(First published in the Forest Journal 6/10/16)
I spent last week travelling with a parliamentary delegation to the Republic of China (Taiwan: the Island of Formosa; and distinct from the People’s Republic of China –the world’s most populous -and communist- state, occupying the Chinese mainland).
With a population of only 21 million, nevertheless Taiwan retains its position as one of the Asian ‘tiger economies’ and a major exporter of IT equipment including laptop computers. We benefit from extensive trade and investment with Taiwan and it is just the sort of country with which we need to encourage even closer political, trade and investment relationships as we leave the EU.
As it happens, our parliamentary delegation coincided with the visit by our own UK trade minister, with whom we met whilst there in order to share our insights and common objectives.
Despite our tour being disrupted by a devastating Typhoon we still managed to conduct the greater part of our planned programme of discussions with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Vice-President, The Speaker, our fellow legislators, and the Chairman of the Defence and Security Council. In addition, we spent half a day in a University Hospital because one of my parliamentary colleagues has a particular interest as a member of the Commons Health Select Committee. The Taiwan universal healthcare system is based on insurance and affordable co-payments (people with serious and chronic conditions have their co-payments waived). Remarkably there are no waiting lists for treatment at all.
I have hitherto been rather sceptical of the value these sorts of visits and It’s the first I’ve been on in 19 years. Equally, one has to remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch: the entire cost of the visit, and the invitation also included my wife, was met by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Clearly, they have their own agenda of building goodwill and alliances in an increasingly strategically important, and contested region. The militarisation of the South China Sea by China, and its strident claims to sovereignty over the islands, including Taiwan itself, threaten the stability of the whole region. Taiwan needs friends and Allies. We too, also need to build friendships and alliances. This is a region where we have a colonial history and where both we and the USA retain vital national interests. We do need to be clear and realistic however, in balancing our proper support for democracy and shared values in Taiwan, along with our desire for greater trade, with the implications this will have for the growing importance of our relationship with China.
I last went on such a trip back in 1996. It was to Germany together with Theresa May, courtesy of the Conrad Adenauer Stiftung. My abiding memory is that she tuned up at the airport with no more than a large handbag. Yet everyday she appeared immaculately turned out in a different outfit. I imagined that the outfits must have been freeze dried and flown out overnight.