When Taiwan’s top government official in the Southeast left Atlanta for the Caribbean April 28, it wasn’t for a sunny vacation.
R.C. Wu, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office here, has been appointed ambassador in the Taiwan Embassy in the island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.
The 54-year-old Mr. Wu has served Taiwan’s citizens in seven states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for nearly five years from the office in Georgia capital, which is the latest in his long list of diplomatic positions that includes stints in Jordan and Poland as well as the island of Dominica.
The new assignment is a far cry from the fast-growing Southeast, where he was charged with maintaining Taiwan’s mature business and cultural ties.
Taiwan imported $451 million in goods from Georgia in 2006, and the island remains a strong U.S. trading partner.
Per capita consumption of American goods in Taiwan, according to the most recent figures, is $11,000 per year, and overall, Taiwan has a $12 billion surplus in a bilateral trade relationship with the U.S. totaling $64 billion, Mr. Wu told GlobalAtlanta in a recent interview.
Taiwan also is the fifth-largest market for U.S. agricultural products, he said.
Taiwanese professionals and business owners have been settling in Georgia for decades, and Mr. Wu has helped a variety of companies–including tire manufacturer Duro Tires in Covington and PVC pipe maker J-M Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Adel–locate in the region.
But the duties at Mr. Wu’s new post have less to do with the balance sheet than strengthening one of Taiwan’s some 13 allied nations in the Caribbean and Central America.
“St. Kitts is transforming from a sugarcane-based economy to a tourism-based economy,” and Taiwan is helping the nation accelerate that process in many ways, Mr. Wu said.
Taiwan donated 64 computers last year to help streamline St. Kitts’ immigration system and sent a bird-watching team that created a 322-page encyclopedia featuring the birds of St. Kitts, he said.
Mr. Wu’s own duties could end up being a departure from the suit-clad life he’s become accustomed to. After arriving on April 28, one of his first tasks is to help a rural village learn how to commercially grow pineapples, he said.
Although it’s a different type of job, the rationale for supporting St. Kitts is clear to Mr. Wu. Along with other islands like St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts views Taiwan as a sovereign nation and a “normalized” member of the international community, he said.
Taiwan values any acknowledgement of its legitimacy and has engaged in a sort of race for diplomatic recognition with China. As Erica Lee, a diplomat in the Taipei office in Atlanta, puts it, Taiwan’s government sometimes feels that China is “buying our allies.”
For its part, Taiwan has given considerable aid to countries like St. Kitts. Keeping international support from its 25 officially allied nations is especially critical as the U.S. and other unofficial but traditional allies vacillate in their rhetoric to keep from damaging their burgeoning economic relationships with the mainland.
The Communist People’s Republic considers the Republic of China (Taiwan) a territory under its control, and any claims to the contrary are met with harsh criticism from Beijing. The two governments have been at odds since the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949 after a grueling civil war.
Because the mainland has vowed to reassert control over the island, by force if necessary, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have traditionally simmered with varied intensity depending on the direction of the political winds.
In recent months, they’ve blown against Mr. Wu’s Democratic Progressive Party, which has been viewed by some as disrupting the stability in the region.
Outgoing President Chen Shui-bian has been an outspoken proponent of Taiwanese sovereignty and pushed referenda to encourage Taiwan’s entry into international organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization, initiatives backed by Mr. Wu.
It is widely believed that growing dissatisfaction with Mr. Chen’s inflammatory remarks contributed to Kuomintang candidate and former Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou’s election to the presidency in March.
Mr. Wu has held his party’s line in Georgia, doing his best to present its views in a state where promoting business with the mainland has become an important strategic interest.
He estimates that more than 40,000 people of mainland Chinese descent far outnumber the approximately 15,000 Taiwanese Chinese in Georgia.
Person to person, these communities have little trouble interacting, but business interaction on a macro level is rare because it’s unnecessary, Mr. Wu said. Both communities have their own interests and organizations in Georgia.
Taiwan doesn’t sweat the state’s recent fawning over Chinese companies, particularly the three manufacturers that have pledged to build factories here, Mr. Wu said.
Politicians and media tend to focus on novelty and potential rather than traditional ties.
“We understand this kind of psychology. People want to get more jobs, and people want cheaper products. China is fulfilling these needs for people in Georgia,” he said.
But he thinks the state has overplayed China a bit.
He pointed to the recent announcement that PAX Technologies Co. Ltd., a Chinese company traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, would open an office in Georgia employing less than 10 people.
Chinese-owned restaurants, plumbers and photo shops employ just as many people as PAX will, just without all the pomp from the state government, Mr. Wu said.
He also emphasized that Taiwanese businesses operating in China had a lot to do with the China’s economic emergence and export strength and that the firmly established Taiwanese community in Georgia has helped Chinese citizens adapt to the state.
Mr. Wu predicts more cordial relations with the mainland under the new KMT government because they’ll be less outspoken than Mr. Chen.
But “the fundamental difference between Taiwan and China cannot be changed overnight,” he said.
He meant the issue of sovereignty, and if his activity in Atlanta is any indication, Mr. Wu will be promoting Taiwan’s in St. Kitts.