Staunch Partners and Allies: 40 Years of Taiwan–US Relations
Esther Tseng /photo bythe Information Resource Center, AIT /tr. byPhil Newell
“Mostly, I remember that Taiwanese were very friendly,” says Stephen Young, former director of the Taipei Office of the American Institute in Taiwan, who lived in an American military community in Kaohsiung for two years when he was 12 years old. He recalls: “As an eighth-grade student, I used to walk down the dirt road and wait for the school bus. Little local kids would see us there and say ‘Bi-gok-lang OK’—‘American OK.’ I think there was a sense that America was Taiwan’s friend and partner, and even children had that sense….”
In 2009, Typhoon Morakot had brought torrential rains to Taiwan, and in Xiaolin Village in Kaohsiung County’s Jiaxian Township a debris flow on Mt. Xiandu had buried more than 400 people. On August 14 Taiwan appealed for help to the US, which assigned the amphibious transport dock USS Denver, based at Sasebo Harbor in Japan, to head to Taiwan. Three days later the two helicopters it carried, which could airlift backhoes and bulldozers, flew directly into the disaster area to render assistance. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
US aid, and assistance from US engineers, were crucial to the successful construction of the Central Cross-Island Highway. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs file photo)
The United States of America established formal diplomatic relations with mainland China as of January 1, 1979. Given the unstable situation that this created, in March of the same year the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which took effect on April 10 and became the foundation for the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the Republic of China on Taiwan and the US.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Taiwan Relations Act, and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which was established in accordance with the TRA, has organized a special exhibition entitled “AIT@40—US‡Taiwan Relations Since 1979,” which will tour throughout Taiwan. Every photo on display in the exhibition evokes the deep friendship between Taiwan and the US over the passage of time. From these vivid images, one can see how the promises made have survived trials by fire as the two parties have passed through various crises.
The “Mobile American Corner” of the American Institute in Taiwan visits remote primary schools all over Taiwan to teach children about American culture.
Through the Fulbright scholarship program, the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange has brought outstanding Americans to Taiwan to work as assistant English teachers. (courtesy of the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange)
Help in times of trouble
There is one photo in the exhibition that shows two helicopters taking off, one of which has a small object hanging from it. When you look more closely, you see that the helicopter is lifting a backhoe excavator.
The image was taken on August 17, 2009. Typhoon Morakot had brought torrential rains to Taiwan, and in Xiaolin Village in Kaohsiung County’s Jiaxian Township a debris flow on Mt. Xiandu had buried more than 400 people. The roads were cut, hampering rescue efforts. On August 14 Taiwan appealed for help to the US, which assigned the amphibious transport dock USS Denver, based at Sasebo Harbor in Japan, to head to Taiwan. Three days later the two helicopters it carried, which could airlift backhoes and bulldozers, flew directly into the disaster area to render assistance.
The US dispatched aircraft carriers to assist Taiwan in 1996, during the Taiwan Strait missile crisis at the time of Taiwan’s first-ever direct presidential election. US president Bill Clinton decided to send two US carrier battle groups into waters near Taiwan, fulfilling the undertaking in the Taiwan Relations Act that the US would resist any form of coercion that could affect Taiwan’s security. Lin Cheng-yi, a research fellow in the Institute of European and American Studies at the Academia Sinica, argues that US protection of Taiwan demonstrates that the Taiwan Relations Act has a deterrent effect.
The US systematically provided a great deal of support and funding to Taiwan in the years following the ROC government’s withdrawal to Taiwan in 1949.
But US assistance to Taiwan by no means ceased with the break in formal diplomatic ties in 1979. With the Taiwan Relations Act as the foundation for bilateral interactions, exchanges between Taiwan and the US have become ever more frequent and warmhearted.
Take for example overseas study by Taiwanese in the US. Statistics show that from 1980 to 2010, student numbers grew year by year, and did not decline as a result of the break in diplomatic ties. Furthermore, since Taiwan joined the US Visa Waiver Program in 2012, according to AIT figures the number of Taiwanese traveling to the US has increased by over 60%. In 2017 alone nearly 475,000 Taiwanese visited the US, spending more than US$2.2 billion (roughly NT$68 billion) on travel and tourism.
Study in the US has been a dream for many people, and is an important facet of Taiwan–US relations. The photo was taken on the campus of Stanford University. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
Cultural and educational exchanges
Starting in 2008, the AIT’s Information Resource Center sponsored the CommonWealth Education Foundation’s “Read for the Future” bookmobile in providing English-language picture books and prizewinning children’s books to kids. Since 2013, the “Mobile American Corner,” equipped with a 60” TV, iPads, and touchscreen PCs, has visited primary schools in remote locations across Taiwan in hopes of narrowing the urban‡rural digital divide.
AIT officials have personally visited schools throughout Taiwan to introduce American culture and undertake small-scale scientific experiments, and the AIT has also organized camps for winter or summer vacation. Moreover, they have been able to share interactive illustrated e-books with children by video link or by installing stories on tablet computers. The Information Resource Center reports that as of mid-2018, the Mobile American Corner had visited at least 178 schools, and more than 35,000 students had read works of famous American authors as well as illustrated books in Chinese and English at the mobile library, learning about American culture through reading.
Creative capabilities, world stage
The AIT sees itself as a bridge between the US and Taiwan, and Brent Christensen, director of its Taipei office, states that one of his top priorities since taking up his post in 2018 has been to increase Taiwan’s role in the global community. Two examples of the AIT’s efforts to build mutual friendship are the Taiwan competitions that it organized for the “Fishackathon” and the “NASA Hackathon.”
The AIT’s American Innovation Center periodically holds 3D printing workshops, allowing attendees to use 3D printing technology to make all kinds of stylish-looking products. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
In response to the holding of the Fishackathon coding competition by the US Department of State starting in 2014, the AIT invited coders to propose digital solutions for problems in marine environmental protection and fisheries development, to ensure the sustainability of marine resources. In 2016 the Taiwanese start-up company Akubic won the world championship and US$10,000 at the 3rd Fishackathon for its “Great Lakes Savior” project.
Encouraged by the success of the Fishackathon, AIT next organized the Taiwan event of the world’s largest hackathon competition: the NASA Hackathon (a.k.a. the NASA International Space Apps Challenge).
Taiwan’s innovative capabilities proved to be surprisingly strong. The 2017 Taiwan champion team, “Space Bar,” entered the world finals, and won out over a field that included 187 locations, 25,140 participants, and 2,017 technology applications. The team won NASA’s global “Best Mission Concept” award for an app that can interpret debris flow data.
In order to share the soft power of technology and innovation, the US Department of State has arranged for the American Innovation Center (located in Taipei’s Songshan Cultural and Creative Park) to regularly hold 3D printing workshops, robot combat camps, and courses on the latest technologies, such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and blockchains, all free of charge. Mutual exchanges of knowledge, culture and technology between Taiwan and the US are in the original spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act, creating firm bonds of friendship that tie the two sides tightly together across changing times.
The new AIT building in Taipei.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama