Taiwan's Tech Prowess and City Diplomacy: Tools to Circumvent Taiwan's Isolation?

  • Date:2021-03-18

Blocked from government-to-government efforts to address global challenges, the cities of Taiwan must recognize the strategic value of city diplomacy as a tool to help Taiwan decrease its diplomatic isolation and be treated as a genuine partner on the international scene. Picture source: Louis Cheng, Unsplash, https://unsplash.com/photos/z6Qo89tJhWM

Prospects & Perspectives 2021 No. 11


Taiwan's Tech Prowess and City Diplomacy: Tools to Circumvent Taiwan's Isolation? 

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy
Research Fellow, The European Union Centre in Taiwan, National Taiwan University,
Affiliated Scholar, Political Science Department, Vrije Universiteit Brussel,
Head of associate network at 9dashline
March 16, 2021


      In 2020, while a global health crisis has affected every corner of the world forcing businesses to close, people to stay at home and work remotely, Taiwan successfully contained the spread of the virus and extended generous help abroad. Blocked by China, Taiwan has essentially confronted the pandemic alone by relying on technology, transparent digital governance and trust, and using memes to fight disinformation, rooted in a collaborative approach to society bound together through constant pressure, democratic values and a collective sense of care for the other. The world got to witness that the “Taiwan Model” works.

      As a result, the Taiwanese government and its people have won unprecedented praise as a model of excellence for ensuring that society enjoys a life steeped in normality despite minor social distancing, while the economy continues to grow. As such, on March 6 2020 Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, the same mayor who had overseen the signing of the Prague-Taipei sister city framework earlier the same year, thanked Taiwan for providing information on managing the virus, adding that the Czech government could learn from Taiwan’s experience.

     The question many across the globe are asking is what is at the core of Taiwan's success? In the framework of city diplomacy and the increasing capacity of cities to bring solutions to global problems, understanding how Taiwan, through city diplomacy, can use its leverage is therefore relevant.

Taiwan, A Role Model for Pandemic Management
       Despite its status that some have described as a geopolitical absurdity, amid the worst pandemic for a century, Taiwan has shined as a model thanks to its ability to skillfully repurpose its strategic assets to meet the challenge of a distinctly smaller foe. Taiwan's success in protecting the health of its citizens and its technological prowess have, in a mutually reinforcing way, contributed to positioning Taiwan toward the center stage both of the global technology drive and the region’s turbulent geopolitics.

      Taiwan has used artificial intelligence and big-data applications to integrate its national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database, while monitoring cell phones for contact tracing and enforcing quarantines. This comprehensive approach has enabled the government to avoid the dilemma that most developed economies did not manage to address, namely that of the well-being of the economy versus that of their people.

       Yet the challenge of an increasingly aggressive China will remain an issue for Taiwan, blocking it from participating in government-to-government cooperation. Therefore, becoming engaged in global sister city networks puts the cities of Taiwan into a strategic position. Cities can now increasingly act as actors in their own right as platforms to encourage innovation, while helping to develop people-to-people relations. Cities can also contribute to making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG Goal 11).

From Sister Cities to Global City Networks
      City diplomacy is not new to Taiwan. According to the Taipei City government website, Taipei has established ties with 51 sister cities across 37 countries. All these partnerships, as those established between other cities such as Kaohsiung, Taoyuan and others, need to adjust to a post-pandemic world so that they can become strategic platforms to promote Taiwan's international status. For example, the sister-city agreement linking Prague and Taipei includes cooperation in numerous fields, including technology and health care, as well as a smart city cooperation agreement. Likewise, in 2018, Taoyuan and Grenoble agreed to promote smart city development and cooperate in medicine, biotechnology, start-ups and technology.

       Yet, in order to maximize the benefit of city diplomacy, it is key to focus both on bilateral agreements and on international networks of local and regional governments, such as the World Organization of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the largest global network that seeks connecting cities in the spirit of SDGs. Taipei City is already an official member of UCLG and the United Cities and Local Governments Asia-Pacific (UCLG-ASPAC), Sister Cities International (SCI), the Asia Pacific Cities Summit (APCS), CITYNET, and the Global Social Economy Forum (GSEF). New Taipei City, Kaohsiung, Taichung City are all active members of UCLG-ASPAC. These networks all promote the role of cities, supporting them to leverage their strengths.

      Challenges for cities have certainly grown with the pandemic, suggesting the urgency to identify smart solutions that balance the use of technology with privacy protection and transparency. In this past year, Taiwan has demonstrated that with the right policies it is possible to achieve good outcomes for both GDP and COVID-19 mortality. Taiwan’s economy grew by 2.98 percent over 2020(a higher rate than that of China for the first time in 30 years) and, as of March 2021, Taiwan has recorded a total of ten deaths, a much lower rate compared with most countries.

Technology and Innovation – The Future of Cities
      Research shows that COVID-19 has impacted city governance across the globe, affecting urban planning and design, carrying significant environmental, socio-economic, transportation and governance implications. But while the pandemic has highlighted urban vulnerability to pandemics, research also suggests the pandemic brings an excellent opportunity for planners and policy-makers to take transformative action towards establishing cities that are more just, resilient and sustainable, as seen through teleworking, telemedicine, surveillance systems and online education.

       In this process, technology and innovation will remain central, including when it comes to adapting business operations to a remote-first culture through software, and platforms such as digital workspaces that enable working from virtually anywhere. A fierce global battle is emerging among a multitude of actors over how telecommunications, data, financial and other networks are built and governed, and how technical standards are set.

      While “data is the new oil” remains a valid statement, “semiconductors are the new oil” has today become more pertinent. As some observers have recently argued, the world is now dangerously dependent on Taiwan for semiconductors. Taiwan is home to the world’s largest contract chipmaker, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC, 台積電) along other Taiwanese companies dominating global electronic design and manufacturing.

       Taiwan’s technological prowess is therefore all the more relevant in urban planning and design when addressing the challenges that the pandemic has brought. Yet, while Taiwan’s innovative deployment of advanced technology helped contain the virus and ensure economic growth, challenges continue to exist in seeking to maintain innovation as a priority and ensure future health security.

Taiwan Start-Ups – Time to Scale-Up!
      Since the 1970s, a “brain circulation” of Taiwan-born, US-educated and -trained engineers and entrepreneurs with close ties to the American Silicon Valley, and other innovation hubs, has driven a wave of entrepreneurial growth in semiconductors, personal computers and other hardware-related industries in Taiwan. But despite its strong startup culture, internationalization has been a persistent challenge for Taiwan-based firms. To protect Taiwan's comparative advantage in innovation, better leveraging Taiwanese startups’ partnerships with international players through city diplomacy is vital.

       Both Taipei and Taoyuan should share their technology and health crisis management skills as assets with their sister cities, Prague and Grenoble, respectively. They should at the same time connect their start-up ecosystems more broadly with the global networks in which they are active members. Using the Smart City Summit and Expo in Taiwan as the biggest smart city platform in Asia, including a Smart City Mayors’ Summit, will also help Taiwan's export of smart city solutions.

       Given the European Commission's ambition to make Europe the most attractive start-up and scale-up continent, working with European sister cities will be mutually beneficial. For example, with France's startup scene on the rise, in September 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a €5 billion public-private investment fund aimed at helping young companies to scale up, and support increased with the pandemic. Cooperation between the Taiwan Tech Arena and La French Tech Taiwan is an excellent initiative to further connect start-up ecosystems and support Taiwanese start-ups to scale business across Europe.

       City diplomacy is a mutually beneficial effort. The government of President Tsai Ing-wen should therefore increase support for international partnerships between start-up ecosystems at home and abroad, seeking practical ways to share expertise in global networks. As new technologies carry great strategic and security implications, investing in technology on the one hand, and working with like-minded partners—and cities—on the other, will determine whether Taiwan can prosper at home and compete abroad. By capitalizing on the momentum of the “Taiwan Model,” city-to-city cooperation will help Taiwan strengthen ties with the international community and help decrease its isolation.Will China attack Pratas Island? The answer depends on two factors: the military and political goals China wants to achieve in the foreseeable future and whether attacking Pratas Island will fulfill those military and political goals at an affordable cost.


  • Update:2021-03-24