February 18, 2005

Why Taiwan

by Peggy Carr

A green island, with numerous rivers and steep mountains covered with forests, tree crops, root crops. Fishing towns and villages dot the coastline. Pickup trucks make their way along the almost-vertical, winding roads taking produce from the farms to the market. The offshore islands are fringed with wide beaches and the pace of life there is less frenetic than on the mainland. {{more}}

Sounds familiar? It should — it’s a description of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. But interestingly, it also describes another country on the far side of the world —Taiwan.

When we hear of Taiwan, it is easy to picture huge industrialized areas, busy crowded cities, and a vibrant stock market. This is also a true picture. However, it is only part of the whole.

In examining the value of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the extraordinary similarities between the two countries is a powerful, though perhaps not-so-obvious factor.

Taiwan has come through a history of colonization (by the Dutch, Spanish, Manchu and Japanese at various times from the 17th to the 19th century), marginalization of its indigenous people and coercion by a major world power.

The people of Taiwan have been and continue to be victims of the vagrancies of nature. They know what it’s like to be hit by a storm — in the Caribbean they’re called hurricanes, in the Pacific typhoons — to lose their loved ones, to have their crops devastated by floods and winds, to watch their homes and livestock destroyed, their roads blocked and entire areas cut off by landslides, as the country gets hit by at least one major typhoon each year.

They have experienced the same problems associated with hillside farming, deforestation, riverside and coastline erosion, marine pollution and threats to their water resources.

Their farmers have faced challenges of overproduction, competing imports and low market prices etc.

In short, Taiwan is a country that knows our problems intimately. It is also a country that has managed in 50 short years to diversify its economic base to become the “tiger of Asia” — the world’s fourth-largest producer of information technology products, with an annual trade surplus in excess of US$18 billion and the world’s third-largest foreign exchange reserves. What this means is that we have the unique opportunity to learn from a country very similar to ours that has managed to develop and prosper rapidly. Where we are at this stage of our development, Taiwan has been, and today represents much of what we aspire to.

It is also worth noting that Taiwan achieved its success with no handouts and in the face of incredible political challenges. Right at this moment, the people of Taiwan are going about their daily lives even as China keeps 600 missiles permanently targeted at the island.

Despite its potential for valuable contributions to the rest of the world in areas such as health and research, Taiwan continues to be shut out of the World Heath Organization, the United Nations and most other major international organizations. This discrimination is being perpetrated on the basis of a political anomaly under which China lays full claim to Taiwan and continues to reject every overture by the Taiwan government to at least discuss the issue unless Taiwan first formally accepts the “one-China” policy. This is the crux of the island’s problem and this is where our voice as a nation becomes valuable. We, who know what it’s like to be bullied, ignored and ridiculed because of our size, have the opportunity to stand alongside a fellow struggler and say, “we support you.” In return, we gain access to a goldmine of knowledge, experience and expertise. If we are serious about getting off the curb where we have been standing, hat in hand for so long, and stepping onto the road of true economic independence, it would be downright stupid to turn our backs on such a wealth of highly relevant resources. While other nations may offer us a bigger handout to start with, and perhaps make promises of more, Taiwan is able to say, “We have been there, we can show you how it’s done and help you to avoid some of the mistakes that we have made.”

Not only is Taiwan able to help us to follow in its footsteps, it is also willing to do so, using an attentive and hands-on approach. Ambassador Elizabeth Chu personifies the spirit of Taiwan in its relations with its allies. She is accessible, easy to talk to, straightforward, caring, and in her work displays energy, innovation, commitment and enthusiasm.

At present, Taiwan has 25 diplomatic allies, compared to, China, for example, which has 165. What this suggests is that Taiwan is likely to give more individual attention to the needs of its allies, and, as it more closely identifies with the particular problems of island states, can relate to them with genuine empathy.

Those who dispute this fact should consider carefully how many diplomatic allies we have among the developed nations, look around and see how many actually have embassies in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, try to recall how many leaders or senior administration officials from those states have visited St. Vincent, examine the pattern of their aid to St. Vincent and try to determine whether it has been consistent and incremental over the years. The harsh truth is that most of those countries have no real need for St. Vincent’s friendship. Our value to them is mainly statistical and geopolitical. In the case of China, it is no secret that it’s more a question of robbing Taiwan of allies rather than any genuine concern for our welfare. Under normal circumstances, there would be no conflict in having diplomatic relations with both Taiwan and China. But China has ruled that this is impossible. Any country that wishes to establish or maintain diplomatic relations with China is required to forgo its links with Taiwan. That is why we are forced to choose between the two.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines made its choice twenty-four years ago. Today, there is nothing wrong with reviewing this decision. But it is important that in doing so we consider carefully our own values, the ideas we are willing to uphold, and those we decry.

For example, do most Vincentians know that Taiwan, as a fully democratic country, cannot just toss limitless aid funds to its allies because the government, like ours, is accountable to the people who want to know how, where and why their tax dollars are being spent? This a standard that we hold dear in out own country. Should we not also respect and encourage it in another state, particularly one with such a relatively young democracy? Do we really want to accept money from a country if it has to deceive its people and spirit away treasury funds to help us? More importantly, should we attempt to force a country to such actions because we think it needs our diplomatic support?

Are Vincentians aware that religious freedom is alive and well in Taiwan? Though it is not a predominantly Christian country, Taiwan is home to hundreds of Christian churches where thousands of Taiwanese and other Asians worship in total freedom daily. In the Saturday newspapers each week there are at least 20 advertisements for masses and services held in English. And these are just the English-language services. There are also hundreds of Chinese-language Christian services held each day. Is this a movement that we as Christians want to undercut? Do we as a nation want to cavalierly ignore the fate of Taiwan’s Christians? Is this fast-growing, free Christian community in the heart of Asia a phenomenon that we want to be divorced from? And, if it is, what do we wish to be associated with, alternatively?

Do we as individuals choose our friends based on how much they give us, or on the quality of the bonds between us? Should we have one standard for our personal friendships and another for our country to country relations?

If we surrender the most important asset that we have, our voice in the international community, what does this say about our morals, our courage? What would we gain in exchange for our silence? If after 24 years, we backtrack on our stance that Taiwan deserves a place in the international community and its 23 million people deserve representation and the freedom to choose their own destiny, what does this say about our integrity? Will we ever be taken seriously again, or will we be forever labeled as tiny, “no-account” nation that has no real convictions and is therefore not worth listening to? As a society, while we debate the merits of maintaining or breaking our friendship with Taiwan, let us ask ourselves that one overriding question: Is it the right thing to do?

As we have demonstrated on the Haiti issue, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is not afraid to stand against the majority. We must now continue to show that, by the very definition of the word, our convictions are not for sale to the seemingly highest bidder.

• Peggy Carr is a Vincentian journalist and poet who presently resides in Taiwan.