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Politics aside, Taiwan delights with traditional dinner, dragon boat race
Diplomatic Pouch / June 19, 2014

By Larry Luxner

The Republic of China recently marked the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act — a landmark piece of legislation that has defined the non-diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei ever since 1979, when then-President Jimmy Carter formally recognized mainland China and broke relations with Taiwan.

Among other things, the act, signed into law April 10, 1979, authorizes relations with the governing authorities on Taiwan by elevating a nonprofit corporation — the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) — to de facto embassy status. It also requires the United States to intervene militarily if China attacks or invades Taiwan.

Bruce Jacobs, emeritus professor of Asian languages and studies at Australia’s Monash University, says there’s no question that under international law, Taiwan is a sovereign state — regardless of how many or how few other countries recognize such sovereignty.

“There’s a widespread impression that Taiwan is somehow part of China. This is wrong,” said Jacobs, speaking June 10 at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank. “These perspectives have dominated international understanding of the Taiwan problem and continue to do so today, as Chinese propaganda is unrelenting.”

In fact, he said, when early Dutch colonists settled Taiwan in 1624, there were no permanent Han Chinese communities on the island. The Han Chinese came to Taiwan for three purposes only, he said: merchants came to trade, fishermen came to fish, and pirates came to hide. Chinese claims on the island are relatively recent, he said, and are not borne out by historical fact at all.

“People around the world — and in Taiwan — have been ensnared into defining Taiwan’s future within a Chinese framework, and these alternatives have been unification or independence,” said Jacobs, author of two books on the island: “Local Politics in Rural Taiwan under Dictatorship and Democracy” (2008) and “Democratizing Taiwan” (2012).

“I would argue that Taiwan’s leaders and people overseas need to think about Taiwan in terms of its decolonization process,” Jacobs told his audience. “By far, the vast majority of countries around the world have experienced colonization, and have often expressed support for other countries undergoing the decolonization process. Taiwan needs to explain to the world that its so-called ‘one China policy’ was established under the colonial dictatorships of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo, and that the Taiwanese people had no say in the matter. These issues of unification and independence are left over from the colonial past, and have no relevance today.”

Jacobs further argued that under Article 1 of the Convention of Rights and Duties of States — signed in 1933 in Montevideo, Uruguay — Taiwan clearly meets the definition of a sovereign state, in that it has a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

“Furthermore, Article 3 of the convention — which people tend to neglect — clearly says that the political existence of a state is independent of recognition by other states,” he told his audience. “So even if you meet the four conditions and you have no states recognizing you, according to international law, you’re still an independent state.”

At present, Taiwan is officially recognized by 21 countries, including six in Central America, six in the Pacific Ocean, five in the Caribbean, three in Africa and one in South America (that’s down from 71 countries in 1969, 68 in 1971 and 31 in 1973). Another 47 nations have established trade offices in Taipei.

These days, Taiwan is pushing hard to join the much-hyped Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), given that it’s already a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the World Trade Organization. Taiwan’s lobbyists point out that the island nation of 23 million is already the world’s 18th-largest trading power and 10th among APEC members — and would be the sixth-largest economy in the TPP should it gain access to that exclusive club.

Taiwan could also generate greater benefits for the TPP, says the government. A 2013 study by the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research indicates that Taiwan’s accession to the TPP could bring nearly $78 billion worth of social welfare for TPP member states.

But it was food, rather than politics, that was on the minds of guests at Taiwan’s recent state banquet at the historic Twin Oaks Estate in Washington.

Lyushun Shen, chief of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) — Taiwan’s equivalent of an embassy in the nation’s capital — hosted U.S. congressmen and diplomats to showcase the work of two prominent Taiwanese chefs.

The May 22 banquet featured a six-course feast as well as traditional music and folk art.

Guests of honor included Edward Perkins, former U.S. ambassador to Australia, South Africa and the United Nations; Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), co-chair of the House Congressional Caucus on Taiwan; Marie Royce, wife of Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.); Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) and Joseph Donovan, managing director of AIT’s Washington office.

The guests were treated to food prepared by chefs Kai-Tun Hsu and W.T. Huang. Hsu is a master in seafood, noodles and fruit carvings, while Huang is famous for his baking skills and excels in pastry-decorating techniques. Taiwanese violinist Tseng Keng-yuen played traditional folk tunes throughout the evening.

On June 14-15, Taiwanese culture was once again on display at the 13th Annual Washington DC Dragon Boat Festival, which took place at Georgetown’s Thompson Boat Center. The event — a two-day festival held along the Potomac River — was sponsored by the Chinese Women’s League and featured cultural exhibitions, craft demonstrations and, of course, dragon boat racing.

Based on a 2,300-year-old tradition in ancient China, the race commemorates the life and death of Chinese poet and statesman Qu Yuan. This year, the competition attracted 53 teams from around the D.C. area and as far away as Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York.

The dragon boats themselves are made of integrally molded fiberglass by Taiwanese manufacturer Hong Quan-Rui. They measure 46 feet long (including the dragon head and tail), weigh 550 pounds and accommodate 20 paddlers, one steersman and one drummer.

“With emphasis on the spirit of teamwork and sportsmanship, and being a beautiful display of the cultural heritage of the Republic of China, the Dragon Boat Festival has now become one of the most popular cultural events in the greater Washington, D.C., area,” said Lyushun Shen, chief of the TECRO office. “It has also helped enrich the U.S.-Taiwan bilateral relationship, providing a good opportunity for the Chinese/Taiwanese communities in this country to contribute to Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.”

Hundreds of people attended the opening festivities the morning of June 14. Master of ceremonies Bonnie Johnson invited Christine Shen, chairwoman of the Chinese Women’s League DC Chapter and wife of the ambassador, to make welcoming remarks; she then read congratulatory messages from President Obama and the president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou.

The 60-page festival program also contained messages of support from top Taiwanese lawmakers, members of Congress and an array of local elected officials including D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Phil Mendelson, chairman of the D.C. Council.

Among the VIPs present that morning, besides Taiwan’s diplomat in Washington and his wife: Mr. and Mrs. Joseph R. Donovan Jr., managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan; Julie Koo, director of the Office of Asian-Pacific Affairs in Washington, and Thomas Chang, director of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau in New York.

Before the race itself began, the VIPs were invited to turn around, face the river and light sticks of incense. “We pray for the safety and happiness of all the participants, for the great success of the festival, and for the continued friendship of the Republic of China and the United States,” they said.

And finally, the VIPs participated in the crucial eye-dotting ceremony, whose purpose, said Johnson, “is to awaken and revitalize the dragon boats after their long winter slumber, making them ready for a good race.”

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