This text was co-written with Kuan-Ting Chen 陳冠廷 who is the Chief Executive Officer of Taiwan NextGen Foundation and Advisor to the Executive Yuan.
Until recently, Central America constituted a diplomatic center of gravity for Taiwan. Yet, the recent decision of the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), the parliamentary body of the Central American Integration system to expel Taiwan in favor of China further cemented the trend of Central American countries turning their backs on the Asian island nation. This March, Honduran president Xiomara Castro ended Tegucigalpa’s decades-long diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of ties with China, following a similar decision of the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua made in December last year. This leaves Taipei with only one formal diplomatic ally – Guatemala – in the region.
While Beijing embarked on a global quest to poach Taipei’s diplomatic allies, Taiwan’s withdrawal from the PARLACEN is particularly concerning given the importance of parliamentary diplomacy in the nation’s efforts to expand its international space. The participation of the Legislative Yuan in the works of the PARLACEN as permanent observer was conducive to the promotion of democratic norms and principles of good governance in the politically volatile region. U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and U.S. Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, acknowledged this special role of Taiwan and asserted that, “the presence of the CCP [in the PARLACEN] would make a mockery […] of the democratic aspirations of the people of its member countries.” Also beyond Central America, Taiwan relies on its connections with democratically elected representatives to establish its reputation as a reliable partner in the global system, committed to upholding the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
Flexibility is a key tenet of parliamentary diplomacy – in comparison to traditional diplomacy carried out by the executive branch, engagements between parliamentarians are generally subject to fewer limitations, and can help circumvent Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation. Importantly, legislatures around the world are an important source of support for Taiwan’s inclusion in multilateral formats, such as the World Health Assembly. For example, in July 2022 the Health Committee and the Foreign and European Union Affairs Committee of the Polish Senate unanimously passed a resolution advocating for Taiwan’s participation in the works of the World Health Organization. It is noteworthy that the passing of the resolution was also recommended by the executive branch, specifically the Ministry of Health. While Poland’s definition of its one-China policy is very conservative and recognizes the People’s Republic of China’s claims over Taiwan, the recommendation of the health ministry demonstrates that the initiative of the upper chamber of the Polish parliament had positive spillover effects on the perception of Taiwan by the executive branch.
Within the European Union, the European Parliament (EP) is one of the most Taiwan-friendly bodies and remains pivotal to the ongoing expansion of ties between Taipei and the 27-member bloc. In October 2021, with a pronounced majority of 580 to 26 votes, the European Parliament adopted its first-ever standalone report on Taiwan, and called for the pursuit of a comprehensive and enhanced partnership with the island nation. The document provided a strong foundation for expanding the EP’s engagement with Taiwan, including several visits of Members of the European Parliament to Taipei. Most recently, Taiwan saw the arrival of a seven-member cross-party delegation of MEPs from the EP Committee on Foreign Affairs in July. These interactions are not unidirectional. In June, Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) led a delegation to the EP and met with Vice-President Nicola Beer as well as many members of parliament. The EP strongly supports the expansion of cooperation between Taiwan and the EU in areas including supply chain resiliency, investment, cybersecurity, and technological innovation.
Parliamentary diplomacy is also conducive to institutionalizing informal albeit substantial relations between Taiwan and its global partners. The recent joint delegation of parliamentary foreign affairs committee chairs from the Baltic states–Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania–serves as an illustrative example. Following the establishment of the Taiwanese Representative Office in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in 2021, Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Riigikogu, spoke in favor of Taiwan’s government and its Estonian counterpart opening representative offices in each other’s capital to boost bilateral relations. While Taiwan currently manages its relations with Estonia through the representative office in Riga, Lithuania, exchanging representatives to Taipei and Tallinn could add momentum to economic and people-to-people exchanges between both countries.
Despite Taiwan’s exclusion from the PARLACEN, Taiwanese lawmakers and diplomats would be well advised to continue substantive engagement with legislatures around the world and cross-national, inter-parliamentary groups. The Taiwanese experience to date has successfully proven that the island nation can at least partially address its isolation by developing, engaging in and relying on parliamentary diplomacy. The Legislative Yuan embodies Taiwan’s democratic success story – a transition from an authoritarian state afflicted by one of the longest periods of martial law in modern history to a thriving democracy which proves that values of transparency, human rights, and rule of law can thrive also outside of the Western sociopolitical context. Therefore, the legislature is a strong source of Taiwan’s soft power, which is key to expanding the nation’s international space.
Marcin Jerzewski 葉皓勤 is the Head of Taiwan Office at the European Values Center for Security Policy and Research Fellow at Taiwan NextGen Foundation.
Kuan-Ting Chen 陳冠廷 is the Chief Executive Officer of Taiwan NextGen Foundation and Advisor to the Executive Yuan.