Can Taiwan emulate Singapore’s success on the international stage?

Singapore’s hosting of the Trump-Kim summit this week shows what Taiwan can achieve if it ditches its small-state mentality

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Kim (left) shakes hands with Trump (right).

Kim (left) shakes hands with Trump (right). (By Wikimedia Commons)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- Taiwan’s response to the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been as gushing as you would expect given it is a core foreign policy priority of Taiwan’s biggest ally.

Why the summit will not soften CCP claims over Taiwan

In a statement, MOFA referred to the summit as being ‘of great significance for the region’ and snuck in a little dig at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by noting that “Taiwan supports the efforts made by the U.S. and North Korea to reduce tensions through rational dialogue.”

The response of Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), contained similar hints aimed towards China. According to DDP spokesperson Johnny Lin (林琮盛), "President Tsai gave high marks to the Trump-Kim summit because the two sides were willing to put aside past hostilities and help ease tensions in Northeast Asia and on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue, which demonstrated a two-way effort to that end."

But while almost everyone in Taiwan would love to see the CCP drop its hostility towards Taiwan and engage in constructive and rational dialogue about the future of Sino-Taiwanese relations, few can see that happening any time soon.

The CCP has even gone so far as to explicitly reject the notion in the wake of the Trump-Kim summit. A spokesperson for the Taiwan Affair’s Office reiterated the flawed CCP claim that "Taiwan and the mainland both belong to one China, and relations across the Taiwan Strait are not state-to-state ties."

The Singapore model

So, with regular diplomacy seemingly off the table for the time being, what lessons can Taiwan learn from the summit. One answer is to look not at the two parties engaging in discussions, but rather the small country that hosted it.

The summit took place in Singapore, a city-state that punches well above its weight on the international stage. It is situated just off the Malaysian peninsula, is only 716 square kilometers in size, and has a population of just 5.94 million people.

In comparison, Taiwan is a substantially larger country, yet both economically and diplomatically Singapore continues to outperform Taiwan. For example, its per capita income is US$52,960, which is twice that of Taiwan.

A comparison between the two countries is not clear-cut. Singapore formally gained independence from the British in 1965 and has prospered since as a democratic parliamentary republic. In contrast, Taiwan was trapped under the military dictatorship of the KMT until the 1990’s. And while the Taiwanese economic miracle was underway before democracy was established, it was strictly on the terms of the authoritarian KMT regime.

Diplomatically, Singapore quickly learned that maintaining peace and stability in South-East Asia was key to both its national security and domestic economic growth. On this premise, Singapore has shown a willingness to engage with all countries in the region, regardless of any political or ideological differences they may have. This strategy has had the twin-benefits of enhancing Singapore’s rapid economic growth and diversification and also made it a crucial diplomatic player in the region.

Taiwan, in contrast, is hamstrung by the CCP, which continues to lay claim to sovereignty and prevent Taiwan’s participation in international bodies and political forums. Yet Taiwan still retains strong, albeit unofficial, diplomatic links to all the major international powers (barring China) and all of it regional neighbors and allies. But all too often, there is the sense that Taiwan is grateful for any small form of recognition rather than trying to be a strong regional voice.

The lessons for Taiwan to learn

When asked why Singapore was hosting the summit and footing the $15 million bill for it, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, "It gives us publicity. The fact that we have been chosen as the site of the meeting — we did not ask for it, but we were asked, and we agreed — says something about Singapore's relations with the parties, with America, with North Korea, also our standing in the international community."

In other words, for a relatively modest outlay, Singapore has seen the focus of the world turn towards it. The global descended in droves, its flag and map were on the pages of almost every newspaper and current affairs site in the world. And there was also no shortage of soft-articles looking at the resort that the summit took place in, the menu that Singapore was laying on, and the tourist attractions that Kim surprisingly chose to visit during his stay.

It is an enormous PR coup for the country. As well as pumping millions of dollars into the Singaporean economy, they have achieved the sort of coverage you would normally pay many millions more for, and also cemented their place as a diplomatic and political leader in the region.

This is by no means the first time such a meeting has been held in Singapore. On November 7th 2015, the then-Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) shook the hands of CCP leader Xi Jinping before holding a private meeting. This meeting was a historic first, although its likely intentions to influence the outcome of Taiwan’s imminent Presidential elections in favor of Ma backfired spectacularly.

But once again, Singapore was chosen as the location for this historic diplomatic event and reaped many of the benefits which, as it turned out, were not felt by either Taiwan or the CCP in the end.

Singapore is a small country, but it is a bold and confident one on the international stage. It has a clear focus, a determination, and a confidence that allows it to punch well above its weight. And as a result, the country, the economy, and ultimately the people all benefit.

In Taiwan, things are very different. Talk to almost every Taiwanese citizen about Taiwan’s role in the world and you are hit almost immediately with the ‘small-state’ mentality. There is a belief that Taiwan cannot achieve anything either because of China or without China. And sadly, this feeling is also notable at diplomatic and political levels too.

But Singapore proves this to be wrong. Their success proves that you do not have to be a big country to play a leading role on the international stage. Any state can achieve great things if they can develop a strategic vision, a will to succeed, and retain focus regardless of which political party is in power.

They are the example which Taiwan should be seeking to emulate. It won’t be easy, but the potential benefits of success are significant.

Time to ditch the small-state mentality

Taiwan needs to shake of its own self-doubt and convince its own people, and indeed its own politicians, that Taiwan is a great country and can be a success on the global state. It needs to shift the focus of its political agenda away from China and towards the rest of south-east Asia and beyond (This step is already underway with the Southbound Policy). And it needs to bring an end to hostile and petty party politics and have all its representatives working in the interests of the country rather than themselves and their parties.

Then, rather than bemoan cross-straits, it needs to see how Taiwan’s unique diplomatic position can be used to its advantage. For example, as a country which isn’t part of the UN, Taiwan is not bound by security council resolutions and can, therefore, have an open dialogue with rogue states around the world. This makes Taiwan uniquely placed to act as an intermediary between these countries and the western world and establish themselves as a valuable diplomatic player.

Taiwan’s global political situation is not ideal, but the reality is that it is not going to change any time soon. It is therefore down to the country’s politicians and diplomats to make the best of it. Singapore has shown the way. Now the challenge is for Taiwan to find its own path and attempt to reap the same rewards.