Written by Saša Istenič.
Despite their remoteness, many parallels can be drawn between Slovenia and Taiwan. Not merely within their democratization processes and profound political changes but also within the strenuous processes of national identity formation. Throughout history, the survival of the Slovene nation and Slovene-hood was precarious and similar to the experience of the Taiwanese, frequently labelled with words like “question” and “problem”. Notwithstanding the shared commonalities and anti-communist euphoria upon the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, maintaining friendship with Beijing has continued to be perceived as crucial for the newly elected Slovene government, both due to the necessity of Slovenia’s entry into the UN (where China’s vote was decisive in gaining recognition of Slovenia as an independent country), as well as economic interests. Therefore, Slovenia was swift in agreeing to the “one China” policy. In its joint communiqué on establishing diplomatic relations with China of May 1992, Slovenia “recognizes” that the government of the PRC is the sole legal government of China and “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China”.
The “one China policy” remains the major structural constraint on Taiwan-Slovenia relations, while China’s growing influence in international affairs continues to be a critical consideration in Slovenia’s foreign policy guidelines. Accordingly, Ljubljana avoids any risks that may damage its relationship with Beijing and confines its links with Taiwan to dialogue through semi-governmental channels, which are limited to the economic, scientific, educational, and cultural sectors. Among these, the economic and educational exchanges are the most fruitful. In 2013, with a bilateral trade volume of €56.218 million (€12.853 million of Slovenian exports to Taiwan and €43.365 million of Taiwanese exports to Slovenia), Taiwan was Slovenia’s fifth largest trading partner in East Asia. Although the trade figures are by no means insignificant, they cannot compete with Slovenia’s trade with China.
The promotion of relations between Slovenia and Taiwan is the responsibility of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Austria. Despite the absence of an institutionalised and formal relationship, the interactions between Taiwan and Slovenia are broad and multi-faceted and have reached high levels of collaboration. The main lobbying group for Taiwan in Slovenia is the Slovenia-Taiwan Friendship Association established in October 1997 as an initiative of the right-leaning Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). The Association has played a vital role in fostering political, economic and cultural exchanges between the two countries. In August 2009, Taiwan’s visibility in Slovenia expanded through the creation of the Taiwan Research Centre which has endeavoured to enhance relations by developing academic courses for University students, organizing activities related to Taiwan, and providing information on Taiwan-related events in Slovenia. The University of Ljubljana’s Department of Asian and African Studies has, since its establishment in 1995, included traditional Chinese characters as part of its sinology programme; while elementary and high schools which teach Chinese language likewise embrace both traditional and simplified characters. Slovenian students have been awarded scholarships from Taiwan’s Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs to study in Taiwan, while individual universities on the island offer subsidized language courses.
In addition to opportunities for students to learn about and visit Taiwan, tourism too acts as an engine that fosters understanding between Slovene and Taiwanese peoples and cultures. Ever since 2011, when the Taiwanese were allowed visa-free entry for 90 days into Slovenia and Croatia (and by now to almost all of the former Yugoslav states) – tour agencies were swift in attracting numerous Taiwanese visitors to this post-Yugoslav “war zone”. The most important initiator of people-to-people ties between Slovenia and Taiwan is the renowned Slovenian missionary and doctor, Janez Janež (Fan Fenglong 范鳳龍), who worked in Taiwan from 1952 to 1990. In 2007, Dr. Fan Fenglong Memorial Center was opened in the town of Lotung (羅東), and in 2013, the Taiwanese government posthumously decorated him for his humanitarian work. The doctor’s legacy remains as an important cultural and spiritual bond between Taiwan and Slovenia.
As for the political exchanges, although informal and low-key, they remain regular and stable. In line with the EU, Slovenia promotes Taiwan’s interests in the international arena. Last year, Slovenia supported Taiwan’s campaign to be an observer at the Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Taiwanese high-level delegations frequently meet with Slovenian counterparts. It goes without saying that such extremely sensitive levels of contacts require communication via informal channels, as well as a high degree of caution to avoid upsetting Slovenia’s formal diplomatic relationship with Beijing. To conclude, since there are no clear-cut rules governing Taiwan’s informal relations with Slovenia, as long as they keep within the boundaries of what Beijing will tolerate, their extent is subject to political and circumstantial considerations. Up to date, the government in Ljubljana has maintained as a low profile as possible in order to avoid any complications with her economically and politically more important partner, China. Nevertheless, Slovenia managed to nurture a solid and friendly relationship with Taiwan.
Saša Istenič, Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian and African Studies of the University of Ljubljana