Stanley Kao‘s mid-June visit to Atlanta came at an inauspicious moment.
Just before the Taiwanese top diplomat’s arrival, Panama dropped diplomatic ties with the island and switched relations to the People’s Republic of China, reducing the number of countries that officially recognize Taiwan to 20.
China considers the island one of its provinces and won’t forge diplomatic ties with countries that do not adhere to its One-China philosophy.
“Losing Panama is certainly a setback,” Mr. Kao said. But he added with confidence that “we lost a battle and not a war.”
Given Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, “we have to be ready for all these challenges.” Taiwan and China had come to a sort of truce when it came to wooing one another’s allies, but the Panama move, preceded by a major Chinese port investment, showed this to be a thing of the past.
Mr. Kao spoke to members of the Atlanta Council on International Relations and World Affairs Council of Atlanta at the Capital City Club about Taiwan’s relationship with the United States and the issues most pressing to Asia – such as the controversies over North Korea, trade and the South China Sea.
A former shortstop on National Taiwan University’s baseball team, Mr. Kao also threw out the first pitch at an Atlanta Braves game versus the Miami Marlins, whose Taiwanese pitcher, Wei-yin Chen, is on the disabled list.
Mr. Kao also chatted with Global Atlanta for the second time this year about how Taiwan competes on the world stage and how the island weathers the challenge of “sleeping next to an 800-pound distant cousin.”
Mr. Kao explained that Taiwan has made an art of improvising and exploiting opportunities in the shadow of the China’s diplomatic squeeze.
Taiwan has made an art of improvising and exploiting opportunities in the shadow of the China’s diplomatic squeeze.
Taiwan works to make its healthy economy indispensable to the world as it competes for survival in the international economy, he said.
It has free trade agreements with Singapore and New Zealand and is negotiating one with India. It would love to forge similar bilateral trade ties with other nations.
Internationally, it looks for opportunities to use its well-educated manpower, civil society groups and its technological knowhow to help other nations grow and develop, join the fight against ISIS and support initiatives such as the Paris climate change accord.
Taiwan works to maintain a calm and steady, business-like demeanor with strength in the background, not front and center. It’s a diplomatic dance using wisdom and imagination with no boat-rocking or provocations.
“How are you going to manage the Washington and Beijing relationship? Mr. Kao asks. “You need to create some creative ambiguity.”
Taiwan can’t keep pace with China “dollar for dollar.” But “we have all this strong business.”
“We play to our strengths,” he said. “We need to find out where we can find a niche.”
Washington, of course, does not officially recognize Taiwan as a nation. But its works to deepen ties with Taiwan’s cutting edge economy and with its biotechnology and semiconductor industries.
Mr. Kao cherishes the longtime close ties between Washington and Taipei and their common values, such as democracy and free enterprise.
“Every step of the way, the United States has been there,” he said. (Ongoing arms sales and the Taiwan Relations Act, which obliges the U.S. to come to the aid of Taiwan in a fight with China, are helpful as well.)
As examples, he pointed to several facts in a slide show and in literature handed out during his talk. Taiwan is the United States’ 10th largest trading partner, with trade volumes of $90 billion. The United States is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner. As of 2016, trade in goods and services with Taiwan, plus $26 billion in inbound investment from Taiwanese companies combined to account for an estimated 350,000 jobs in the U.S.
One of the first international controversies set off by President Donald Trump occurred before his inauguration and it involved Taiwan. Mr. Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen spoke in what Mr. Kao calls a “courtesy” phone call, a surprising break with protocol that agitated China. Mr. Trump backtracked and eventually confirmed the one-China policy.
Taiwan has taken the controversy in stride and kept the larger issue in mind – maintaining close ties with the United States, no matter who is in charge.
“We’d like to see President Trump succeed. We’d like to see the United States succeed. When the United States succeeds, Taiwan benefits,” he said.
The United States and other countries that do not recognize the government in Taipei maintain unofficial relations through the Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices – entities that acts as de facto embassies and consulates in a network that represents Taiwan’s interests throughout the world.
Mr. Kao, who has served in various posts in his career, was the director-general of the TECO office in Atlanta from 1993 to 1996. He applauds the region’s energy, diversity and economic progress. And he sees a remarkable international upswing typified by the sharp growth of the city’s consular community.
“This part of the USA,’ he said. “This is where the future holds.”
Despite the tensions, Taiwan embraces robust ties China across Taiwan straits, and it has no intention of riling the People’s Republic while it conducts business globally. Interaction between the two shores is great for all kinds of commerce. That includes tourism.
Mr. Kao said many mainland visitors flip on their hotel-room TVs and experience what they don’t have back home — democratic speech and free expression.
“Taiwan has a story to tell and share.”