen diplomats use their freedom of expression to lobby parliamentarians and decision-makers, or to write articles advocating ties with Taiwan. They use their freedom of assembly to set up friendship associations and their freedom of movement to arrange exchange trips.

For this reason, punishing citizen diplomacy is often tantamount to interfering with democratic rights. In free countries, this is a red line, and doing so is likely to elicit both public backlash and official sanction. It has in my home country, Sweden, at least. There, the Chinese embassy has issued threatening press releases to bully citizen diplomats who support Taiwan. This and other similar instances have sparked outrage and led the Swedish government to reprimand the Chinese ambassador — creating diplomatic costs for China.

Citizen diplomacy also plays a positive democratic function: it helps create support for Taiwan’s plight. Citizen exchange programs, even tourism, help breed public familiarity with — and sympathy for — Taiwan. As more people become aware of Taiwan, they are less likely to buy assertions that the island nation is merely a province of China, or that the underdeveloped relations between Taiwan and the United States and the European Union are normal and acceptable. That, in turn, can help foster blocs of citizens inclined to hold governments to account on Taiwan.

Want to learn more about alternative forms of diplomacy with Taiwan? Check out Philip’s interview piece on railway diplomacy.

Citizen diplomats may also be able to help draw out the benefits of engagement in areas that governments are afraid to touch. Governments often limit themselves to trade and culture in their relations with Taiwan. Citizen diplomats and their organizations need not. Where European militaries and homeland security agencies dare not tread, for example, veterans’ associations and think tanks are free to discuss sensitive topics of mutual interest — like security or disinformation — with their counterparts in Taiwan.

Such actors are also often in a position to influence state actors. That’s partly for the obvious reason that they can publish policy briefs and reports. But it also stems from the fact that there are a lot of revolving doors between the think tank and public service world in Taiwan, the European Union, and the United States. Many official diplomats may later find themselves as citizen diplomats, too. For example, Michael Reilly, the former director of the British Office in Taipei whom we interviewed in the second instalment of this series, has made that transition. This highlights yet another channel through which citizen diplomacy can have real impact.

In the end, despite all its strengths and benefits, citizen diplomacy is no substitute for formal relations with Taiwan. Its decentralized nature means that it is not suited to creating institutionalized relationships, and its democratic aspect means that it is difficult to execute in a strategic and coherent way. For all the pressure that civil society organizations can bring to bear and input that think tanks can provide, governments ultimately call the shots when it comes to the overall thrust of relations with Taiwan.

Yet it should be clear that citizen diplomacy can be a powerful complement to official diplomacy toward Taiwan. In this sense, Western governments should have an interest in promoting it. To this end, the European Union and the United States should respectively allocate additional resources to Erasmus and Fulbright academic exchanges with Taiwan. EU governments should work to facilitate exchanges between European and Taiwanese experts by hosting events through the Global Training and Cooperation Framework, a U.S.-Taiwan-Japan trilateral forum. They should also be sure to defend citizen diplomats against Chinese bullying.

Another recurring theme is that citizen diplomacy can serve as a corrective to overly meek European policies towards Taiwan. For this reason, European civil society should pursue proactive citizen diplomacy in favor of relations with Taiwan. They should keep a wary eye out for government attempts to ignore Taiwan, and use their public voice to keep official actors accountable. European think tanks should strive to build strong partnerships with their counterparts in Taiwan. Too few of them have such agreements in place today. Finally, there is also space to build international civil society coalitions in favor of Taiwan.

European citizens should leverage their democratic rights to push for greater formal engagement between their governments and Taiwan. But to start with, they could go as tourists to the tropical island full of friendly people that is Taiwan.

There could be no easier — or more pleasant — way to start becoming a citizen diplomat than that.

Philip Anstrén is an alumnus of Georgetown’s Master of Science of Foreign Service program and was recently a Taiwan Fellow at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, Taipei.

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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit isd.georgetown.edu for more.

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