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Taiwan's 'alliance of shared values' and Nicaragua

(MOFA photo)

(MOFA photo)

In President Tsai’s first inaugural speech in 2016 she stated:

“Taiwan has been a model citizen in global civil society. Since our democratization, we have persisted in upholding the universal values of peace, freedom, democracy, and human rights. It is with this spirit that we join the alliance of shared values and concerns for global issues. We will continue to deepen our relationships with friendly democracies, including the United States, Japan, and Europe, to advance multifaceted cooperation on the basis of shared values.”

This seemed mildly optimistic and drew little notice at the time, as most of the world was still holding Taiwan at an arm’s length for fear of “angering China.” Today, it sounds prescient.

As a former diplomat, the president clearly carefully thought through how she wanted Taiwan presented on the world stage. She surrounded herself with spokespeople and diplomats — especially Foreign Minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) — who understood, agreed with, and could clearly articulate this image of Taiwan. It was well-received in diplomatic circles but, early on, produced few concrete results.

How much the president could see how things would play out is unclear, but “the United States, Japan, and Europe” and others, such as Australia, have in just the last couple of years dramatically shifted their diplomatic stances toward what sounds very much like Tsai’s inaugural speech — culminating in the U.S. president’s Summit for Democracy last week, to which Taiwan was invited (though not all went well).

Internationally, growing anti-democratic movements, backsliding by more democracies into authoritarianism, the growing aggressiveness of Russia, and the deepening of the Russian-Chinese relationship have raised alarms, but none have raised so many in recent years as the rise of authoritarian China.

It was a long time coming, considering the list of Beijing's bad behavior: the crushing of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the increasingly obvious genocide and forced labor facing Uyghurs and other minorities, increasing domestic repression and the rise of the surveillance state, heightened belligerence along its borders (including shedding blood on the Indian-Chinese Line of Actual Control), revelations of Chinese systematic undermining of democratic institutions worldwide, money diplomacy disrupting and destabilizing governments, widespread industrial espionage, a staggeringly rapid military expansion and openly hostile “wolf-warrior” diplomacy.

Taiwan’s diplomatic stance was perfectly placed to accommodate this widespread shift in perceptions and highlight the nation’s “front line of democracy” status at the receiving end of an unwanted gray-zone conflict launched by Beijing. President Tsai stated this explicitly on Twitter on Oct. 13: “#Taiwan stands on democracy's first line of defense in the face of increasing threats from authoritarian actors. We will not give in, and will continue working with our democratic partners across the world to enhance our collective resilience.” In just the last few weeks, she has played host to multiple delegations of lawmakers from the U.S., EU, and various European states, and the nation secured an invitation to the inaugural Summit for Democracy. Any of these diplomatic accomplishments would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

President Tsai’s diplomatic background provides her with focus and discipline in her messaging, and she has taken the lead as a champion of democracy and human rights. In the same tweet referenced above, she included a video in which she stated that Taiwan will share its experience countering China's tactics and keep coordinating with "like-minded countries to safeguard the liberal democratic world order." She added that Taiwan will join others in tackling the "unprecedented challenges from authoritarian regimes."

Unfortunately, at times the president has been boxed in by another consideration: holding on to Taiwan’s dwindling diplomatic partners that keep its foot in the door in many international settings and that, in the eyes of some, provide some legitimacy as an internationally recognized independent nation-state. This has at times been at odds with “safeguarding liberal democracy” and challenging authoritarian regimes. An uncomfortable case in point was Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has orchestrated a backslide from democracy to authoritarianism. In 2018, protests erupted and the government responded brutally, leaving dozens dead, hundreds injured, and media outlets arbitrarily shut down. In November Ortega was re-elected in an election many countries labeled a “sham” after he jailed seven of his leading opponents. After criticism from the EU — whose parliament recently sent a friendly delegation to Taiwan — Ortega attacked the bloc, saying “The European Union has a parliament whose majority are fascists, Nazis." As for the pro-Taiwan Americans criticizing him over jailing opponents, he commented: “Those who are in prison are the sons of the b---h of Yankee imperialism.”

Nicaragua cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan on Dec. 9. That the ostensibly leftist and authoritarian Ortega, already under heavy pressure from the United States, abandoned Taiwan for ostensibly leftist and authoritarian China shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Indeed, he had already switched ties to Beijing during an earlier stint as president in 1985, only for ties to be restored under a more right-wing president in 1990. With diminishing returns from their deteriorating relationship with the US, it made sense to turn to Beijing for increased investment.

For the Tsai administration, this is a mixed bag. Taiwan has lost eight diplomatic partners during her term and a half in office, a fact which both the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party are keen to exploit. This loss increased pressure on Foreign Minister Wu to resign, a call the president rejected.

However, the loss of Nicaragua releases the administration from the contradictory position of being both a supporter of human rights and democracy and a friend to the Ortega regime. This is neatly encapsulated in a tweet from the foreign ministry: “It’s with great regret we end diplomatic ties with Nicaragua. Long-standing friendship & successful cooperation benefiting the people of both countries were disregarded by the Ortega government. Taiwan remains unbowed & will continue as a force for good in the world.”

Defending diplomatic relations with this autocratic regime was costly, not only in terms of undermining the basic diplomatic image Taiwan is projecting as a “force for good” but also financially: Following the 2018 protests and during the international backlash, Taiwan loaned the Nicaraguan government US$100 million. Taiwan, defender of democracy, is no longer tied to a human rights catastrophe (though it remains tied to, for example, Eswatini).

In practical terms, the impact is limited. Trade between the two nations is relatively small. The public has long since grown used to losing diplomatic partners, and it evokes relatively little discussion or electoral impact. More blame the PRC side than the Tsai administration. Concerns remain about Nicaraguans in Taiwan, especially students who in past have been collateral damage in lost scholarships, but at least one institution is stepping up to support their students.

In spite of the downsides to the loss of a diplomatic partner, this will make it easier for Taiwan to claim to be part of an “alliance of shared values,” which may be more beneficial in the long run.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report ( and former chairman of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.

Updated : 2022-05-28 19:51 GMT+08:00