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HomeEast AsiaChinaWill Taiwan’s ‘pangolin diplomacy’ be a turning point or a double-edged sword?

Will Taiwan’s ‘pangolin diplomacy’ be a turning point or a double-edged sword?

  • Beijing’s panda diplomacy ushered in a new era for China, and Taipei hopes that sending pangolins to Prague may help it win friends and find a stronger voice
  • But if pushed too far, pangolin diplomacy may heighten Beijing’s fears that Taiwan is exerting itself too prominently, or inching closer to independence

Panda diplomacy may have ushered in a new era for China’s foreign interactions with the outside world almost five decades ago, and Taiwan’s pangolin diplomacy may likewise be a turning point. But it might well turn out to be a double-edged sword.

In 1972, then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai gifted Washington with two giant pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, two months after former United States president Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to China.

The gestures ended 25 years of tension between the two countries, and even ended Beijing’s isolation, which was partly due to the Cold War between communism and capitalism, and in part because of China’s domestic upheavals and political campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s.

The US-China rapprochement also facilitated then Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s new vision of looking to the US and the Western world for ways to modernise China. This subsequently led to the reform and opening-up era in the late 70s which set China on its path to unprecedented growth and prosperity.

This week, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported that the Taipei Zoo is ready to transport two Formosan pangolins to the Czech Republic for a breeding loan project, as soon as the zoo in the capital Prague finishes constructing the enclosure for the mammals.

The programme, aimed at breeding new pangolins overseas, was established last August after the mayor of Prague visited the Taipei Zoo.

One of three pangolin species found in Asia, the Formosan pangolin is a nocturnal mammal that feeds primarily on ants and termites. Valued for their scales, the creatures are under threat from poaching and the global illegal wildlife trade.

Formosa is another name for Taiwan, dating back to 1542 when Portuguese sailors sighted the uncharted island and noted it on their maps as Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island”.

Despite warnings from Beijing, Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania and Belgium over the past week, amid greater international support for the self-ruled territory in recent months.

Major powers such as the US and Japan shored up support by sending warships and aircraft into the Taiwan Strait to counter what they see as Chinese aggression in the region. Taipei also received unprecedented levels of diplomatic support from European nations, many of which had pushed for and ramped up stronger partnerships with the island as a means to counter China.

While pangolins do not induce as much popular affection as the more cuddly pandas, it is possible that with adequate interest among friendly recipient countries for the mammals, Taiwan’s pangolin diplomacy might help Taipei win friends and exert greater influence.

Dispatching pangolins as informal ambassadors might also help Taipei gain a stronger voice internationally, and in seeking greater support for entry to global organisations such as the World Health Organization, where sovereignty is a requirement – a move which is blocked by China.

Pangolin diplomacy might even drive home the message that apart from Taiwan’s emphasis on democracy, political and civil rights and the rule of law, it is also at the forefront of protecting biodiversity, especially since pangolins are difficult to keep alive in captivity.

Even though China last year removed pangolin scales from an official listing of ingredients approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine, it remains an uphill battle to prevent the mammal from being trafficked, and to rid the perception that the Chinese are the most prolific consumers of pangolins.

However, if pushed too far, pangolin diplomacy might heighten Beijing’s anxieties that Taiwan is exerting itself too prominently internationally, or worse, inching closer to independence.

While many have predicted that China may consider military action on Taiwan in 2024, any moves – perceived or otherwise – by Taipei towards independence may just invite a swift military move from Beijing, which has long maintained that “no one should have illusions” about China defending its “national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.


  1. The Formosan pangolin is a nocturnal mammal that feeds primarily on ants and termites. Formosa is another name for Taiwan, dating back to 1542 when Portuguese sailors sighted the island. Photo: AFP
  2. Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu speaks at a press conference in Prague after meeting the Czech president of senate Milos Vystrcil. Photo: EPA-EFE
  3. Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu gives a speech during his visit to the Czech Senate in Prague on October 27. Photo: AP

By Maria Siow / scmp

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AsiaWE Review.


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