When the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson set up a sister-city relationship with Taipei, Taiwan, in November 1979, he didn’t just envision vibrant cultural exchange.
Trading students, tourists and musicians was a start, but the relationships built that way eventually blossomed into commercial connections.
In 1993, during his third (non-consecutive) term in office, Mr. Jackson formalized these links by setting up an Atlanta business development office in Taipei to foster trade and investment. It was one of a few such outposts, much like the state of Georgia operates in 12 countries today, opened up to burnish Atlanta’s global credentials in the years leading up to hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 1996.
Today, things are different: Mainland China has now become the world’s second-largest economy. Its rise has gradually pushed Taiwan down the economic priority list, despite the island’s resilience as the 11th largest trading partner for the U.S.
China has also sought in recent months to marginalize the island diplomatically. A recent example includes a letter threatening U.S. airlines like Delta with business repercussions if they continue to list Taiwan as separate from China on their websites.
But at least for one night in Atlanta this week, the old ties seemed as strong as ever. Spurred by Mr. Ko’s visit, the local Taipei Economic and Cultural Office set up a packed 24-hour itinerary that included audiences with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Gov. Brian Kemp, as well as the reception where Mr. Ko and others provided glowing retrospectives.
The mayor said Lee Teng-hui, the former Taipei mayor and later president of Taiwan who signed the sister-city deal with Mr. Jackson 40 years ago, was in good health and sent well wishes to Atlanta.
Thursday morning brought things back to the present, as Mr. Ko attended a board meeting of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and was on hand to witness the signing of a new memorandum of understanding between the chamber and the Importers and Exporters Association of Taipei, a business group with more than 6,000 members covering 40 percent of Taiwan’s total trade.
Peter W.J. Huang, the IEAT chairman, told Global Atlanta that the signing is more than just theater. Taiwanese companies have been caught in the middle of the U.S.-China trade war and are rethinking their China-heavy supply chains.
“The trend is that the manufacturing and the market will be combined into one. Where there is a market, there must be manufacturing,” Mr. Huang said. “The U.S. is always the biggest market.”
On the lower end, companies are moving to places like Cambodia and Vietnam while taking some R&D work back to Taiwan. But the magnetism of the U.S. market in higher-end products could mean big opportunity for Georgia and the Southeast, he said. Executives from WinMate, a Taiwanese firm that warehouses its rugged industrial tablet computers in Cobb County, urged Mr. Huang to visit the region. And a similar company has been eyeing Atlanta for a U.S. factory, Global Atlanta has learned.
“If we want to grab opportunities in the future, now is the time to come. Otherwise we will miss the train,” Mr. Huang added.
John Woodward, the Atlanta chamber’s senior director for foreign investment, is planning two recruitment trips to Taiwan this year, ending a long drought that took root as Atlanta focused more toward China.
With President Donald Trump taking a more confrontational approach to the mainland and a pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in power in Taiwan, some believe now is an opportune time to deepen U.S.-Taiwan ties.
It didn’t take much to rekindle the flame in Atlanta. Beyond Mr. Ko, who invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in his brief speech in English, Taipei brought a diverse 50-person delegation that included five city-council members and officials in charge of economic development, international relations, environmental protection and more. Some 20 journalists from major Taiwanese news outlets also tagged along.
On the Atlanta side were City Council President Felicia Moore and District 2 Councilor Amir Farokhi, who wowed the audience using Mandarin Chinese picked up during a year in Taipei after college. He won applause by unveiling a newspaper clipping of him tackling in former Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou in a mud football game. Like Lee Teng-hui, Mr. Ma would rise from the mayor’s position to become Taiwan’s president.
But it was Mayor Jackson’s widow, guest of honor Valerie Jackson, who seemed to infuse a personal warmth into an event marked by halting photo ops and formal gift exchanges.
“My memories of Taiwan have been totally rekindled this evening,” Mrs. Jackson said, recalling her trip to sign the sister-city deal with her late husband in November 1979. “I think what I remember is the energy, the strong energy both physical and spiritual, in the city. Maybe second was the food.”
Just the day before, she’d happened upon a matchbox from her hotel stay in Taipei 40 years ago in a drawer at home.
“Talk about synchronicity,” she said, underscoring the power of travel to change perceptions and urging today’s youth to engage in exchange programs. “It is important to reach out in international relations, especially in these times of turmoil.”
In brief remarks, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger praised Mr. Jackson for the global vision also recognized by the Atlanta airport and its international terminal, which both bear his name.
“When Mayor Jackson reached out to Taipei, he wasn’t just reaching out to you; he was reaching out to the world,” Mr. Raffensperger said.
Vincent Jing-Yen Liu, the director-general of the TECO office in Atlanta, agreed.
“We are still trying our best to fit into his far-reaching vision,” Mr. Liu said in introducing Mr. Ko.
Taipei has more than 40 sister cities worldwide and 16 in the U.S. alone. Mr. Ko’s visit also included stops in New York, Washington and Boston, which he is to visit after leaving Atlanta. According to an official from Mr. Ko’s office, Atlanta won out over Los Angeles for a place in the mayor’s schedule. The reception was sponsored by the local chapter of Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council.
Atlanta didn’t have to compete for the IEAT’s affections, though. The association picked the chamber, a 159-year-old business organization, for its first-ever overseas MOU. The agreement focuses on sharing of information and mutual visits by trade delegations, among other items. Signing on the chamber’s side was David Hartnett, chief economic development officer.
Read the full Memorandum of Understanding between the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the IEAT below: