Meet Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s Longest-Serving Foreign Minister

Joseph Wu is Taiwan’s longest-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs since its transition to democracy in the 1980s, holding the position from 2018 to 2024. Prior to this role, he served as Secretary-General of the National Security Council and as Taiwan’s top representative to the United States, as well as the head of the Mainland Affairs Council. 

An academic by training, Wu earned a PhD in Political Science from Ohio State University. Before his political career, he was the Deputy Director of the Institute of International Relations at National Cheng-chi University. 

Since May 20, Wu has taken up the role of Secretary-General of the National Security Council once again.

TOPICS Senior Editor Julia Bergström met with Wu at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in early May to discuss Taiwan’s foreign policy, his unorthodox use of social media to get Taiwan’s message out, and the taste of freedom. An abridged version of their conversation follows. Listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Being the Foreign Minister of Taiwan, with only 12 official allies, is challenging. What does an average week look like for Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs?

When I assumed my position in 2018, the President described my role rather uniquely. She said, “You eat for the country, and you drink for the country.” The art of wining and dining is a crucial part of my duties.

We host a range of visitors to Taiwan – parliamentarians, senior politicians, and academics – who are looking to meet with top officials and explore Taiwanese business opportunities. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the best ways we can welcome them is by offering a good meal with excellent wines to create a relaxed atmosphere for discussing serious matters.

Typically, I serve American white wines, which are not only tasty but also cost-effective, as the President likes to point out. Since the PRC sanctioned Australia, we’ve also been offering Australian red wines as a show of support to our Australian friends.

For the same reason, we serve scallops from Hokkaido. Japanese scallops are expensive, but when the PRC imposed sanctions on Japanese seafood, we began to include the scallops in our menus – a gesture that’s been appreciated by our Japanese colleagues.

Of course, my role extends beyond hosting meals. I also travel to our diplomatic allies and countries that are open to engagement. I also oversee meetings within the Ministry to deliberate on policy-related matters and participate in high-level discussions at the National Security Council and the Presidential Office.

You are highly active on social media and have effectively used X (formerly Twitter) to respond to critics. How important is social media in your position?

Social media bridges the gap between traditional media and modern communication channels. It allows us to connect with new global audiences.

After joining the Ministry, I started using platforms like X to enhance our outreach. To add a personal touch to our official account, I signed posts with the initials “JW” to indicate that I personally wrote them. 

Our social media efforts have been very successful, and we’ve managed to attract followers worldwide, including journalists, decision-makers, and even from other foreign ministries. 

One of our most effective strategies has been to address heavy topics with a mix of seriousness and humor. For instance, in response to China’s ban on Taiwanese products like beer and pineapples, we not only featured these items in official meals but also highlighted them on social media. I posted a tweet about Taiwan beer, calling it “freedom beer” to emphasize what China is missing – the taste of freedom.

Beyond social media, we also focus on strengthening ties with major international media. The Chinese government’s actions have actually helped us with these efforts. China’s treatment of international journalists – from harassment to expulsions – has led many to relocate to Taiwan, and the number of international journalists based in Taiwan has now reached its highest in decades.

To date, I have conducted around 320 interviews and press conferences with international journalists to raise Taiwan’s profile around the world. International coverage of Taiwan used to be limited to natural disasters or military threats, but now the narrative includes positive stories showcasing Taiwan’s contributions and achievements.

Is there anything about Taiwan’s unique international position that makes its foreign policy unique?

One of the most unique and challenging aspects of Taiwan’s foreign policy is our ongoing struggle for international recognition and participation. China’s efforts to limit our international space are relentless, continuously trying to remove our diplomatic relationships and discouraging non-diplomatic partners from engaging with us. This pressure extends to international organizations, where our participation is often downgraded or mislabeled, and it complicates our efforts to be recognized as “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei” or other designations imposed by China.

A lot of international observers struggle to understand the extent of these challenges, especially within organizations that allegedly operate under principles of inclusivity, like the UN or WHO. These organizations say that no one should be left behind, yet the 23 million people of Taiwan are consistently excluded from important global discussions.

One example of this exclusion happened in 1998 during an enterovirus outbreak in Taiwan. The virus mostly affected young children, leading to widespread closures of schools. Our only recourse was to promote basic hygiene practices. Despite our appeals, the WHO provided no assistance or communication.

In 2003, we experienced the SARS outbreak. As the virus spread, Taiwan again reached out to the WHO for help. It wasn’t until the situation escalated with a major hospital outbreak that the WHO sent four experts to Taiwan. But even then, they were instructed not to communicate with Taiwanese health officials. 

Once the coronavirus broke out, we had learned from past experiences and made every effort to prepare to defend our people. Despite being excluded internationally, Taiwan reached out and offered its help to the rest of the world. 

Now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has adopted a strategy of engaging a wider international audience, including parliamentarians, academics, media, and decision-makers, particularly in democratic nations. We emphasize the importance of including Taiwan to avoid leaving a loophole in global public health systems. This outreach has gradually built international support, and we hope that the WHO will eventually recognize and include Taiwan in its activities.

What has been the most enjoyable part of being Minister of Foreign Affairs?

One aspect that fills me with a lot of pride is the opportunity to work with the exceptionally bright junior diplomats at the Ministry. 

In Taiwan, serving as a diplomat requires passing a really challenging exam. I personally failed this exam in 1982, which only deepens my respect for those who pass.

These diplomats are not only intelligent but also creative and capable of incredible achievements if you give them the right opportunities and responsibilities. For example, our relationships with European countries have seen great advancements in recent years, largely due to their efforts.

I’ve had the honor of speaking publicly in cities like Bratislava and Prague and participating in events that were once beyond my imagination for a Taiwanese diplomat. For example, I received a medal from the President of the Czech Senate in recognition of my efforts to strengthen bilateral ties. I’ve also visited Warsaw, Brussels, and the Baltic States, where I was welcomed to speak openly.

These opportunities to represent Taiwan and make our voice heard are precious. It’s the hard work and dedication of our diplomats in Europe and at our headquarters that opens doors for Taiwan and allows us to engage with the world more freely and visibly.

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu talks to TOPICS Senior Editor Julia Bergström at the Ministry in early May.

How would you describe your management philosophy?

My management philosophy is simple – I try not to manage. This approach was really important during my 2007-2008 posting in Washington. Even though we had some of our best diplomats stationed there, I noticed a reluctance to share ideas freely with the ambassador. To change this, I encouraged open discussions, inviting team members to comment on various issues and think independently about our strategic relationships in Washington.

After seeing the effects of this management style, I implemented a similar approach at our headquarters. Instead of dictating or imposing demands, I engage with my colleagues on equal footing, making sure their ideas are heard and valued. Endorsing and empowering them to execute their own decisions reinforces their ownership and commitment to our shared goals. It doesn’t only enhance individual performance but also drives our organizational success forward.

You’ve lived in the United States on multiple occasions, having studied for your PhD in Ohio and your Master’s in Missouri, in addition to leading the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States. What are your fondest memories from the United States?

I have so many fond memories of the United States, especially from my years as a student, which I think are the best of my life. My schooling in Taiwan under martial law was traditional and authoritarian. When I started studying at the University of Missouri in 1979, it was difficult to adapt to the educational style, especially since my English was not that good. 

One of my professors noticed my struggles and recommended additional support at the academic development center. At first, I thought it was embarrassing, but it turned out to be really beneficial. That’s where I learned the American approach to essay writing. Nowadays I often guide our staff on how to write speeches. 

At Ohio State University, I not only enjoyed Buckeye games but also gained a lot of great experience teaching and conducting research in the polling metrics lab. That experience shaped my analytical skills, especially in data analysis and public opinion surveys.

If I had the chance to be young again, I wouldn’t hesitate to re-enroll in a U.S. university program, and I’ll tell anyone considering it that it’s time well spent.

Would you say your U.S. experience has helped you forge stronger ties with the United States as Foreign Minister?

My time as Taiwan’s representative to Washington gave me an opportunity to engage closely with American officials and Congress members, and it deepened my understanding of the mutual respect and goodwill that shape Taiwan-U.S. relations. 

These insights really came in handy when I was on the National Security Council from 2016 to 2017, focusing heavily on Taiwan-U.S. security relations. That focus stuck with me during my time as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and thankfully, I had some of our most capable colleagues backing me up.

Our team worked tirelessly and creatively to strengthen our ties with the United States. We frequently visited Capitol Hill to engage with staffers and met with administration officials to develop effective strategies for advancing our relationship. A cornerstone of our approach has been maintaining bipartisan support, which is a distinctive feature of Taiwan-U.S. relations. 

On the administration side, we engaged across multiple fronts critical for Taiwan’s role in global politics. The U.S. administration’s appreciation for Taiwan often results in tangible support, aiding us in navigating international challenges. We’ve had a series of talks with the State Department aimed at boosting Taiwan’s international presence and supporting our bids for inclusion in organizations like the WHO.

We’re committed to continuing our collaboration with the United States on issues that benefit our nations and enhance our strategic partnership.

Your job is demanding, but you can’t always be working. What do you like to do in your spare time? 

My time is limited, and I don’t have a lot of hobbies. But I do make sure to spend quality time with my family. I also love cooking and listening to music to unwind. I always make sure to rest over the weekend to recharge and prepare to face the challenges of the upcoming week.

When it comes to cooking, I prefer the Taiwanese style. It’s simple and keeps the original flavors of the ingredients. For instance, steaming is the best method for fresh fish or seafood like shrimp – it’s straightforward but perfectly retains the natural taste.