From battling a storm in the Solomon Islands to consulting a witch doctor in eSwatini, Ben Wu has trekked some of the world’s less-trodden paths as he embarks on a quest to visit all of Taiwan’s dwindling diplomatic allies.
The list of countries he must visit is short – just 17 nations still recognise Taiwan over mainland China, a vivid illustration of the democratic island’s international isolation as Beijing uses its clout to woo Taipei’s few remaining friends.
In all practical ways Taiwan is a kind of independent country, but both Taipei and Beijing insist they are the one true China and that other nations can recognise only one of them. Most have sided with China as its political and economic might has grown. Last summer Wu, 25, was having a meeting in Taiwan’s foreign ministry on the day El Salvador just happened to become the latest country to switch its recognition to Beijing.
He watched as the country’s flag was removed from the ministry’s entrance. “I think most young people only know about our allies when there is a termination of diplomatic relations and this is not good,” Wu said from his home in Taipei. “They should know about the allies in other ways.” Using YouTube, Wu is trying to change that.
He came up with the idea to visit the remaining allies while riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. Flicking through a news article about Taiwan’s allies, he realised he only recognised three – Haiti, Tuvalu, and the Vatican. “I love travel and some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are less known and more difficult to reach. I hope to explore these countries that fewer people have travelled to and be a part of ‘people diplomacy’,” he said.
So far Wu has ticked off five allies in the Pacific – Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands – as well as the only ally in Africa, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). This month, he sets out for Latin America and the Caribbean to visit Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Haiti, Belize, Saint Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines as well as St Kitts and Nevis. He will wrap up his quest with the Vatican and Palau (an archipelago in the Pacific) in the summer.
Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation was not always the case. After its split from the mainland in 1949 when the communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, it was the Republic of China that was recognised by the majority, not the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The global reversal began in earnest in 1971 when Taiwan – then in the grip of Chiang’s military dictatorship – was kicked out of the international club by the UN General Assembly, which recognised the PRC as “the only legitimate representative of China”.
Allies began falling fast, with Washington switching recognition in 1979 – although it remains a key military backer and supplies Taiwan with most of its weaponry.
Most of Taiwan’s allies are impoverished, smaller countries in the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America who have since become easy pickings for powerful China.
After the 2016 election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – who hails from an independence-leaning party – Beijing has launched a campaign to further undermine the island’s sovereignty.
Five allies have been poached, it blocked Taipei from attending major global gatherings and pressured a string of international companies, including airlines and hotels, to list Taiwan as part of China.
Wu said he wanted greater awareness of those who have stayed loyal to Taiwan, even if places like Tuvalu only boasts some 12,000 people. “These countries have a voice in international organisations. They can speak up for Taiwan and let more people know about Taiwan’s difficult diplomatic situation,” he said.
Wu’s YouTube videos on his channel Ben’s Adventures have racked up tens of thousands of views and turned into a career. One shows him bashed by a storm in a rickety boat after seeing human skulls left by headhunters in the Solomon Islands.
Others show him consulting a witch doctor in a dark room filled with bags of herbs in eSwatini, eating betel nuts in Kiribati, and finding Taiwanese food in a Marshall Islands supermarket.
Wu says he hopes other young Taiwanese might follow in his footsteps. “I hope to introduce the culture, tradition, custom and sightseeing of our allies in a relaxing way so people can get to know these countries. I am opening a window, a door and people can explore the rest.”
Edited by M. J. Premaratne