Wed, 29 Nov 2023

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Visits to Taiwan by its official and unofficial allies are returning to pre-pandemic levels with increasingly high-level officials and parliamentarians visiting to strengthen ties and show diplomatic support.

While a wave of visits by U.S. legislators followed in the footsteps of a historic trip by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in early August, visitors from other countries such as Japan, Guatemala, Palau, and Tuvalu, and from Europe signal growing interest in Taiwan.

The visits also coincided with several days of Chinese military exercises around Taiwan's main island to protest Pelosi's visit, raising tensions to some of the highest levels seen since late 1995 and early 1996, when China test-fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait.

While some of these trips may have been planned months in advance, some commentators called the wave of trips the "Pelosi effect" -- as the Taiwan Strait heats up, officials are eager to show their support for Taiwan or, conversely, that they are tough on China.

Japan's conservative party ups its visits

Visits by Japanese politicians to Taiwan have increased since last year, said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, with most hailing from the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

Last summer, the LDP held its first interparty dialogue with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party on defense and other issues. Since then, there has been a "significant uptick" in visitors, Smith told VOA, including former LDP defense ministers.

Delegations of Japanese legislators also visited shortly before and after Pelosi's trip to Taiwan and several subsequent days of military exercises staged by China in protest. Smith said these politicians may have hoped to grab some of the spotlight as had their American counterparts.

"My sense is as the American congressional delegations are going one after the other after Pelosi, the Japanese decided they need to be in the communications as well and demonstrate their empathy or sympathy with Taiwanese democracy," Smith said.

Taiwan's security is also becoming a domestic concern in Japan, as a Chinese attack on Taiwan could quickly affect Japan's outlying islands such as Okinawa because of their proximity to Taiwan, said Eleanor Shiori Hughes, a Washington-based analyst who follows Taiwan and Japan. This was underlined in August when Chinese missiles landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone nearby, she said.

As the security of Japan's outlying islands becomes a domestic issue in Japan, media there reported in mid-August that Tokyo was considered building a civilian evacuation shelter off the southern island of Okinawa citing anonymous government officials.

In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, Taiwanese President President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a visit by French lawmakers led by French Senator Joel Guerriau at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, June 9, 2022. In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, Taiwanese President President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a visit by French lawmakers led by French Senator Joel Guerriau at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, June 9, 2022.

Europeans returning to pre-pandemic levels

Taiwan is a frequent destination for European visitors and trips are finally returning to their pre-pandemic levels, according to data compiled by China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, a Prague-based analysis group. Twelve European delegations have visited so far this year, including groups from France, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic between July and September -- around and just after Pelosi's trip to Taiwan.

Filip Šebok, China research fellow at the Czech Republic-based Association for International Affairs, said by email that while numbers are still returning to pre-pandemic levels, the tone of the trips has changed as "almost any delegation to Taiwan is now a political statement."

Higher-level officials have also started visiting, as well, which since 2020 have included members of the European Parliament with a political interest in Taiwan. Many European legislators have also expressed interest in Taiwan's world-famous semiconductor industry as the region tries to solidify their chip reserves amid a global shortage.

Recent trips include one made by Lithuanian Deputy Transport and Communications Minister Agne Vaiciukeviciute in the midst of Chinese military exercises in early August. While the trip was intended to discuss issues like electric buses, China sanctioned Vaiciukeviciute for the trip by suspending all types of exchange with her ministry and suspending all cooperation with LIthuania in the field of international road transport in its latest punitive measure against the tiny Baltic state for befriending Taiwan. China suspended imports from Lithuania last year to punish it for closer ties to Taiwan.

Marcin Jerzewski, head of the Taiwan office of the Center for European Values, said while these visits may be largely symbolic, they help Taiwan's soft power diplomacy in Europe.

'This is why MPs are important," Jerzewski told VOA. 'They can bring the story of Taiwan back to constituencies and strengthen the importance of Taiwan not only at the elite level but also among individuals and the electorate."

Treaty allies and Pacific security concerns

High-level visits by Taiwan's treaty allies, mostly small countries in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Latin America, have also trickled in despite recent tensions with China.

Over the past month, Taipei received visits from the Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Bucaro, Palauan Vice President J. Uduch Sengebau Senior, and Tuvaluan Prime Minister Kausea Natano.

Maintaining ties with even its last few allies is difficult because of pressure from Beijing, said Mihai Sora, a research fellow in the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia.

In 2019 Beijing snapped up two Pacific allies from Taiwan -- Kiribati and the Solomon Islands - thanks in parts to its deeper pockets.

"It's become increasingly difficult for Taiwan to be able to keep up with the bidding war against China for influence in the Pacific," Sora told VOA, with Beijing reportedly offering the Solomon Islands $500 million to cut ties with Taipei.

The issue has taken on a new dimension in the Pacific as China attempts to expand its naval presence and acquire logging, mining, and fishing rights, he said.

China's recent security pact with the Solomon Islands also caught countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States off guard, said Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Taiwan's relationship with its last four Pacific allies, Palau, Tuvalu, Naru and the Marshall Islands will be watched more closely by Washington and Canberra so that Beijing does not just marginalize Taiwan but also further expand its position in the Pacific, Harrison said.

Harrison told VOA it was important to watch which legislators have been visiting Taiwan as much as who has failed to visit so far. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited earlier this year, but no sitting Australian officials or legislators have followed in his wake.

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