With Taiwan gearing up this weekend to observe the 110th anniversary of its annual ‘Ten-Ten’ celebrations just as the new Saint Lucia government approaches its first 100 Days in office, it’s appropriate to revisit a brief history of direct ties between Saint Lucia and Taiwan, with emphasis on how historical factors have shaped current ties and how Castries and Taipei can each do more to make the decades-old relationship more beneficial and meaningful to both sides in 2021 — as well as in 2022 and beyond. The first part looks at the history of ties, the second will look at where ties are now and the third will look forward to what can be, if both sides agree.
Saint Lucia-Taiwan ties have come a long way in the last five years.
I remember participating – as Editor of The VOICE — in a visit to Taiwan by a group of journalists from African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states with ties with Taipei, which coincided with a state visit by Stephenson King, then Infrastructure Minister in the UWP administration led by ex-Prime Minister Allen Chastanet.
Our group wasn’t invited to the top-security ‘Ten-Ten’ celebrations that year, which King was attending on behalf of PM Chastanet, drawing equal attention as the government leaders attending from the ACP states.
However, as Saint Lucians tend to do overseas, the former Prime Minister, Saint Lucia’s Ambassador to Taiwan Edwin Laurent and Your Humble Servant got together on the last evening in Taipei and put on a typical Gros Islet Friday Night show that dazzled and befuddled our guests, as well as the mixed group of Saint Lucian students in Taiwan invited to “meet Prime Minister King” at his hotel.
Meant to be a social gathering, there were also (a few) Taiwanese with Saint Lucian connections present, including one who reminded me that “I married to a Lucian…”
Our hosts and ACP guests (except those from the Caribbean) were mutually surprised at the homestead camaraderie between “Prime Minister King” (as he was constantly referred to by our hosts), the ambassador and a reporter.
And to the fellow Saint Lucians (knowing the minister and I belonged to different political camps back home) the chemistry between the minister, the ambassador and I, looked too true to believe.
Actually, we assembled in the hotel’s lobby for 6pm as per schedule, then postponed “dinner” for later than scheduled, then rearranged for dinner to be served in “the prime minister’s room” – and then accommodated with a “very late dinner” near midnight after the either ran out of stocks or was simply closed for accounting purposes.
During the never-ending discussion about everything from how the maps of the two islands “almost look alike” to “the things we like the same”, one Taiwanese lady showed me a natural tropical pool with what looked like Caribbean and/or African and Chinese people and after peeping over both my glasses, I told her: “It’s nice to see Taiwan has natural pools just like Saint Lucia…”
To which she replied (to my pleasant surprise): “That’s Saint Lucia. It’s Latille Falls in Micoud…”
To say I was ashamed would not be right, as she quickly pointed out, “The others are also Taiwanese…”
Cheering another toast (in Chinese), my memory went fast-forward in reverse to my first visit to Xiamen in Fujian Province, where the unusual appearance of tropical island life was reflected in the flowers and hills, trees and beaches we visited, always also fascinated by the fact that we were shown ‘Taiwan Island’ just across the waters.
On my first visit to Xiamen, the neighboring island (reminding me of the distance between Saint Lucia and Martinique) was under permanent Cold War military scrutiny from the mainland, but between 2008 and 2016 all that changed, with Taiwanese visiting Fujian Province and vice versa like never before, thanks to an equally unprecedented level of Cross-Strait political rapprochement.
On each of the three occasions I’ve visited Taiwan (the last coinciding with one of my two longest birthdays thanks to the 12-hour difference) I’ve also taken time off to observe how mainland visitors behave and in each case I’d noted different characteristics that not only underline the fact that most Taiwan families have roots in Fujian, but also that Chinese from each side had what they liked and disliked about each other’s peculiar and particular natural mannerisms.
Like with previous visits, I went to parts of Taiwan I’d been to before, but in different circumstances, each time extracting lessons and noting island approaches to common problems, despite what’s on display being on a much wider scale.
I also always ensured I was able to buy Made-in-Taiwan products in China and vice versa; and I always enjoy the similar experiences on both sides of the dividing strait whenever I enlist Saint Lucian students who negotiate deals, in pure Mandarin language, in People’s Markets, much to the mixed (pleasant and unpleasant) surprise responses of vendors…
The morning after, back to my assignment, I had to spend time explaining to some fellow journalists how it didn’t matter that “the prime minister” and I belonged to different political parties because we were not representing our parties in Taiwan, but him the Saint Lucia Government, me the ‘National newspaper’ – and the ambassador being his largely-unknown but usual very-local casual self at home and abroad, whenever outside his diplomatic straightjacket.
My series of articles from that visit published in every issue of The VOICE while I was in Taiwan, my return home also attracted some interesting inquiries, like “whether Taiwan is really like Saint Lucia” like I hinted.
Having visited both sides of the strait more than many from each side, I have over time developed the ability to look at each side with similar and different glasses, politically and socially, culturally and ideologically, in each case also able to draw common features that not even the straight have divided.
In normal discussions, I tend to accentuate the positive and downplay those differences that have kept the mainland and the island apart for between 100 and 72 years, depending on where and when one starts to measure the very-distant lines of mutual political distancing.
I do so here too, against the background of the fact that the new Labour administration seems to have adopted a non-aligned policy towards the China-Taiwan question, in keeping with the Prime Minister’s repeated statement that under his watch Saint Lucia will not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.
He’s also repeated in the past two months since taking office that Saint Lucia will also be a ‘Friend of all and Satellite of none’ in its internal affairs.
Pierre was apparently never unaware of the choices before him as a newly-elected leader with a safe-enough (more-than-two-thirds) parliamentary majority to have selected or to do as he pleased, but instead elected to do as would best please the nation in the circumstances.
Different Saint Lucia governments will choose different approaches to ties with Taiwan, but there are also certain unusual specificities of the Castries-Taipei relationship that have not been sufficiently considered by observers on both sides, including that Saint Lucia is the only Caribbean ally where a project started by the Mainland was completed by the Island (in 2007).
Today, funds kindly donated by Taiwan have also been spent on the reconstruction of a Saint Lucia hospital currently being housed in an Olympic Stadium built by China (just like Taiwanese and Chinese companies have been working alongside each other in St. Vincent and the Grenadines long before the April 2021 volcano eruption) and just like Chinese companies were (and still are) also hard at work on large projects in Saint Lucia ranging from the Pearl of the Caribbean to pre-election highway construction between Castries and Gros Islet.)
Those unlikely situations, forced by political circumstances, have shown in the Caribbean what’s never been seen anywhere else: something akin to joint cooperation in rotation, the two sides wearing different politically-coloured PPEs and observing more than just normal Social Distancing.
Unfortunately, the political players on all sides have so far been unable to harness these specificities, while nautical distance and different political cultures have militated against better Asian understanding of the advantages of small-island size.
Interestingly, while Saint Lucia and Taiwan are both small islands by global standards, Taiwan has a population of 23 million and is 23 times Saint Lucia’s size — and with 127 times more people.
However, Business or People-to-People (including tourism) ties have never been cultivated or nurtured, with no major Taiwanese private investment in Saint Lucia and no Saint Lucia Tourism Office or Taiwanese tourism agency known to have been or are working together to build a local tourism product to attract Chinese and Asians – who do fly and cruise and can spend even more here than Europeans or US citizens in North America and the Caribbean.
For example, over 2.3 million Taiwanese tourists left the islands in 2020, including over 175,000 to mainly North American destinations (USA and Canada especially); and on the other hand 106,000 Americans and Canadians visited Taiwan last year.
But there are no Caribbean figures.
Saint Lucia-Taiwan ties have traditionally concentrated more on the politics of the relationship than anything else, but Saint Lucians are always more interested in measuring the domestic results of external relationships, measuring the value of friendships more in terms of dollars and cents than in any political sense.
Farmers want to export bananas and couldn’t care one fig who or where the help comes from to bring back the glory days of weekly harvesting of Green Gold, but in the current COVID circumstances and the banana mountain still a steep climb, Taiwan’s assistance to Saint Lucian and Caribbean farmers might be much more valuable if new emphasis is placed on development or foods and fruits to boost body immunity.
Same with the annual Saint Lucia-Taiwan Trade Exhibitions, the 14th of which will take place next month: many attractive small items are normally displayed, but no Taiwan enterprise has been convinced to date, by any Taipei administration, to make any significant investment in any allied Caribbean island or territory.
Why? Because the Rates of Return on such investments are not attractive enough for the comparatively much-larger Taiwanese private sector entities in the business of making quick profit.
So, if the Taiwan Big Businesses are too big, what about small businesses on one side doing big business with counterparts on the other side in ways that will outlive the fluctuations of political ties?
Saint Lucians only exposed to what each side has said publicly about each other are most unlikely to know that trade ties do exist across the Strait, between the island and the mainland, the volume depending on which Taiwan party is in office – so much so that Taipei recently made a ‘big noise’ over what it described as unfair treatment of Taiwanese fruit on the mainland market.
But very few Caribbean citizens in nations with Taiwan ties have an appetite for supporting one side against the other.
It’s already very clear that PM Pierre would like to see more out of the relationship, especially including respecting the rights of nations to choose their paths and political parties to choose their friends.
It took only two months after the last general elections for Taiwan to get assurance that instead of breaking ties the new Labour government has opted to (again) continue the engagement when there were expectations of otherwise.
However, it will all depend on how Castries and Taipei play their cards from now on, where the immediate task seems to be to work together to once again clean-up the mess inherited by both sides after the July General Elections here.