In an effort to combat diplomatic isolation, Taiwan has admittedly adopted a number of creative initiatives. Among the most successful ones is parallel diplomacy or simply “paradiplomacy”. Utilising paradiplomacy, Taiwan has developed international ties and has been commended for its expertise in a variety of sectors. Yet, the influence of Mainland China continues to obstruct Taiwan’s efforts.
When it comes to international relations, the Republic of China (Taiwan) is a recognised innovator. Innovating stems, indeed, from the necessity to address its increasing diplomatic isolation. But a major avenue for cooperation and exchange with foreign countries seems underused: paradiplomacy, the relationships between local governments around the world. This article advocates for the development of partnerships at the subnational and people-to-people levels, not only as a remedy to counteract Taiwan’s international isolation but also as mutually beneficial cooperation to improve governance and address common challenges.
What is paradiplomacy?
City diplomacy, decentralised cooperation, subnational diplomacy, substate diplomacy, constituent diplomacy… The plethora of terms to designate the internationalisation of local governments illustrates how young the phenomenon is, as well as the diversity of existing practices. But paradiplomacy might be an all-encompassing label we can stick to. A contraction of “parallel diplomacy”, it can be defined as the engagement of subnational governments with one or more foreign “public authorities, non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations, cooperatives, private sector and informal sector” (UN-HABITAT & WACLAC, 2003). The ‘paradiplomacy toolkit’ notably includes partnerships with foreign entities (twinning agreements, Memoranda of Understanding), involvement in international networks and advocacy, support of international projects from local actors, international events, territorial branding, or the leveraging of diasporas (Grandi, 2020; UN-HABITAT & WACLAC, 2003).
Paradiplomacy is a recent but flourishing tool in the hands of local governments. One would predictably bring up the powerful Italian city-states, which were deeply engaged in international trade and diplomacy throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However, paradiplomacy in a contemporary understanding originates from the aftermath of the Second World War, when European cities sought to build people-to-people connections and lay the foundations for peace in the old continent. In the latter half century, owing to the threefold trend of globalisation, urbanisation and decentralisation, local governments emerged as key players in international relations.
Still, building legitimacy to act internationally has been challenging for local governments. Diplomacy had long been considered, in a Westphalian conception of the state, as the exclusive responsibility of central governments. Nevertheless, governments increasingly understand localities as potential allies for their foreign policy.
Taiwan’s paradiplomatic efforts to address international isolation
Since the retreat of the Republic of China to the island of Taiwan in 1949, its ‘international space’ has been gradually shrinking. Today, Taiwan has diplomatic relations with a mere 14 countries and is barred from joining most international organisations, beginning with the United Nations. The influential People’s Republic of China (PRC) exerts immense pressure on foreign countries and Taiwan itself to recognise its sovereignty over the latter.
Under such constraints, Taiwan had to innovate. The opening of missions, often labelled Taipei Representative Office or Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, provides Taiwan with de facto embassies. But the government has also leveraged alternative channels of connections, including think tank diplomacy, parliamentary diplomacy, forum diplomacy, and paradiplomacy.
In a recent article, Newland (2022) shows that the Taiwanese government aimed to develop paradiplomatic ties with the United States, arguably its most important relationship, for three main purposes. First, to counterbalance potential fragilities in state-level relations. Second, to nurture long-term relationships with mounting political figures; and third, to assert “Taiwan’s statehood by showing others that it acts like a state” (Newland, 2022, p. 3). The US is overrepresented in Taiwan’s paradiplomatic relations: 131 out of its 250 sister cities’ agreements are with an American counterpart. An estimated 98 per cent of US-Taiwan subnational ties were launched after ROC’s ejection from the United Nations when its “standing in the international community began to substantially weaken” (Newland, 2022, p. 12). Similarly, subnational ties have also been critical for upholding economic and social relations with Japan after the diplomatic rupture in 1972 (Thomas & Williams, 2017).
Although the Taiwanese government is cognisant of the benefits of paradiplomacy and has sometimes supported the establishment of partnerships, it does not necessarily play an active role in its formation and execution. As in most democratic systems, paradiplomacy remains largely independent from national diplomacy and can even be at odds with the latter. To be sure, it is even more fruitful when it is citizen-led. The Yilan Sister City Corporation found that limiting the role of public authorities has fuelled an “explosion in the vitality of sister city relationships with Taiwan” (Wappel, 2021). Hung-bin Ding, President of the Taiwan Sister Cities organisation, also observed that genuine people-to-people connections “cannot easily be ended or overthrown by whoever the next mayor is” (Wappel, 2021).
Beyond geopolitics: The manifold benefits of paradiplomacy
Expanding Taiwan’s international space is not the sole motivation. Not only Taiwan draws a variety of benefits from paradiplomacy, but it also has much to offer to localities across Europe and Asia. Paradiplomacy is, by nature, mutually beneficial.
Paradiplomacy is a channel for the mutual exchange of expertise, technical competencies, and best practices to improve the performance of services at the local level (Grandi, 2020) and address global challenges. ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability is a leading network that gathers more than 2500 localities worldwide, and it selected Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan, to be one of its seven mentors. As a mentor, Kaohsiung had been tasked with partnering with other cities like Malé (Maldives) to share its “experience in drainage pipeline network management, waste disposal […] solar power development” (Shih, 2013), among other domains. Taiwanese cities have also been deeply engaged in cooperation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yilan sent COVID-19 protection equipment to its sister city Rockville (United States), which, in return, sent vaccines to the former. Taiwan also provides important assistance in disaster management, agriculture, and education, to name but a few.
Paradiplomacy is also a tool for increasing attractiveness and developing local economies. The opening of trade offices across Taiwan by many US states is a case in point. According to Pennsylvania state legislators, their trade office in Taiwan “facilitated 80 per cent of trade” between the two (Newland, 2022, p. 9).
Subnational relationships foster mutual understanding and cultural exchanges. For example, the Yilan-Rockville cooperation includes the organisation of an annual bubble tea festival in Rockville. In return, Yilan received a High School Jazz Band from the US for its 2019 International Arts Festival (Wappel, 2021). By the same token, the city of Corpus Christi (US) and Keelung (Taiwan) agreed on a student exchange programme between high schools (Diocese of Corpus Christi, 2018).
Despite these numerous benefits European and Asian localities could draw from partnering with Taiwanese ones, many remain reluctant to do so. Mainland China constitutes one of the key reasons.
The China factor: An impediment?
Paradiplomacy evolved into a venue for rivalry between Mainland China and Taiwan. The former has tried to include the “one-China principle” in city-to-city partnerships and sought to pressure several Western cities not to partner with Taiwan. The Yilan-Rockville sister city agreement, signed in 2019, has gone through a strenuous process. Newland (2022) found that two Rockville Sister Cities Corporation directors opposed the project, as they deemed it incompatible with the non-recognition of Taiwan by the federal government. The Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, has also employed “a variety of methods to encourage Rockville to abandon its plans” (Newland, 2022, p. 2). One would rightly wonder: Is partnering with a Taiwanese city in any way related to diplomatic recognition? The partnership was eventually set up, but China’s implicit or imagined threat of economic coercion continues to dissuade many European local governments from considering a partnership with Taiwan.
“Sister cities: an underused tool in Taiwan’s diplomacy”, as goes the conclusion of a conference co-organised by Taiwan NextGen Foundation and 9DASHLINE (Gibson, 2021). Not only could such partnerships be further leveraged by the Taiwanese government to expand its international space, but they could also pave the way for mutually beneficial cooperation in all sectors, from climate change to culture and trade. Even so, in Europe, localities have remained reluctant to engage with the island, often daunted by potential retaliation from mainland China.
The worsening image of China in Western public opinion (Silver et al., 2020), along with the increasing media coverage and positive perception of Taiwan over recent years (Bondaz, 2022), may, at least, contribute to a stronger interest in city-to-city and people-to-people partnerships between Taiwan and the rest of Eurasia.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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