By I-wei Jennifer Chang
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) virtual leaders’ meetings held in November, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) envoy Morris Chang (張忠謀), the founder of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC, 台灣積體電路製造), was tasked with garnering support for the island’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
According to president Tsai, APEC is the most important international platform in which Taiwan currently participates, and her special envoy will seek APEC members’ endorsements for Taiwan’s CPTPP application at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. Using Taiwan’s official name at APEC, Chang stated that “Chinese Taipei plays an irreplaceable role in the global high-tech supply chain.” During the online meeting that was also attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), Chang further stated, “We also have a highly transparent market economy, and are able and willing to respect the CPTPP’s high standards.”
Over the past 20 years, Taiwan has leveraged its membership in APEC, the only intergovernmental organization to which it belongs, to contribute meaningfully on regional issues and to enhance its international visibility. Taiwan’s membership in APEC remains particularly relevant today as the island pursues accession into the CPTPP, and as China has sought to diminish Taipei’s participation in APEC amid the current downturn in cross-Strait relations.
Taiwan’s APEC membership and restrictions on Taiwan’s representation
APEC was established in 1989 and currently has 21 members, comprised of mostly regional states as well as the United States, Russia, and a few Latin American countries. Taiwan joined APEC as a full-member economy (not a sovereign country) under the name “Chinese Taipei” in 1991. After China joined the economic and trade cooperation forum in 1991, it signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with APEC that same year that admitted Taiwan and Hong Kong as regional economies under the names “Chinese Taipei” (中國台北, used by China; 中華台北, used by Taiwan) and “Hong Kong” (香港), respectively. Hong Kong’s name under APEC was changed to “Hong Kong, China” (中國香港) following its transfer back to Chinese rule in 1997.
According to the 1991 memorandum signed by China and APEC, Taiwan would be permitted to join APEC on the condition that Taipei could only send ministerial-level officials in charge of economic affairs to participate. Beijing argues that Taiwan’s foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers are not allowed to attend the APEC meetings under the MOU, a claim disputed by Taipei.
The institutional practice of also precluding Taiwanese presidents from attending APEC meetings has been informally referred to as the “Seattle Model” (西雅圖模式), after the United States rejected president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) request to join the first APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Seattle in 1993. Instead, minister of economic affairs Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) served as Lee’s representative at the Seattle meeting. Over the past two decades, Taiwanese presidents have been barred from participating in APEC leaders’ meetings, and they have dispatched lower-level representatives in their place.
Yet, Taipei has continually pushed back against such restrictions that prohibit high-level Taiwanese representation at APEC summits. For instance, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) expressed interest in attending the 2001 APEC summit in Shanghai in order to engage in a direct dialogue with Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民). However, Beijing rejected Chen’s personal request and also disapproved of Chen’s appointed special envoy, former Vice President Lee Yuan-tsu (李元簇). Beijing insisted that Taiwan could only send its economics minister to participate. Later, prior to the 2005 APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Busan, South Korea, Seoul objected to Chen’s petition to attend the summit and meet with Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
The South Korean government argued that because it does not view Taiwan as a sovereign state, it turned down Chen’s request to attend the APEC summit and later opposed Chen’s designated envoy, Legislative Yuan president Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), due to pressure from Beijing. The Chen Administration argued that Taiwan is a full member of APEC, has fulfilled its duties in the organization, and thus should enjoy the same rights as other APEC members.
Thus far, no Taiwanese president has been able to attend the APEC leadership meetings due to Chinese objections. president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had hoped to participate in the 2014 APEC summit in Beijing and to meet with president Xi but was rebuffed by Beijing, which reportedly did not consider the venue as “appropriate.” Furthermore, president Tsai dispatched People First Party (親民黨) leader James Soong (宋楚瑜) to the APEC meeting in Peru in 2016, where he met with president Xi.
Soong also served as the Taiwanese representative at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in 2017 in Vietnam, where he held informal talks with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines—despite Beijing’s warning to Tokyo against doing so. At the most recent APEC leaders’ meeting in November 2021, President Tsai appointed Morris Chang to represent her at APEC for the fourth time in her tenure; this was also Chang’s fifth time serving as Taiwan’s APEC representative, having also represented President Chen at the 2006 Vietnam APEC Summit.
Meetings with Chinese leaders
During periods of reduced cross-Strait tensions, there have been exceptions to Beijing’s objections to higher-level Taiwanese representation at the APEC meetings. During president Ma’s administration, two former vice presidents—Lien Chan (連戰) and Vincent Siew—represented Taiwan at APEC, and also held discussions with Chinese leaders outside the meeting. In 2010, Lien Chan, honorary chairman of the Kuomintang (國民黨), met with Hu Jintao at the APEC meeting in Yokohama, Japan. Later, during the 2013 APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia, Xi Jinping met with Taiwan’s special envoy Vincent Siew, who served as vice president during Ma’s first term from 2008-2012. Siew held another conversation with Xi on the sidelines of the 2015 APEC Summit, during which Siew called for expedited negotiations on the cross-Strait trade in goods agreement.
Therefore, the APEC platform has provided a unique convening ground for leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to meet their counterparts, enhance communication, and improve bilateral relations during periods of relative calm across the Strait.
Chinese pressure on Taiwan in APEC
On the other hand, during times of heightened cross-Strait tensions – particularly after Tsai became president – Beijing has attempted to put conditions on Taipei’s participation in APEC. In the lead-up to the 2020 APEC meeting, the Chinese foreign ministry commented that Taiwan’s participation in APEC as a regional economy under the “One-China Principle” (一個中國原則) is a “key political precondition.” On November 10, 2021, a few days before the convening of the online APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting hosted by New Zealand, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office (國台辦) spokesperson Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮) reiterated that Taiwan’s participation in APEC-related activities must be based on the “One-China Principle.”
Taipei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA, 中華民國外交部) hit back at Beijing’s claims, stating that “Taiwan enjoys the same status and has the same obligations as all members” and that there is no “One-China Principle” in the agreement allowing Taiwan’s participation in APEC.
Taiwan’s contributions to APEC
At a time when Taiwan is excluded from most international organizations, APEC has become a key international platform for the island democracy to apply its national comparative advantages in digital technology, public health, and other sectors, in order to make meaningful contributions on a wide range of regional and international issues. The scale of Taiwan’s participation in APEC is unparalleled compared to its role in any other intergovernmental organization. The government’s relevant departments have sent hundreds of personnel to attend APEC meetings each year.
Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has since scaled back some activities, Taiwanese officials attended more than 100 APEC meetings and hosted between 30 and 40 APEC activities annually, according to Chang Chien-yi (張建一), executive director of the Chinese Taipei APEC Study Center (CTASC, APEC 研究中心), an organization that works with Taiwanese government agencies to formulate and support APEC programming.
Each year, Taipei has hosted a multitude of APEC conferences and events on the island. The topics covered have included public health and disease prevention, energy security, food security, women’s empowerment, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and economic and digital innovation to strengthen the COVID-19 recovery. Such fora have also led to collaborations with other APEC members, such as when Taipei worked with the Philippines to promote the growth of SMEs through digital platforms. In particular, Taiwan has been able to utilize the APEC platform to share its COVID-19 pandemic prevention and mitigation responses, with the Ministry of Health and Welfare (衛生福利部) taking the lead in promoting the establishment of a Digital Health Sub-Working Group within APEC’s Health Working Group.
Furthermore, Taiwan has increased its financial contributions to APEC initiatives from USD $750,000 in 2019 – which were intended to promote regional economic integration, and inclusive and sustainable growth across the APEC region to USD $1 million in 2020 in order to fund APEC efforts on health security, emergency preparedness, and energy and trade security.
APEC support for Taiwan’s goals
In the past, Taipei has utilized the APEC platform to promote its diplomatic and foreign economic priorities. For instance, Taiwanese envoy to APEC Vincent Siew used the gathering of APEC leaders in Manila in 2015 to promote Taiwan’s bid for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP). “APEC is the most important venue for Taiwan to express its commitment to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership,” Siew noted.
In addition, APEC has become a critical forum for meetings between Taiwanese representatives and high-level US officials, allowing them to more directly exchange views on bilateral issues. Taiwanese envoy Morris Chang raised the idea of a potential US-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement with vice president Mike Pence when both attended the APEC Summit in Papua New Guinea in 2018.
With the United States offering to host the annual APEC meeting in 2023, the APEC forum remains an important regional forum that has helped to enhance ties between Taiwan and other member economies and to bolster Taipei’s international visibility. Taiwan’s exclusion from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and RCEP have made APEC a key venue for Taiwanese engagement with ASEAN members on the issue of regional economic integration and trade liberalization. Taiwan’s recent CPTPP bid notably includes a diplomatic strategy to garner support from other APEC members. At the same time, it is certain that Beijing will continue its efforts to diminish Taiwan’s stature in APEC – the only major international forum where Taiwanese representation is concentrated – so long as there remains no improvement in cross-Strait relations.
The main point: Over the past 20 years, Taiwan has leveraged its membership in APEC, the only intergovernmental organization to which it belongs, to contribute meaningfully to regional issues and to carve out international space.
Special thanks to GTI Intern Henry Walsh for his research assistance.
I-wei Jennifer Chang is a research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.