Written by Bruce Jacobs.

Taiwan’s foreign relations with the major nations of the world have essentially normalized. Even though these nations all have official “one China” policies, in fact they have “one China, one Taiwan” policies with substantial “representative offices” (i.e. embassies) in Taipei while Taiwan has substantial offices in their own countries. The overseas foreign affairs representatives in Taiwan are now all normal foreign service officers and have the rights of diplomats including diplomatic immunity, the diplomatic “bag”, and tax privileges. Similarly, Taiwan’s foreign affairs officials abroad also have similar privileges. In other words, most of the world’s important nations now treat Taiwan as a “middle power” in East Asia that has democratic politics, a population of 23 million people, a developed economy, considerable trade, and substantial military forces.

Australia very much fits this pattern. The first two Australian representatives in the upgraded Australian office in Taipei, Colin Heseltine and Sam Gerovich, were previously the number two in Australia’s Beijing embassy. This original pattern was broken with the appointment in 2001 of Frances Adamson (who is now Australia’s ambassador in Beijing), and none of Taiwan’s representatives since then has followed the original pattern of coming directly from Beijing. The current representative, Kevin Magee, previously served as Australia’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He clearly desired Taipei as his next post, an indication of the importance of the Taipei office to Australia’s foreign service. Under Mr Magee, Australia has changed the name of its Taipei post from the Australian Commerce and Industry Office (ACIO) to the Australian Office (AO).

Similarly, Taiwan has sent senior people to Australia as both “ambassadors” in Canberra and “consuls-general” in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. For example, the last three Taiwan ambassadors to Australia have been Timothy Yang 楊進添, who later served as ambassador to Indonesia as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs and who currently is Secretary-General of the Presidential Office; Gary Lin 林松煥, who later became Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and is currently ambassador to Norway; and Katherine Chang 張小月, who formerly was spokesperson and Vice-Minister of MOFA as well as the ambassador to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Vanessa Shih 史亞平, who was number two in Canberra, later became Director-General of the Government Information Office, ambassador to Singapore and is currently Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In terms of global trade, Australia is Taiwan’s fifteenth largest export market and Taiwan’s six largest source of imports, while Taiwan is Australia’s sixth largest export market and its fourteenth largest source of imports. Australia’s main exports to Taiwan are natural resources like coal, iron ore, aluminium and crude petroleum. Australia imports refined petroleum, telecom equipment and parts, motorcycles and bicycles, and computers from Taiwan. In addition, Australia is the fourth largest exporter of agricultural products to Taiwan. The two countries provide each other services totalling about $1 billion annually, with Australia providing about two-thirds of these services.[1] Such figures are not insubstantial for two middle powers, each of which also has very substantial trade and investment with large powers.

The development of the relationship between Taiwan and Australia has had bi-partisan support in both countries, though changes in the policies about what Taiwan is under President Ma Ying-jeou have confused policy-makers in Australia (and elsewhere). Under both Labor and Coalition governments in Australia, senior Taiwan officials have made quiet visits to Australia, though not when a senior Chinese visitor is in Australia. Under both Coalition and Labor governments, the number of Australian ministers visiting Taiwan declined, but the current Coalition government has promised to increase these ministerial visits.

These developments in Australia-Taiwan relations have occurred while China is still Australia’s leading trading partner in both exports and imports. At least part of the explanation for the good relations between Australia and Taiwan are their shared democratic values. Thus, Australia confidentially made clear that it would side with the United States in case of a war between the United States and China.[2]

In the past, the South Pacific was an area of conflict between Australia and Taiwan. Australia is particularly active in the South Pacific, advocating “good governance”, while Taiwan has had six diplomatic allies, who recognize Taiwan diplomatically, in the region. Australia felt that Taiwan “aid” money was increasing corruption in the South Pacific, but two factors have improved the situation. First, the tacit “diplomatic truce” 外交休兵 between China and Taiwan has meant that China and Taiwan no longer spend huge funds bidding for recognition from these small Pacific countries. Rather, the diplomatic truce has lowered Taiwan spending in the Pacific. Secondly, some sources (but not all) suggest that Taiwan has been included in South Pacific multi-lateral aid forums, an action which would increase Taiwan’s de facto diplomatic space.

Relations between Taiwan and Australia should continue quietly to improve as both sides learn more about the other. Such understanding is improved by increasing numbers of students studying in the other country as well as increasing numbers of young people combining travel and employment in the other country. Thus, for example, 36,000 young Taiwanese participated in Australia’s Working Holiday program. This number is the second highest after the United Kingdom and the second highest on a per capita basis after the Republic of Ireland. In sum, Australia and Taiwan are learning to respect each other as important, democratic Asia-Pacific middle powers.[3]

Bruce Jacobs is Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.


[1] For a good overview of economic relations between Taiwan and Australia, see here and here.

[2] This information became public with WikiLeaks.

[3] The locus classicus on Australia-Taiwan relations is Joel Atkinson, Australia and Taiwan: Bilateral Relations China, the United States, and the South Pacific (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013). An earlier work is J. Bruce Jacobs, “Australia’s Relationship with the Republic of China on Taiwan,” in Re-Orienting Australia-China Relation: 1972 to the Present; edited by Nicholas Thomas (Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 35-50. An important pioneering work is Gary Klintworth, Australia’s Taiwan Policy 1942-1992 (Canberra: Australian Foreign Policy Publications Programme, Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, 1993).