Ambassadors Archive 2

Taiwan: A Beacon of Democracy

Interview with Representative Jason C. Yuan

By Alan Dessoff

For the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC), an island nation slightly larger than the state of Maryland, political and economic relationships with other countries are vital, particularly with the United States and the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both countries have played important roles in Taiwan’s history, and the nature of the relationships of all three countries with each other will be important in shaping Taiwan’s future.

Fostering Taiwan’s relationships with the U.S. is the mission of Representative Jason C. Yuan, who heads the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the U.S., the equivalent of an embassy. The two countries have not maintained formal diplomatic ties since January 1, 1979, when the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC. But informally, through government and private-sector contacts, Yuan, in his post since August 2008, and with extensive previous diplomatic experience in the U.S. and elsewhere, knows how to effectively advance his country’s interests. He demonstrated that at the recent annual conference in Los Angeles of director generals, the equivalent of consulate generals, of TECRO’s 13 offices in the U.S. Each office covers the states in a region of the U.S., but Yuan, who coordinates them, emphasized that while they focus on Taiwan’s business in those regions, their principal responsibility is to “help the Washington office improve the U.S.-Taiwan relationship as a whole. In everything they do, they have to consider if it is good for the relationship.”

He believes it’s important, for example, that Taiwan’s regional representatives know the U.S. Senators and Representatives who represent the states and districts in their regions and ”why these political leaders are important to us,” It’s good for the relationship, he added, if Taiwan’s representatives “get closer” to the U.S. leaders and their constituents “where they live,” not just in Washington.

That played out last September, when Taiwan sent a large, agricultural buying mission to the U.S. After a visit to Capitol Hill, they traveled to key agricultural states, and Yuan briefed mission members on the political importance of those states and their Congressional representatives — including Montana, represented by Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Indiana, whose Sen. Richard Lugar is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was important as well, Yuan said, for the U.S. legislators to understand how much Taiwan means to their states and districts economically in its purchases of soybeans, corn, wheat, barley and other agricultural commodities. “We try to let our American friends understand that we don’t just take from the U.S., we want to give business back. That is how to maintain a friendship,” Yuan asserted. The buying mission wound up spending $3.5 billion.

Maintaining a consistent relationship with the U.S., regardless of the U.S. political leadership, also is important to Taiwan. Yuan related that he recently called on former President George W. Bush. “I know the Bush family very well,” and when Bush was President, “maybe it was very difficult for him to receive us at his office. But it is easier for us to go to him now that he is a private citizen. We can review how he conducted his foreign policy towards Taiwan and mainland China and how we can use that to deal with the new Obama administration. That will be helpful to me and to them,” Yuan said.

He noted that it was Bush who characterized Taiwan as “a beacon of democracy in Asia and the world” in a congratulatory message that Bush sent to Ma Ying-jeou after Ma was elected Taiwan’s president in March 2008. Now the Obama administration “seems very happy” with the Bush administration’s position on U.S.-Taiwan-China policy under the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress enacted in 1979, so continuity of that policy seems assured, Yuan said. He noted that President Obama, on his recent visit to China, reiterarated the US's continued support for the three communiques with China and for the Taiwan Relations Act' .”

Yuan said the Bush administration might have thought that Taiwan, under its previous president, Chen Shui-Bian, “pushed them a little too hard.” But under President Ma, Taiwan has tried to adjust its policy, which, Yuan said, now has three basic principles: “No unification, no independence, no use of force.”

“No unification” means Taiwan “will never consider itself part of China,” he explained. “No independence” means Taiwan will not become an independent republic. “We don’t want to take a risk that China will invade Taiwan,” Yuan said. Also, “from the U.S. standpoint, we don’t want the U.S. to fight in Taiwan’s streets. It’s already standing up in the Mideast and Korea.” And “no use of force” to settle sovereignty issues means simply “we want peace,” Yuan declared.

Ma wants the policy to lead eventually to a “win-win-win” situation for Taiwan, China and the U.S., Yuan said. The policy buttresses Ma’s strong feeling that “Taiwan can not stand alone; we need friendship internationally, most importantly from the U.S.,” Yuan said. Since Ma came into power, he not only has improved relations with mainland China but also has “won back trust and confidence from our friends in the U.S.,” Yuan said.

Meanwhile, he maintained that Taiwan’s relationship with China “has never been better in the last 30 years.” He cited dialogue underway between the countries, including three important bilateral meetings in 2008 and 2009, two of them in China and one in Taiwan. Differences between China’s communism and Taiwan’s democracy notwithstanding, “we have seen eye to eye,” and the results have included signed agreements on tourism, direct shipping, direct flights, postal service, food safety, financial cooperation, insurance and banking, Yuan said. “There even is a joint effort to fight terrorism and economic criminals. If they flee from Taiwan to China, China sends them back to us. We catch some of their criminals and send them back to China,” Yuan said.

Despite the basic ideological difference in the Taiwan-China relationship, Yuan suggested that the two countries are able to improve their relationship because they focus on economic issues, not politics. “We set aside political issues. Time eventually will have a solution for the political problem. We’ll wait until the time is ripe — maybe 2012, 2013, if we all are doing well economically, to maybe conduct more bilateral meetings on the political issue; to sit down and talk about either an eventual or temporary peace agreement between Taiwan and the mainland,” Yuan said. Even if the leaders of the two countries ultimately agree on that, he suggested that the issue of unification with China or independence for Taiwan might be left to “the younger generation,” which might have different opinions “when they are all grown up.”

Meanwhile, Yuan said President Ma “will present no surprises” while economic issues, including trade, dominate the relationship between the mainland, with its 1.3 billion people, and Taiwan with its 23 million. Already China has almost become Taiwan’s number one trading partner, Yuan said, and more than one million Taiwanese work in businesses in mainland China.

He acknowledged that the recent global economic downturn and financial crisis in the U.S. impacted Taiwan because it has no natural resources and its economy is based on exports and imports. While high-tech exports to the U.S. were “miserable” in the first half of 2009, more orders signaled improvement later in the year and exports and imports were up by double digits at year’s end. “That’s a good sign,” Yuan declared.

Although Taiwan grows rice, vegetables and fruits on its limited land, harvesting rice four time a year and exporting some of it to the U.S., it must rely on imports for other agricultural products, including meat. American beef became an issue when Mad Cow Disease was discovered in the U.S. and “we stopped for a while,” then reopened trade for boneless beef and recently signed an agreement to import bone-in beef from the U.S., Yuan said. He added that Taiwan also imports a lot of U.S. turkey.

Yuan pointed to Taiwan’s other economic strengths. Among them, it ranks fourth in the world in foreign exchange reserves, with more than $300 billion, behind only China, Japan and Russia. “I feel proud that our private sector is doing well in export-import and working on new ideas all the time. We have no choice. We are talking about survivability. Every day is survival,” Yuan said.

With a high individual savings rate, and a government guarantee of the safety of their money, Taiwan’s citizens are “pretty well off,” He explained. Also, the government implemented its own economic stimulus plan, providing $100 shopping vouchers to all 23 million of its people. “The economy is coming back,” he declared.

Every time he returns to Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, Yuan said, he is “amazed at how diligent and efficient the people are.” There are three shifts of workers in the country, and “people all set goals for themselves and work two or three jobs to fulfill their goals.”

As an example of workplace efficiency, he told how tailors provide visitors from the U.S. and elsewhere with custom-made suits and shirts, “with cuff-links, everything,” in less than 24 hours and at an “incredible” price. “The tailors rush to your hotel room to do the measurement. They give you two fittings in a day, and the next day you get a perfect suit to take home with you,” Juan said, noting that U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch told him he got a suit that way on a visit to the capital. Yuan compared Taiwan’s way to the practice in the U.S. where, “no matter how much I want to spend, they say 'ok, come to my shop and pick out the material' and then you wait three weeks.”

Yuan reflects Taiwanese efficiency in his own work habits. With a staff of almost 1,000 employees to manage at the 13 TECRO offices, including 200 in Washington, “I am very busy,” he said. The home office is “very demanding; they don’t care how busy we are, we have to get answers for them. So it’s a tough job,” Yuan said. Accordingly, he skips most of the “glamour parties” and other Washington social events that usually attract ambassadors of other countries. “I don’t have time. All I do is make small luncheons and dinners where we talk business,” he said.

Business these days includes trying to gain a visa waiver to make it easier for Taiwanese students and others to come to the U.S. “We know the U.S. is our number one friend who wants to encourage more people to come, but they go to Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand because it is so difficult to come to the U.S., and once you get a visa and come in, immigration and customs are very strict,” Yuan said. But “we are the least dangerous people to Americans; even the Homeland Security people told me that.”

Also on his agenda are reaching agreements with the U.S. on extradition and a trade investment framework. In addition, Taiwan is seeking help from the U.S., Japan, Canada and other countries to allow it to participate in some international organizations like the United Nations’ World Health Organization and its decision-making body, the World Health Assembly. Taiwan lost its U.N. status in 1971, when the PRC became the official representative of China.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) struck China badly, “we were kept in the dark so we could not help. If we were part of the WHA, we could help each other. Health is universal and we want to be part of it. This is nothing political,” Yuan emphasized. In May 2009, for the first time in 40 years, and with no objection from China, Taiwan was allowed to attend a WHO meeting as an observer.

Similarly, Taiwan wanted to participate in the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. “We asked the U.S., the United Nations, everybody, why not have Taiwan participate? This is nothing political. Everybody has to be involved,” he said.

Because of climate change, he continued, sea level has become “a big threat” to his island. A typhoon and heavy rains last August wiped out several villages and cost more than 650 lives and “we should share this experience with the international community. We need an early warning system to know if an earthquake or hurricane or typhoon is going to hit us,” Yuan said. “This is a legitimate request, and we can make a contribution, but if we are not part of the U.N. climate change, how can we help? We want more support from the U.S. and other major countries to be part of it.”

Further, he asserted, “it’s ridiculous” that Taiwan, with so many flights into and out of the country, is not part of the International Civil Aviation Organization. “This is a reasonable request but it takes time. Not just the U.S. alone or China alone can decide if we can be part of it. We have to get everybody’s support,” he said. “Hopefully, in a year or two, we will get some kind of status in the ICAO.” Becoming involved in climate change talks might take longer “because they just had the Copenhagen discussion, but you always set a goal. We think there is a good chance for us and it is one of our goals now,” Yuan said.

While the absence of full diplomatic ties with the U.S. is “a limitation” on what Taiwan can achieve in the international community, Yuan said it does not diminish the values Taiwan offers, particularly to U.S. and to China through relationships that will benefit all three countries. “The core value of our tie with the U.S. is democracy, and we are the best example to influence mainland China down the road because we share the same culture, same race and same traditions. There are one million Taiwanese living in China and so much intermarriage. That kind of influence and impact down the road will be tremendous,” Yuan declared.

In conclusion he pointed again to our common democracy as the bond holding the relationship together. “That is a reason that the U.S. can not give up Taiwan, a reason for the U.S. to promote Taiwan. We still consider the U.S. the most important country to us. We can easily trust the U.S., while it’s still a question how much we can trust China, a communist country. We love your system and we are grateful for the support of the U.S. for the past 60 years that has enabled us to stand tall. We are proud of ourselves, and I am very optimistic. As long as we never give up, I think we’re going to do well.”