Global isolation

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

TAIPEI – Just across the Luzon Strait from Batanes is the southern tip of Taiwan, home to Kenting with its nature parks and ecotourism, and the city of Kaohsiung, which is positioning itself as a center for arts and culture.

Like Batanes, the Kaohsiung economy used to be centered on fishing. Unlike Batanes, Kaohsiung developed rapidly, becoming a petrochemical hub about four decades ago before evolving into a smart city.

In recent years, Kaohsiung has been promoting a “concert economy,” with a vibrant art and culture scene revolving around its harbor area, which has been developed into a maritime economic park.

An architectural landmark, the Kaohsiung Music Center, opened in October 2021 at the Kaohsiung Harbor. Designed by Spaniard Manuel Alvarez-Monteserin Lohaz’s architecture team in collaboration with Taiwan’s Habitect Architecture, the buildings housing the world’s first all-glass concert hall and exhibition halls resemble ocean waves, corals, whales and dolphins.

It has a nifty recording studio that takes karaoke entertainment to the next level, allowing visitors to perform solo or as a band and download to a smartphone the video recording of the result. It also allows AI-enabled music composition, allowing visitors to choose the genre and mood they want to convey in the melody. The recorded result can also be downloaded to a smartphone.

Apart from concerts within the spacious halls, outdoor music fests are held at the complex, among them Taiwan’s biggest, the Takao Rock and Megaport Festival.

Last year, such shows drew 1.4 million people to Kaohsiung, spending NT$4.5 billion (about P8.18 billion), with 300,000 people visiting in just two days, according to a city government official.

As of end-April this year, 720,000 people have already visited to attend 54 concerts, spending NT$2.3 billion (around P4.18 billion).

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There would be more performances by foreign bands, more people and greater earnings if China isn’t applying economic coercion to sabotage Taiwanese progress.

Foreign groups that agree to perform in Kaohsiung risk a Chinese ban, which can take various forms, with the main idea being to lock out the performer from the massive Chinese market.

Global brands that help raise the profile of Kaohsiung face similar risks, although on this, Beijing’s success is uncertain. With a population of 23 million and one of the world’s highest GDP per capita at US$32,679 as of 2022, Taiwan is a market with spending power that cannot be easily ignored.

Taipei and the Kaohsiung government have great appreciation for those with the courage to risk incurring Beijing’s displeasure. Coldplay performed in Kaohsiung in 2023, and Take That is scheduled in November this year.

Among the major global product brands, Hermes and Chanel have staged promo events at Kaohsiung’s New Bay Area, the maritime economic park that houses an ultra-modern cruise port, high-tech companies and ecology center.

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The problem faced by Kaohsiung shows Taiwan’s struggle against Chinese economic coercion.

It illustrates the geopolitical reality that when it comes to strategic national interests, economics trumps shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights and all that blather. The reality is that size often does matter in the international arena – whether in terms of land area, population and consequently the size of the market plus the purchasing power.

When size matters, might can also make right in asserting national sovereignty.

If shared values and ideology mattered, Taiwan should be seeing stronger support from liberal democratic states.

Maybe the support developed slowly because from May 1949 until July 1987, Taiwan was under martial law, with the most repressive period dubbed the “White Terror” ending only in September 1992. Seeing authoritarian rule in both Taipei and Beijing, the international community took the pragmatic path and went for the victors in the Chinese civil war, the communists under Mao Zedong.

As the representative of the Chinese state officially recognized by the United Nations, Beijing has moved aggressively to exclude Taiwan from all international bodies under a one-China policy.

The US, which waged campaigns overseas to thwart the spread of communism, recognized Beijing but has continued supporting Taiwan.

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Even with the Taiwan issue not factored in, if civil liberties, free societies and international rules truly mattered, we should be seeing greater pushback at least from the liberal democracies against China’s economic coercion, gray zone maritime tactics and refusal to abide by an arbitral ruling that is based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which Beijing is a signatory.

Instead what we see are western governments worrying over the impact on their economy and private businesses if they antagonize Beijing by being cozy with Taiwan, or going beyond statements or joint communiques condemning China’s gray zone operations in the South and East China Seas.

Taiwan’s bid even for observer status in the World Health Organization continues to be rejected, thanks to pressure from Beijing. This isolation has kept millions of Taiwanese out of the global health loop and unable to quickly undertake preventive measures during outbreaks of deadly diseases such as SARS and COVID.

It’s impressive that despite Beijing’s efforts to make Taipei internationally isolated, tiny Taiwan has managed to become the world’s 20th largest economy. Despite the one-China policy and exclusion from the UN, Taiwan’s passport is the 79th strongest in the world.

In the latest World Competitiveness rankings drawn up by the International Institute for Management Development, Taiwan fretted over slipping two spots to eighth place, attributing this to economic issues.

Eighth place, however, still makes Taiwan more competitive than the US (12th place), China (14th), South Korea (20th), Japan (38th) and the Philippines (52nd) among 67 economies. Taiwan retained the top spot for the fourth consecutive year for those with a population of over 20 million.

With a little bit of help from like-minded states, Taiwan could rise higher. Simply getting more visitors to Kaohsiung will be striking a blow for free and open societies.

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