Global problems persist…
As we enter a new year, it is easy to be grim about the future. The continuing COVID-19 plague, ongoing PRC belligerence toward Taiwan and others, the Russian threat against Ukraine, deep political divisions in the U.S. and other countries, the decline in freedom worldwide and rise of more authoritarian leaders, widening worldwide wealth inequality, demographic decline throughout the developed world, and seemingly unstoppable climate change are just some of the many challenges we face.
…But there are reasons for Taiwan to give thanks
- Managing COVID-19:
Although there are many reasons to be skeptical about the future, I have nonetheless also found many reasons to be thankful for living in Taiwan. Taiwan has proven itself to be one of the top countries in the world in controlling COVID-19 and helping others to meet this challenge as well. It has developed its own vaccine and provided more than 50 million medical masks to other countries as well as other medical equipment and assistance to those in need.
CEOWORLD magazine ranked Taiwan as the 10th Safest Place in the World to travel to in 2021 given its handling of COVID-19. Taiwan also continues to rank as one of the top countries in the world for providing excellent health care to its own citizens, and for taxpayers medical care is free.
- Political and economic freedom:
I am also grateful to live in Taiwan because it is one of the freest countries in the world. In the 2021 Freedom House rating of people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories, it scored 94 out of 100 points and tied for seventh place alongside Estonia, Germany, Cyprus, and Iceland. In the 2021 Heritage House Index of Economic Freedom, it ranked sixth out of 178 countries.
Taiwan also continues to be a great economic success story. According to the IMF's 2021 estimate, it is 20th in the world in nominal GDP and 12th in GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms.
- Personal safety:
Taiwan also ranks consistently as one of the safest places in the world. Last year, Numbeo listed Taiwan as the second safest country, preceded only by Qatar. In Numbeo’s Crime Index by City 2021, Taipei was ranked as the third safest of 431 cities in 163 countries. Only Abu Dhabi and Doha enjoy lower crime rates.
- Expats’ top choice:
It is no wonder, therefore, that Taiwan retained its title in 2021 as the “best place in the world for expats” for the third year in a row based on a January online survey by InterNations Expat Insider of 12,420 expats representing 174 nationalities in 186 countries. Taiwan took the top spot among 59 named destinations. In second place was Mexico, with Costa Rica, Malaysia, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, Canada, and Vietnam rounding out the top 10. The list considered 37 factors grouped under the headings of Quality of Life, Ease of Settling In, Working Abroad, and Personal Finance. Taiwan ranked 1st in both the Quality of Life and Working Abroad indices.
Since retiring as a diplomat, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to serve as a professor at four of Taiwan’s national universities, most recently National Chengchi University. I have been inspired by the quality of the faculties, the ambition and skills of the students, and the overall academic achievements I have observed. I am thankful that I have always found positions in which I can make my own contribution, however small, to Taiwan’s future.
Good government adopting the right policies
Taiwanese should be, and mostly are, thankful for the prudent leadership of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her administration. Most important perhaps, President Tsai has not chased the mirage of “one country, two systems,” an illusory promise that proved to be a lie in Hong Kong but was already manifestly false as long ago as 2015 when former President Ma Ying -jeou (馬英九) held his long-awaited meeting with PRC leader Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore. Xi spoke only of “one country” and “one blood,” phrases Ma dutifully repeated, but there was no mention of “two systems.”
Still, we can always hope for more... A New Year’s wish list: security first
We can hope the PRC will halt its belligerent, provocative, and counter-productive intrusions into Taiwan’s air identification zone and surrounding waters. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely, so Taiwan must continue its efforts to strengthen its defenses, including the acquisition of more sophisticated arms.
Taiwan’s relations with the United States, Japan, Australia, and many European countries have never been stronger. The formation of the Quad and AUKUS are signs of a growing consensus that Taiwan is a critical security link in the Indo-Pacific region and must be assisted. Taiwan needs to continue training and coordination with its friends, building on the progress it has already made. The country's participation in this summer’s RIMPAC exercises, in whatever capacity, will be another step in the right direction, but I would hope it participates rather than only observes. After all, in the former starry-eyed days of the U.S. Pacific Command, China was invited to participate in 2014 and again in 2016.
I also hope that Taiwan will seriously revisit the issue of military conscription. Although it remains politically unpopular across party lines, military experts I know have uniformly told me the current four-month tour for men is entirely inadequate. Like other countries facing the possibility of needing to defend against aggression, realistic lengthier training is essential to both military preparedness and as a demonstration of Taiwan’s national will to defend itself.
Strengthening Taiwan’s trade relationships
Now is the time, I hope, that Taiwan and its friends also do more to enhance their trading relationships. As I have long argued, the primary motives for the U.S.' free trade agreements with 20 partner countries have usually been strategic and political rather than economic. This was certainly the case with Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Peru and Chile, among others. Now that Taiwanese voters have rejected the December 18th referendum that would have banned imports of U.S. pork containing traces of a feed additive, it is high time for the office of the U.S. trade representative to do its part and re-engage with Taiwan on a free trade agreement. As of now, only Singapore and New Zealand have free trade agreements with Taiwan.
Similarly, in an effort to bolster Taiwan’s economic independence, friendly countries like Japan, Australia, and Canada should support its entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Tran-Pacific Partnership. Since the PRC is also an applicant, if it is admitted first it will certainly try to block Taiwan’s entry. In a promising development, Canada and Taiwan on Jan. 10 began talks on an investment agreement and bravely did so on a ministerial level — a decision that will certainly anger Beijing.
Addressing Taiwan’s demographic problem
Taiwan’s fertility rate is the lowest in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook’s 2021 estimate. Only the fertility rates of South Korea, Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong approach that of Taiwan. This demographic decline, characteristic of much of the developed world today, raises the growing specter of labor shortages, falling domestic consumer demand, and declining tax revenues to support a growing number of elderly. The proportion of people over 65 is expected to be nearly 20% of Taiwan’s population by 2025.
While more social support for mothers is one obvious measure that would help, Taiwan might want to consider increasing immigration.
Meanwhile, reinforcing Taiwan’s demographic problem is its severe “ brain drain” as talented Taiwanese find preferred employment elsewhere. Oxford Economics’ Global Talent 2021 ranked Taiwan as the country with the biggest talent deficit in the world. The government is especially concerned that a large number of the most talented will move to the PRC in pursuit of higher salaries. In 2021, the Mainland Affairs Council banned PRC recruitment of skilled Taiwanese for jobs in China, especially in “critical technologies,” but it may also be time to ensure more attractive salaries for skilled personnel in Taiwan.
And then there is Taiwan’s energy conundrum
Taiwan was the world’s 14th largest consumer of electricity per 2021 data, and electricity is of course critical to its high-tech infrastructure. Unfortunately, from a security perspective, in 2020 97.79% of Taiwan’s energy was imported and only 2.1% was indigenous, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs' Bureau of Energy. Moreover, 91.74% of the nation's energy came from fossil fuels; only 0.36% from hydroelectric power; 0.38% from solar, wind, and geothermal power; and 6.57% was nuclear. Taiwan’s reliance on fossil fuels means that it has been unable to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. According to the German Climate Change Performance Index for 2022, Taiwan ranked 58th out of 60 countries and the EU.
Meanwhile, as was evident again in the Jan. 15 referendum question on whether Taiwan's Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be unsealed, public opinion continues to oppose nuclear power. Taiwan still needs to find a way forward. Given Taiwan’s miraculous achievement in overcoming enormous odds to become a prosperous democracy, I am betting it will succeed.