China’s escape: why Taiwan relies on indigenous diplomacy

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Ulung Lupiliyan fondly recalls his trip to Tahiti in 2018 – he spent 20 days island hopping and meeting other indigenous families like his in Taiwan.

But it wasn’t just self-interest that brought the graduate student abroad. The Taiwanese government helped pay for Lupiliyan’s visit to French Polynesia as part of a broader strategy to maintain the country’s presence on the international stage.

Why we wrote this

How does Taiwan, pinched diplomatically, maintain its presence on the world stage? In a creative but somewhat controversial strategy, the island relied on indigenous communities.

While China’s economic and political weight is growing, Taiwan’s is shrinking, and all but 15 countries have severed ties with the island in recent decades. Indigenous communities act as a lifeline of international relations; they are Taiwan’s sole representatives at the United Nations, and last month Taiwan made headlines as a founding member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Economic and Trade Cooperation Agreement. Government-sponsored cultural exchanges also helped expand and cement Taiwan’s influence in the Pacific.

Critics fear Taiwan is exploiting indigenous communities, but others say this diplomatic strategy is an opportunity for all Taiwanese to reconnect with the island’s history.

“Taiwanese society has a unique phenomenon: it doesn’t know exactly where its roots are,” says Yapasuyongu Poiconu, from the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan. “Indigenous diplomacy…is a form of soft diplomacy that relies on a personal basis with other people, a means of fostering mutual understanding.”

Taipei, Taiwan

Ulung Lupiliyan recalls feeling nervous as he stood in front of a classroom, more than 10,600 kilometers from his home, preparing to give a lecture to around 40 students from the University of Polynesia French on the island of Tahiti. It was fall 2018 and he was nearing the end of a 20-day trip from tropical island to tropical island, visiting indigenous communities, cultural centers and even a tattoo festival.

As he began giving presentations on contemporary indigenous issues in Taiwan, Mr. Lupiliyan’s anxiety dissipated. The students were curious about him and his people, and shocked by the similarities between their languages.

Mr. Lupiliyan left the class feeling more connected to the Polynesian people and culture, but it was not just personal interest that brought the graduate student to Tahiti. The Taiwanese government helped pay for the trip of Mr. Lupiliyan and 11 other members of the Paiwan people to French Polynesia as part of a broader strategy to maintain the country’s presence on the international stage.

Why we wrote this

How does Taiwan, pinched diplomatically, maintain its presence on the world stage? In a creative but somewhat controversial strategy, the island relied on indigenous communities.

Taiwan’s expulsion from the United Nations in 1971 ushered in a new era of growing diplomatic isolation, and all but 15 countries severed ties with the island as China’s economic and political weight grew, threatening the autonomy of Taiwan. Meanwhile, indigenous communities have become a lifeline of international relations; they are Taiwan’s sole representatives at the UN, and last month Taiwan made headlines as a founding member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Economic and Trade Cooperation Agreement, a first-of-its-kind multilateral trade agreement which includes countries like New Zealand and Canada. Cultural exchanges like Mr. Lupiliyan’s trip to Tahiti also help expand and cement Taiwan’s influence in the Pacific region.

Critics worry that the Republic of China – Taiwan’s official name – is exploiting its indigenous communities without necessarily improving their economic conditions or cultural well-being, but others say Taiwan has been forced to rely on its native heritage for the safety of all islanders.

“Taiwanese society has a unique phenomenon: it is not clear where its roots are,” says Yapasuyongu Poiconu, a member of the Tsou people and head of the comprehensive planning department of the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) of Taiwan, the highest indigenous institution. in the countryside. “Indigenous diplomacy is not a traditional diplomatic activity. It is a form of soft diplomacy that is built on a personal basis with other people, a way to foster mutual understanding.

Indigenous Taiwanese dance during an inauguration ceremony for President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan May 20, 2016. Assimilationist policies have wiped out many traditional ceremonies and art forms in Taiwan, but some argue that Indigenous diplomacy could pave the way for cultural revitalization.

Finding Taiwan’s Roots

While the majority of Taiwanese are descended from Han Chinese settlers who started coming to the island in the 17th century, people had been living in Taiwan for thousands of years before. Their descendants represent nearly 3% of the current population of the island, or about half a million people. There are 16 indigenous groups recognized by the government, the largest being the Friends, the Atayal and the Paiwan.

Indigenous communities were largely excluded from Taiwan’s rapid economic development in the 1980s and 1990s, and today surveys show that indigenous peoples are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to receive a higher education. In 2020, the average Indigenous person with paid employment earned 75% of the monthly salary of their non-Indigenous counterparts, according to a CIP report.

The cultural image is probably just as austere. UNESCO classifies at least five of Taiwan’s 16 native languages ​​as critically or severely endangered, with the rest described as vulnerable. This is the result of specific assimilationist policies pursued by the Japanese and then Chinese Nationalist Party, including the suppression of indigenous languages, restrictions on traditional ceremonies and rituals, and the encouragement of migration to urban areas away from their traditional lands.

An indigenous economic and social justice movement emerged in the 1990s as Taiwan democratized and began to move away from mainland China, paving the way for greater indigenous participation in state affairs. According to Poiconu, this shift has also coincided with the growing prominence of indigenous issues around the world.

At the same time, linguist Robert Blust’s “Out of Taiwan” theory—that Taiwan was the source of all Austronesian languages ​​stretching from Madagascar to Hawaii—was becoming popular. Huang Shu-mei, a professor at National Taiwan University in Taipei who studies indigenous heritage, says the idea “reoriented the imagined geography of Taiwan”, converting it from a society rooted in Chinese colonization to one in the great Pacific. The concept of a connected Austronesian people has since become the foundation of Taiwan’s indigenous diplomatic efforts. From 2002 to 2007, the CIP organized the Assembly of Austronesian Leaders, and in 2016 the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen established the Permanent Austronesian Forum. They have also invested in economic development and cultural exchange programs throughout the South Pacific.


THE SOURCE: Robert Andrew Blust, Encyclopedia Britannica

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

However, it is unclear whether this Austronesian identity really exists beyond Taiwan. Officials and exchange participants from other so-called Austronesian nations often don’t know what the term means and don’t even necessarily consider themselves “indigenous”, says Professor Huang.

“There is a tendency to extend language connections to other types of connections,” she says, adding that the “Taiwanese government has been more than happy to accept this misunderstanding as it can make its policies more effective.” .

What is clear is that Austronesian diplomacy has taken root in Taiwan, and the state benefits from using Taiwan’s unique heritage to secure its position in the region. But some argue that these efforts have little impact on the island’s indigenous communities.

A win-win strategy?

“I haven’t seen much development in Indigenous industry or commerce,” says Daniel Davies, a Ph.D. candidate in research on multiculturalism and Indigenous representation at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. , Taiwan. Given the inequalities in Taiwan’s workforce, Davies argues that indigenous families are less likely to directly benefit from international trade agreements like IPETCA. “They don’t have the luxury of thinking about these things,” he says.

Another tension inherent in Austronesian diplomacy is the contradiction between the use of indigenous identity to strengthen a state that has not yet undergone decolonization.

“The government today is still a colonial government,” says Mr. Lupiliyan, the Paiwan man who has participated in several government-sponsored exchange activities. “It is also true to some extent that the government uses the colonized to protect its international position.”

But he still believes that the main beneficiaries are Taiwan’s indigenous people.

Assimilation policies have wiped out many traditional ceremonies and art forms in Taiwan. Austronesian diplomacy offers a way for all Taiwanese to reconnect with the island’s history, and exchanges allow indigenous people to learn about cultures related to their own. “When we go abroad, these countries and their cultural activities provide a model for our own cultural revitalization,” he says.

Yet not all cultural exchanges are created equal – Mr Lupiliyan had been on several government-supported trips before the 2018 exchange to Tahiti, but says one was unique because it was planned entirely by the participants natives, all young Paiwanese from the Taimali Creek region in southeastern Taiwan. He says this experience helped him realize that indigenous peoples can use Austronesian diplomacy, rather than the state, to represent their communities, and “that we could have more autonomy at the local and community level.”

Done right, he says Austronesian diplomacy can offer a window into what it might be like to live in a society where Taiwan’s indigenous peoples have been “integrated” and are no longer a marginalized minority.

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