Taiwan | Railway diplomacy

A conversation with author and former diplomat Michael Reilly

Philip Anstrén

For the second installment of our series on Taiwan, we are joined by Michael Reilly. Michael is a senior fellow at the Taiwan Studies Program at the University of Nottingham. Previously, he was a British diplomat for more than 30 years and the director of the British Office in Taipei between 2005 and 2009. Michael is the author of Narrow Gauge Railways of Taiwan: Sugar, Shays and Toil, the second edition of which is due to be published later this year. In this interview, he discusses Taiwanese railway diplomacy.

Read the first piece in our Taiwan series, on why engagement with Taiwan matters.

The signing of the ‘sister railway agreement’ between the Alishan railway and the UK’s Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway was attended by the head of Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau and the British prime minister’s trade envoy to Taiwan, as well as the chairman of the W&LLR, all seen here on stage in Chiayi for the ceremony, 27 September 2017 (Image: Michael Reilly)

Philip: Michael, what is railway diplomacy?

Michael: Railway diplomacy means using railways, or anything involving railways, to achieve similar aims to conventional diplomacy. It’s pertinent to Taiwan for two reasons. First, Taiwan has formal governmental relations with only a handful of countries, most of them tiny, such as small islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, so it has to look for alternative ways of achieving its diplomatic objectives. Second, in the Alishan Forest Railway, based in Chiayi — which sits astride the Tropic of Cancer in central Taiwan — the country has what is without doubt one of the wonders of the global railway world — a major cultural asset.

Philip: Tell us more about the Alishan Forest Railway. Taiwan has been trying to get World Heritage status for it, right? Why hasn’t Taipei succeeded at this?

Michael: The Taiwanese are understandably proud of the Alishan Forest Railway, which is something of a national icon. Not only was it the highest railway line in Asia until China completed the railway line to Lhasa in Tibet in 2006, but it is also a considerable feat of engineering, rising from near sea level to over 2,400 meters in less than 70 kilometers. The only other railways in the world which compare with this are a handful in the Andes and one in India. Several other mountain railways around the world, in Switzerland, in India and elsewhere have been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. Understandably, Taiwan would like to see the Alishan Railway also granted this status. But nomination to the World Heritage list can only be done by State Parties that adhere to the World Heritage Convention. Therein lies the problem. Chinese opposition to Taiwanese membership of any international organizations, especially those within the UN umbrella, means that Taiwan is not an adherent to the convention and is unlikely to become one any time soon. To China, anything that might imply statehood or independent status for Taiwan is unacceptable, even matters of cultural heritage. UNESCO’s bureaucrats would argue that China could nominate the railway for World Heritage status if it so wished, but to Taiwanese that would be tantamount to ceding sovereignty to China.

Philip: So, how has Taiwan used railway diplomacy to compensate for these difficulties?

Michael: Taiwan has developed ‘sister railway relationships’ with similar railways in other countries. This effort started primarily as a marketing initiative with two narrow gauge railways in Japan, as a way of promoting the respective lines to tourists in both countries, through advertising, ticketing promotions, and so on. Initially, therefore, this was just between the railways concerned. Then, in 2016, a similar agreement was signed with Switzerland’s Matterhorn Gotthard Railway, but on this occasion, the premier and vice-minister for foreign affairs witnessed the signing, together with Switzerland’s representative in Taiwan. Since then, the Alishan Railway has signed two more agreements with railways in Europe, one in Wales and one in Slovakia, with a political or diplomatic presence at both ceremonies. Meanwhile, in late 2016, Taiwan concluded a government-level agreement with India on cooperation in railway heritage.

Zhushan station, 2451 metres above sea level, is the highest narrow gauge railway station in Asia (Image: Michael Reilly)

Philip: How do these agreements contribute to strengthening Taiwan’s international status?

Michael: First and foremost, they help raise awareness of Taiwan, not least as a tourist destination. For example, the Swiss railway is renowned for the world-famous Glacier Express, so this cooperation was an opportunity to bring the Alishan line to the attention of the global tourism market. And as more people become aware of Taiwan, they are less likely to accept at face value Chinese assertions that it is simply a “renegade province.” Secondly, these agreements help the Taiwan government show its populace that despite China’s determination to squeeze its international space, Taiwan is not forgotten or overlooked — that is very important psychologically. Third, they encourage the development of “people-to-people” links, which also help Taiwan combat its diplomatic isolation. For example, the Slovak line has sent engineers to Taiwan to help with assessing the feasibility of restoring derelict steam locomotives to working order. The partners benefit through publicity and exchanges of equipment, best practices, and ideas.

Philip: You yourself were involved in negotiating the agreement between Alishan Forest Railway and the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway in Wales. Tell us about that.

Michael: As it happens, we have two agreements with Taiwanese partners! By coincidence, I was visiting the Alishan Railway the day it hosted a delegation from Switzerland. That gave me an opportunity to learn more about it from the Swiss representative. A little while later, I met Lord Faulkner in Taipei, who is the British prime minister’s trade envoy to Taiwan and also president of the Heritage Railway Association in the UK, and suggested we do something similar but with a British railway. He made the initial approach to the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway (W&LLR), while I approached the Alishan line. Purely by coincidence, the following year I became company secretary of the W&LLR! We signed the agreement with the Alishan Railway in 2017, and a similar one with the Taiwan Sugar Corporation (TSC) in 2018, which is very active in preserving and raising awareness of Taiwan’s sugar industry heritage, including its railways. Under that agreement, we lent a locomotive to the TSC for the 2018 Sugar Culture Festival, which was a great success.

A special train for local schoolchildren, headed by one of the railway’s iconic American steam locomotives, and carrying the Slovak and Taiwan flags, at Chiayi on the occasion of the signing of an agreement with Slovakia’s Cierny Hron railway, Chiayi 5 December 2018 (Image: Michael Reilly)

Philip: Can railway diplomacy serve as a model for other types of cooperation with Taiwan?

Michael: Absolutely! There’s nothing unique or limited to railways in this. It does work well because of Taiwan’s growing interest in its own heritage and a widespread enthusiasm in Europe for heritage railways. But I see signs of it spreading into the broader area of industrial heritage generally. One advantage of ‘railway diplomacy’ is that in the heritage railway sector, there isn’t an international umbrella organization that seeks to set standards or coordinate the sector. If there was, China would doubtless try to block Taiwanese membership. That is the difficulty, too, of trying to extend this model into sporting cooperation, for example. But other areas offer scope for similar cooperation — bird watching, perhaps, or hiking. The key to success is to find a way of building links from the bottom up, not the top down.

Philip: Finally, tell us about your book!

Michael: Railways played a major role in Taiwan’s social and economic development in the twentieth century, just as they did in many other countries. But this fact remains surprisingly little known, and scarcely at all outside Taiwan itself. This is the more surprising as much of the initial equipment came from foreign suppliers, in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and elsewhere. The book, Narrow Gauge Railways of Taiwan: Sugar, Shays and Toil, is an attempt to present an overview of this role to a wider audience in the hope that it will encourage greater interest and awareness.

Philip Anstrén is an alumnus of Georgetown’s Master of Science of Foreign Service program and is on a Taiwan Fellowship, financed by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, Taipei.




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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