The Dalai Lama and I are both visiting Taiwan at the same time. This is not by design, you understand; it just happened that the “coolest daddio around” needed to be here – very sadly – after Hurricane Morakot wreaked havoc on the southern part of this island. And I just happened to be here too. Needless to say, my airport arrival was a little bit lower key than his as I had instructed Kotie and Vian “No Press”! And at least China did not denounce my visit as they did his.
As it is I only just escaped Hong Kong ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Palin (yes, that is as in Sarah “I know a lot about foreign policy – I can see Russia from my window” Palin). Rest assured, it was not difficult to choose between the Devil and the Deep Saffron Seer!
I like Taiwan not least because of the way they do business here. There’s no fuss, not a lot of ceremony and refreshingly little ego. All of this is born out of a tradition where the island had to succeed in a hostile environment from a low base with little more than the wits of its citizens as assets. There is a lot of discipline in Taiwan – keeping costs tight is second nature to its people. Style is here but there is very little flash to go with it. It makes for a good combination.
Education has obviouly been a high priority. The questions arising from my presentations are high quality and the questioners obviously well versed in the global economic debate (as in “What has so changed in Latin America in recent years that means one can be optimistic about its future today whereas yesterday it was little more than a basket case?”. Impressive and right on the button.)
Though not the most beautiful of cities, Taipei has its charm. It looks especially good – or more precisely, vibrant – from street level. It has one or two stand-out landmarks, none more so than the one where we have our offices: Taipei 101, the tallest occupied building in the world until the Burj in Dubai is completed.
For those who have seen the Discovery Channel documentary on the building, Taipei 101 is as much an engineering triumph as it is an architectural one. A sophisticated internal pendulum mechanism counteracts earthquakes in what is a seismically active area (Taiwan lies in the so-called “Ring of Fire”.) Everything about the building is high tech and slick – rather like the latest HTC Hero 3G Android Sim-Free Mobile Phone Handset. (Truly, when it comes to PDAs, mobiles and computers, Taiwan is the R&D centre of East Asia.)
China seems to have recognised this – when they pragmatically accepted back from the British the former colony of Hong Kong by agreeing to Hong Kong’s terms, China gained control of what was then the greatest entrepot on earth; Singapore is vying for this mantle today. (In the lesser case of Macau, China gained control of the greatest casino on earth!) In Taiwan’s growing rapprochement with China (and truth to tell the Chinese have not kicked up the fuss they could have done about the Deep Saffron Seer’s visit) China will be cosying up to the best “Technical College” in Asia and – in some spheres – the world.
Last night, I had a dish called Buddha jumps over the Wall – a very fancy version of Shark’s Fin Soup. It is so called because it smells so delicious that a vegetarian Buddhist monk might be tempted to “jump over the wall” and eat it.
There is a lot of wall-jumping happening in Asia at the moment and not just that one epitomised by the Dalai Lama visiting Taiwan; as the new Asian order forms, new alliances are being made whilst old ones are being tested. China is increasingly giving Taiwan the benefit of the doubt whilst with Myanmar (Burma) there is growing evidence that they are increasingly doubting the benefits of being that autoctatic regimes best friend. With North Korea too, we saw Bill Clinton jump over the wall in the recent ‘private visit’ to Pyongyang to arrange for the release of some Chinese-American journalists. In Japan, the electorate has jumped over the wall in electing the Democrats after 50 years of one party rule by the LDP; next could we even see a proper rapprochement between Japan and China? That would be truly transformational if it happened. In Mongolia, their Parliament has jumped over the wall by finally agreeing a mining code that could bring in much needed foreign investment to unlock the vast mineral wealth trapped underground in the land of Genghis Khan.
Asia’s rise is causing a realignment of traditional alliances, interests and positions. Taiwan – for so long an outsider within Asia – could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this new realism.