Koror— Lacking formal government-to-government relations, Taiwan has relied on non-official interaction, that is people-to-people exchanges to provide an extensive perspective on the country from governance to its culture and fostering lasting links between people of different cultures.
As the new year rolled in, I embarked on a three-week study trip to Taiwan as part of the prestigious National Development Course sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. My study course was Session 155 – indicating the number of such courses since inception in 1971. Previous participants include an impressive list that includes others who have gone on to become head of governments or hold senior government positions in their own countries.
At the National Defense University - Fu Hsing Kang College, I joined a group of 24 government and military officials and researchers from around the world billeted at the military campus for an enriching series of lectures and field trips throughout the entire stay. My participation was directly through an invitation from the Taiwan embassy in Koror, in my capacity as a journalist and an eager observer of my country – Palau’s national development.
In June, five Palauan students will be graduating at various universities in Taiwan. They joined five others along with two medical students who graduated last year bringing to over 40 Palauans who have graduated since Palau and Taiwan established diplomatic ties on Dec. 29, 1999. More than 80 Palauan students have graduated or are currently attending school have availed the full educational scholarships provided by the Taiwan government.
Educational scholarships are one of the many forms of development assistance provided by the Taiwan government (officially Republic of China) to Palau, which is one of the only 20 countries holding diplomatic ties with Taiwan. In return, Palau has been a steadfast partner supporting Taiwan in the United Nations and other international fora.
Taiwan’s economic success relies on its education system, rooted in the Confucian belief that education is the path to prosperity. The government invests the most in education, science and culture with a combined total expenditure of over $21 billion annually – an amount more than what is spent on social welfare, government administration, national defense and economic development.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s new Southbound Policy, which is to enhance cooperation and exchanges between Taiwan and countries in
Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia, tens of thousands of students from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and many others are studying in Taiwan in various fields. The policy was created to make Taiwan less dependent on mainland China and to improve Taiwan's cooperation with other countries. Palau only can only gain from Taiwan’s new foreign policy direction. Such is an example of Taiwan’s inspiring story of economic and political development.
The study course was an eye opening on the Taiwan society, which is basically defined by its relationship with mainland China – the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan is a country with strong democracy and a fair society, an immense political achievement considering that martial law was lifted in 1987 and the direct presidential election held in 1996. Two parties dominate the political scene, Kuomintang, which is the party of Chang Kai-shek and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). President Tsai Ing-wen hails from the DPP succeeding President Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) in a successful election in 2016. A significant election in Taiwan’s political development as it was deemed to have met The Samuel Huntington's "Two-Turnover Test" of democracy, meaning that the democratic transition of authority has been consolidated ensuring future transfer of power are peaceful.
Taiwan has a strong, prosperous and competitive economy. It is a relatively small country slightly bigger than the state of Maryland with a population of 23 million people. It has the 22nd biggest economy in the world with per capita GDP of $48,703, which 17th in the world. It has transformed from mainly an agricultural based after the war to an industrial, high tech and service-oriented economy.
Palau is a recipient of Taiwan’s economic advancement not only from the $10 million a year in road infrastructure funding assistance but also in addressing the food security by increasing locally grown pork and poultry products. Earlier this month, the Palau National Slaughterhouse, established as part of the Anima Production Project, with the funding and training assistance from Taiwan government was opened for operation. The goal is to reduce the reliance of imported food products with locally grown sources. Palau imports half-million dollars of pork products (not including processed pork) with the idea of keeping that money in the local economy.
The country has health insurance for everyone and world renowned for its medical tourism, in which Palau has tapped for its medical referral patients. Alongside referrals to Manila, Philippines, Palau spends nearly $1.5 million in yearly medical care for its Taiwan referral patients.
Last year, nearly 10,000 tourists from Taiwan visited Palau and President Tsai Ing-wen announced during an official visit of the members of the Palau National Congress last year that China Airlines will be increasing flights to Palau this year. The news couldn’t have come at a better time that PRC included Palau (Vatican is the other) in its directive banning group tours originating from the mainland.
Beijing has consistently claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, describing it as renegade province and demanding the One-China Policy. It refused diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes Taiwan.
The Taiwan government founded by the nationalist forces headed by Chang Kai-shek is fully self-governing and independent in every sense. It participates in some international organizations such as ICAO and WTO as full-fledged member or hold observer status in others.
What I learned most from my study tour is that Palau and Taiwan both share the same value in democratic principles. But Palau can learn more from Taiwan by investing more in the education of its people to anchor its economic development.
I can’t help but feel that being one of the 20 countries that hold diplomatic ties with Taiwan, there is that feeling of closeness and attention regardless of how small you are, something that would be different with mainland China with hundreds of diplomatic allies competing for attention.