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Research & Reflections

Taiwan’s Soft Power and Global Climate Change Initiatives


Taiwan’s Soft Power and Global Climate Change Initiatives

Source:Fulbright Taiwan

Despite being constrained by non-recognition as a sovereign state by the majority of the world’s states, Taiwan seeks to be a constructive member of the international community. The island nation only belongs to two intergovernmental organizations – WTO and APEC. Nevertheless, it has found a way to contribute on key issues of global concern through its soft power.



Taiwan’s Soft Power and Global Climate Change Initiatives

By Stacy Closson/Fulbright Taiwan
web only

(A defining feature of soft power is that it is non-coercive; the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.)

Taiwan strives to join the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a group of countries committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), even though it is not a member of the United Nations. Membership has many benefits: the sharing of best practices, technology, and finance to increase the share of renewable energy. Unfortunately, the People’s Republic of China blocks Taiwan’s membership, and the international community desperately needs Beijing, as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, to play a leading role in the process.

In lieu of membership, Taiwan may follow a less conventional path to achieve the same goals in the longer-term: using its soft power. In what areas has Taiwan gained a reputation for soft power, and how does this relate to climate change? What can Taiwan do short of UNFCCC membership?

Taiwan’s Soft Power 

Taiwan is known for disaster response, particularly search and rescue. In a speech to a Fulbright grantees research workshop in Taipei, then-President Ma recounted how Taiwan deployed a search and rescue team to Haiti and saved people from the rubble of an earthquake. Taiwan also provided Japan with emergency support after the Fukushima nuclear accident. 

Second, Taiwan is known for innovation and entrepreneurship. Taiwan built its economy and democracy on the back of advanced manufacturing. Recently, the US and Taiwanese governments signed a Global Cooperation and Training Framework making it a regional hub for training in leading areas of economic development. 

Third, Taiwan is known for conflict resolution. Following the East China Sea 1996 fisheries dispute around the Diaoyu Islands, Taiwan pursued peaceful means to resolve the discord. In April 2013, Taiwan and Japan concluded an agreement on fisheries. The Taiwanese government also negotiated the South China Sea Peace Initiative, which resolved a 40 year disagreement with the Philippines on fisheries.

Fourth, Taiwan promotes health as a human right.  Taiwan undertook heroic work to damper the SARS epidemic despite not being a member of the World Health Organization. Recently, the government donated $100 million to the Centers for Disease Control to respond to the Ebola virus outbreak. 

Soft Power in the New Green Economy 

The world is anxious for cases of countries in which three things thrive at the same time:  economic growth, a secure energy supply, and a clean environment. In emerging economies, growth has been associated with greater hydrocarbon use and consequential damage to the environment. Leading the way, European countries have sought a path to grow their economies while using less energy (through efficiency) and cleaner energy (through renewables). 

Taiwan can be a leader in this area by combining innovation and entrepreneurship to grow the economy with cleaner energy technology and more efficient manufacturing. If done successfully, this could help Taiwan tackle its overdependence on hydrocarbons.  

The island nation is 98% dependent on energy imports. This, combined with majority state-owned energy companies, stresses the budget. A planned nuclear phase out, an insufficient infrastructure for the import and distribution of natural gas, and inefficient financial frameworks to make sun and wind competitive with cheaper hydrocarbons remain obstacles. Most countries try to upgrade their energy efficiency and develop energy substitution technologies and emission-cutting technologies. Taiwan, however, lags behind its peers. 

Taiwan is also the world’s 29th biggest polluter out of almost 200 countries. Per capita, it is the world’s 7th largest emitter of CO2, emitting more carbon dioxide than South Korea or Japan. Coal-burning power plants make up 46% of the power supply, and this will grow with an accelerated nuclear phase out. As the economy grows, so too does the number of cars and buses, the majority burning oil. Efforts to displace oil in transport with natural gas, biofuels, or electric have been slow.  

Taiwan in the UNFCCC 

If, as many argue, the environment is a global common good, then, I would argue, Taiwan should have access to the UNFCCC process. This includes assistance in making adjustments to actual or expected climate impacts (adaptation); local, national or transnational financing from public and private entities (climate finance); incentives to lower emissions (mitigation); and frameworks for sharing technology.  

The UN considers Taiwan a province of the PRC and, as such, it follows that the UN should consider Taiwan bound by the PRC’s accession to UN conventions. However, the compliance mechanisms of these conventions often rely on individual members’ actions on trade sanctions or trade restrictions. 

Taiwan is a separate customs and trade region from the PRC, which has no control over Taiwan’s environmental policy and enforcement. Therefore, many of Taiwan’s major trade partners do not consider Taiwan bound by China’s accession to UN environmental conventions. In a panel at National Chengchi University, Mr. Jason Chien-Chen Lien, Deputy Director-General of the Department of Treaty and Legal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted that the Environmental Protection Agencies of Taiwan and the PRC concluded a Memorandum of Understanding to reduce air pollution. But the MOU was suspended due to the election results in early 2016.  

So – neither a member of the UNFCCC nor bound by the PRC accession –Taiwanese representatives, since 1991, have participated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change proceedings as a non-governmental organization called the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI).  

Taiwan sent a 100-person delegation to the pivotal conference of UN members in Paris in December 2015. The conference was to end with a new climate agreement to replace the expiring 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Taiwan’s Minister of the Environmental Protection Agency led the delegation for the first time, held bilateral talks, and co-hosted a side event with allies. Taiwan also participated in a parliamentary roundtable on green growth initiatives, and the French president visited Taiwan’s booth displaying technological innovation.    

Although not required, Taiwan submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions at UNFCCC: 50% reduction of GHG from Business-As-Usual by 2050, or 30% less than 2005 emissions levels. This is a higher target than countries with similarly sized economies. And it is one of the few countries that has encoded their commitments to carbon reduction in domestic law in the June 2015 Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Management Act. But as a non-member, it is not bound by the international community to uphold this commitment.

Alternatives to the UNFCCC

Short of UNFCCC membership, Taiwan can, as it has in other areas, pursue alternative avenues. There are IGOs where statehood is not a requirement. For example, the government could pursue observer status of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global network of lead scientists producing reports on climate change for the UN.   

Taiwan could also apply as a non-governmental organization to the Global Methane Initiative. The Project Network combines private sector entities, financial institutions, and other governmental and non-governments organizations interested in reducing and recovering from methane gas, an output of coal and trash combustion.  

In addition, Taiwan could join regional organizations. Within the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Program, the Group of Pacific islands is working to enhance the sustainable development of the region’s environment. The United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia are all members.  

Finally, Taiwan could commit to the necessary economic adjustments that will enable it to join two new trade agreements that could enhance energy and environmental security. These include ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – in which Taiwan could lead the way in creating regional natural gas trading hubs. The other is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which proposes to lift tariffs on green technology and other environmentally friendly trade promotion. 

Additional Reading

Taiwan Must Market Itself as a Global Steward of Green
Can Taiwan Transition to Electric Scooters?
Which Countries Recycle the Most?
Beijing’s New Battlefront: Enticing Taiwan with Culture

Original content can be found at the website of Fulbright Taiwan.

♦ Taiwan’s Soft Power and Global Climate Change Initiatives

(This article is reproduced with the kind permission from Stacy Closson. It presents the opinion or perspective of the original author, which does not represent the standpoint of CommonWealth Magazine.)

About Fulbright Taiwan

The Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Taiwan) is one of 49 bi-national/bilateral non-profit organizations established to administer the Fulbright educational exchange program. For more information on the grants see the Fulbright Taiwan website. Research & Reflections is an online publication of submissions from Fulbright Taiwan grant recipients. We hope that it can help fulfill the Fulbright Taiwan's mission of cross-cultural understanding and knowledge-generation. Read more at Research & Reflections.

About the author

Dr. Stacy Closson was an Assistant Professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky. She was a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at the Department of Diplomacy, National Chengchi University in Taipei from January to June 2016.  She is currently a Global Fellow with the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.