Hands Across Asia

From Taiwan Review 2021-03-31
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Tsao Li-jey, right, and Omer Caspi, representative of the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, see off a donation of 100,000 medical masks heading to Israel from Taiwan May 22, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Tsao Li-jey, right, and Omer Caspi, representative of the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, see off a donation of 100,000 medical masks heading to Israel from Taiwan May 22, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Israel and Taiwan are at opposite ends of the world’s largest continent, but the countries have much in common.

One year on from the start of COVID-19, Taiwan is often cited by experts and media outlets as a model example of a country that managed to curtail the virus while carrying on a relatively normal life. In Israel, many people admire this achievement, which has led to greatly increased interest in Taiwan and its people. Those in Taiwan have likewise looked to Israel as an inspiration in terms of what a small country can achieve despite difficult relationships with its nearest neighbors.

Situated at the extreme edges of Asia, Taiwan and Israel have in recent years steadily and firmly forged ahead in cementing their multifaceted relationship. This includes growing economic ties, flourishing academic exchanges, extensive scientific and technological links, burgeoning cooperation in various high-tech and artificial intelligence ventures as well as joint efforts in the fields of agriculture, irrigation, medicine and public health. Tourism was also on the rise until curtailed by the outbreak of coronavirus.

Shared Struggle

What attractions drew the two nations closer? What do they have in common, and what is the outlook of these growing ties? First is size: Taiwan is 36,000 square kilometers; Israel is 28,000 square km. In 2020 Taiwan had a population of some 23 million; Israel will soon reach 10 million. There are also certain aspects of common history. Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945) for 50 years. The Jewish community of Palestine lived under a British Mandatory regime from 1920 to 1948. The colonial administrations did much to contribute to the infrastructure of each country by building roads, railways, ports and postal services. Both nations also found themselves free from colonial rule around the same time—Taiwan in 1945 and Israel in 1948—following World War II.

Ever since, the two countries’ existences as free and separate political entities have been challenged by their neighbors: the People’s Republic of China (PRC) constantly asserts false claims of sovereignty over Taiwan, while in the case of Israel, many Arab states have never accepted, let alone acquiesced to, the existence of Israel as a separate free, independent and democratic state in the Middle East.

Lacking natural resources, both states built up their human capital through education, with particular focus on science and technology. Both nations initially developed highly centralized, state-led economies that were later abandoned for free-market principles backed by government provision of key services such as health, welfare, education and employment.

Taiwan and Israel have opted to adhere to democratic systems of government. Taiwan, after years of martial law, embarked in the late 1980s on the path to a multiparty system. Since then it has become one of Asia’s leading democracies, with elections for the presidency and the legislature as well as local government positions held regularly and multiple peaceful transitions of power. Israelis also note the absence of anti-Semitism in Taiwan. While many in Asia know little of the Holocaust that befell the Jewish people in Europe, there is a small museum near Tainan City in southern Taiwan devoted to educating people about this atrocity.

In Taiwan there is no questioning of the validity of a Jewish state or boycotts of Israeli goods. Taiwan has always accepted Israel’s position on national sovereignty and understands the geopolitical reasons behind its relations with the PRC. This mutual respect helps the two sides fight against international isolation.

Both Taiwan and Israel have special relationships with the U.S. based on historical friendship and shared values such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, as well as freedom of expression and association. Though policies in Washington can change over time, these deep bonds are a bipartisan issue that have lasted through decades of administrations under Democratic and Republican presidents. This is sure to continue for the foreseeable future.

Standing Tall

Many in Taiwan see the rise of modern Israel as proof that small nations can survive by developing their institutions, agriculture, economy, science, technology, industry and culture. Both nations have registered notable achievements in the fields of literature, dance, drama and music as well as medicine, science and technology.

Since the opening of representative offices in Taipei and Tel Aviv in 1993, more than 20 agreements have been signed by the governments of the two nations dealing with areas such as academic cooperation, civil aviation, diplomatic immunity, economic ties, prevention of double taxation, protection of patents, student exchanges and visa-exemption for visitors. Israel also supports the involvement of Taiwan in international organizations such as the World Health Organization. An Israel-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Association has led to frequent exchanges between Israel and Taiwan lawmakers.

In recent years the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and Tel-Hai College in Galilee have launched undergraduate study courses on Taiwan. In November 2020, a new book called “Taiwan—History, Society and Politics” was published. It is the first such book in the Hebrew language and is bound to serve a growing number of Israelis keen on learning more about the country. Similarly, there is extensive research being done in Taiwan universities on Israel, Jewish history and civilization. All this bodes well for the continued flourishing of ties between the two nations.

Meron Medzini first visited Taiwan in 1970 as a guest of the Government Information Office. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Modern Asian History, has worked for the government of Israel in senior capacities, taught history of modern Asia at both Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities and is the author of “Taiwan—History, Society and Politics” (Carmel Publishing Co. Jerusalem, 215 pp)

Copyright © 2021 by Meron Medzini

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