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Taiwan’s Expanding International Cyberspace

"09.23 總統於接見歐洲議會人民黨團國貿委員會議員團致詞" by Taiwan Presidential Office is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

May 27, 2024

The typical narrative regarding Taiwan’s international relations goes something like this – Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, was expelled from the United Nations in 1971 and has been losing diplomatic allies ever since. After Nauru switched its diplomatic recognition to the PRC in January 2024, Taiwanese and U.S. headlines quickly lamented that Taiwan had lost a “diplomatic ally” or that “Taiwan and Nauru cut off relations!” as if the only options on the table were formal recognition or no relations at all.

This pessimistic narrative is being challenged by scholars of Taiwanese international relations. Lev Nachman of National Chengchi University has suggested that “not that much” would change if Taiwan lacked official diplomatic partners. Timothy Rich from Western Kentucky University argues against using the term “diplomatic allies,” as the term implies a military relationship that Taiwan does not have with its official diplomatic partners and ignores the more consequential economic, cultural, and even military relationships Taiwan has with its unofficial partners. Ryan Hass, Bonnie Glaser, and Richard Bush make a similar statement in their recent book, U.S.-Taiwan Relations: “The surest way to pop Beijing’s preferred narrative about Taiwan growing isolated and vulnerable is to demonstrate that Taiwan is thriving and deepening its relationships with the United States and others in the process.”

My research looks at how Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs (MODA) uses its strong unofficial international partnerships to engage in global internet governance, demonstrating that Taiwan is actively defending and expanding its role in international governance. Starting at UW, I knew I wanted to focus on Taiwanese politics, but it wasn’t until I took a Chinese law course with a professor who specializes in cyber law that I became captivated by digital policy. As a Cybersecurity Research Fellow, I have investigated the intersection of Taiwanese international relations and internet governance. Internet governance is a broad term encompassing everything from the protocols used to turn what we type in web browsers into digital signals to various government and corporate policies governing speech and privacy. It is shaped by actors including international organizations, private companies, and nation-states, including their bilateral agreements. MODA actively participates in all these spheres.

Taiwan is famously excluded from many international governance organizations, most notably the UN and the top three international standards organizations, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The last time Taiwan was represented in a government-exclusive venue was at the UN Internet Governance Forum; Paraguay had to bring in a “telepresence robot” through which Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, presented. However, MODA (established in August 2022) oversees an ostensibly “non-government” organization called the National Institute of Cyber Security (NICS), allowing MODA representatives to participate in international organizations as members of the technical community. This is how Minister Tang and other MODA representatives participated in the UN’s 2023 Internet Governance Forum. This MODA-NICS model could be used by other government agencies in sectors where non-government organizations participate in international governance. Additionally, hosting side events alongside international meetings is another way Taiwanese officials can shape international agendas. If the PRC government warns representatives of other countries against attending such side events, they could even “increase international scrutiny” of Taiwan’s predicament or international awareness of Taiwan’s potential contributions.

The public transcripts of Minister Tang’s conversations reveal how MODA influences private sector policies and product development. For example, MODA has met with OpenAI to address issues resulting from OpenAI’s limited Taiwanese data, such as GPT-4 and DALL-E’s inability to produce images of the Republic of China flag, use of mainland Chinese or Cantonese when asked to communicate in “#zh-tw” or Hokkien, and inability to produce Hakka or indigenous language content. Another sign of close collaboration with Taiwan is that OpenAI does not support developers in China, Hong Kong, or Macau and lists “Taiwan” as a supported country or territory, not “Chinese Taipei” or “Taiwan, Province of China” as is the case for other organizations.

Taiwan’s most important relationships are with its bilateral partners, especially “unofficial” partners like Israel, Lithuania, and the United States. MODA is working on a variety of projects with official and unofficial partners – distributed storage architecture (IPFS), e-signature interoperability, alternatives to Starlink, foreign interference and disinformation, and, at least with Czechia, intelligence service collaboration. MODA has overseen memorandums of understanding signed between Taiwanese research institutions and Israeli firms, diversifying Taiwanese companies away from China. Digital Minister Tang also signed an agreement under which Lithuanian and Taiwanese e-signatures are mutually recognized, facilitating digital trade.

Taiwanese collaboration with the United States is the most extensive, covering everything from defensive cybersecurity operations to multinational workshops that feature Taiwan’s digital successes and expand its international space (e.g. the Global Cooperation and Training Framework). The United States has many options to deepen collaboration with Taiwan. Many foreign government delegations to Taiwan are co-led by members of parliamentary “Taiwan Friendship Groups.” The Congressional and Senate Taiwan Caucuses should coordinate with their international counterparts, possibly leading joint multinational delegations to Taiwan. The United States should also co-host workshops with countries outside the Asia Pacific, especially Czechia and Lithuania. Adding additional states beyond Japan and Australia as permanent co-hosts of Global Cooperation and Training Framework workshops would reduce its resemblance to security-focused mini-laterals like the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue and the Quad, instead emphasizing the economic and social focus of the workshops. U.S.-Taiwan trade agreements with digital components have faced little, if any, opposition in Congress and should be pursued as should cooperation with Taiwan to develop alternatives to Starlink to ensure U.S. government access to satellite internet around the Taiwan Strait. This coordination falls within economic and technological spheres, is not overtly political, and could be seen as “compatible with [Taiwan’s international] status.” As Ryan Hass and Jude Blanchette have noted, “the United States has more room to concretely support Taiwan when it focuses on substance” rather than openly challenging the PRC’s political narrative.


Benton Gordon is completing a master’s degree in China and Taiwan Studies at the University of Washington. As a Cybersecurity Research Fellow, he studies Taiwan’s participation in global internet governance and the application of China’s Personal Information Protection Law in PRC courts.