Elections and China dominate Taiwan track II discussions

The recent presidential election and China's response to it were top of mind when Foundation track II delegates met with their Taiwanese counterparts in March. In this article, the Foundation's adviser (research and engagement) Caleb Hoyle reflects on five busy days in Taiwan connecting with Taiwanese academics and officials, including the annual roundtable discussions with Taiwan's Prospect Foundation.
Dr. Yau Jr Liu, Vice President, Taipei University of Marine Technology, speaks during the dialogue with the Prospect Foundation

Dr. Yau Jr Liu, vice president, Taipei University of Marine Technology, speaks during the dialogue with the Prospect Foundation

We arrived in Taipei a month and a half after Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) winning the presidency for a third consecutive term was still front of mind for those we met.

In addition to the day-long track II dialogue with the Prospect Foundation, we spent four busy days meeting with leading think tankers, academics, government advisors, journalists, and civil society workers.

Often misunderstood, track II diplomacy is also known as unofficial or informal diplomacy and allows for free and frank discussions between expert non-state actors.

With lower stakes and a less formal atmosphere than track I (official) diplomacy, track II makes it easier to explore sensitive issues.In a Taiwanese context, track II often has additional importance.

Our dialogue partners told us that Taiwan’s exclusion from many international fora makes track II a particularly valuable way for Taiwanese experts to form and strengthen relations with their counterparts from around the world.

Head of Delegation Pulotu Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i speaks during the dialogue with the Prospect Foundation

Foundation Trustee Pulotu Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i (speaking) led the Foundation's delegation

In our frequent discussions about Taiwan’s elections, there was consensus that China was deeply displeased that DPP candidate Lai Ching-te – seen by Beijing as a threat to its notion of the status quo – had won the presidency. This was said to be reflected in an increase in China's' grey zone' activities in, around, and above Taiwan. These efforts have included sending civilian boats into Taiwanese waters, disinformation campaigns and floating balloons over the island.

We were told that, for the foreseeable future, the likelihood of an improvement in cross-Strait relations was very low.

The DPP’s loss of its majority in the legislature Yuan was expected to severely impact President-elect Lai’s ability to advance his policy agenda, particularly in the areas of defence and foreign affairs.

Depending on the political leanings of our Taiwanese colleagues, the KMT were presented as either planning to obstruct the DPP for the sake of being disruptive or intending to act as a responsible check on executive power. Regardless of the ascribed motivations, legislative gridlock was presented as a real possibility.

Professor Michael Hsiao, Chairman of Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, looks through the last year's Perceptions of Asia report

Professor Michael Hsiao, chairman of Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, looks through last year's Perceptions of Asia report

Everyone we met spoke warmly of New Zealand-Taiwan relations. However, we heard from some that following the positivity of the comprehensive trade deal (ANZTEC) signed between New Zealand and Taiwan in 2013, there had been a loss of momentum in the relationship, with few major recent developments.

Our Taiwanese colleagues frequently discussed areas of future bilateral and multilateral cooperation, often in the context of the challenges that both New Zealand and Taiwan face as islands and democracies in an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region. There was particular interest in working with New Zealand to increase the economic and social resilience of Pacific Island nations.

We heard that New Zealand’s Pacific expertise is very highly regarded and seen as something that Taiwan should learn from. Similarly, efforts in New Zealand to revitalise Māori language and culture are seen as holding lessons for Taiwan as its government seeks to change how it engages with the island’s indigenous peoples.

A group photo of about 12 people posing on a building's outside deck with a large glass building behind them

The Asia New Zealand Foundation delegation and the Prospect Foundation at the end of their day-long dialogue

On a personal level, the visit to Taiwan – my first time on an offshore track II programme – was deeply rewarding.

Meeting face-to-face with people working on the most pressing issues facing Taiwan offered a degree of insight that is hard to obtain from afar. Further, as someone with a research interest in the relationship between media and democracy in Chinese-speaking communities, it was a privilege to speak with journalists about their role in Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.

After our return to New Zealand, the delegation reconvened to discuss our time in Taipei on the Asia Media Centre’s Asia Insight podcast. You can listen to this episode on the Asia Media Centre website or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Foundation's track II programme supports informal diplomacy with thinktanks in Asia on issues and challenges facing the region.