Both are small countries whose people fear an attack at any moment from much larger enemies. Both have highly developed economies and are world leaders in high-tech and innovation—yet they both face diplomatic isolation from dozens of countries that refuse to recognize their existence.
In a sense, Israel and Taiwan—formally known as the Republic of China—have a lot in common. And despite the lack of official relations between these two powerhouses on opposite ends of Asia, the “Start-Up Nation” and the “Forbidden Nation” (the title of a 2005 Taiwanese history book by Jonathan Manthorpe) enjoy warm cultural and economic ties that show no sign of backing down in the face of opposition from China, which considers Taiwan a renegade island province that’ll eventually be reunited with the mainland.
That warmth was very much in evidence Monday night at the Tel Aviv Sheraton, where more than 300 diplomats, business executives and others gathered to celebrate the recent anniversary of Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 revolution marking Chinese independence.
“The Republic of China was the first democracy in Asia when it was founded 106 years ago,” declared Yun-sheng Chi, Taiwan’s top representative and unofficial ambassador to Israel.
“Since birth, it has encountered numerous difficulties and challenges in maintaining its democratic system, especially during the first few decades since it moved its government seat to Taiwan in 1949,” he said. “Nevertheless, the pursuit of democracy and freedom has never died or halted.”
Chi, 64, has been posted to Tel Aviv since February 2014. He noted that last year—for the first time in Taiwan’s history—voters elected a woman, Tsai Ing-wen, as president. He said the new leader, who visited Israel in 2013 and is apparently a huge fan of the Jewish state, “has committed to build Taiwan into an even freer and more democratic country.”
The event featured tasty Taiwanese noshes by prominent chef Hsiu-Ling Fan, oil paintings of cactus by Taiwanese-Israeli artist Ben Wang, and a powerful drum performance by the four-member Taiko Life band. It also included speeches by Nava Boker, deputy speaker of the Knesset, and Yisrael Zinger, mayor of Ramat Gan — which has a sister-city relationship with the booming Taiwanese municipality of Taoyuan.
“Never in the history of our two countries have relations been better, both economically and culturally,” she said. “Both our countries have seen economic and technological revolutions that have drastically improved the quality of life. In order to continue being a leader in innovation, we need three ingredients: vision, faith and the ability to perform.”
Last spring, Boker — a member of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party — led a fact-finding mission of Knesset members to Taiwan.
“I was very impressed with what is happening there,” said Boker, whose delegation visited Hiwin Corp., a manufacturer of high-precision industrial products that has a subsidiary in Haifa. “Like every country, there are challenges. But given what Taiwan was 50 years ago and what it is today, it’s hard not to be impressed.”
Today home to 23 million people, Taiwan—about one and a half the size of Israel—is among the world’s most densely populated nations. It also boasts one of Asia’s tallest skyscrapers (Taipei 101), ranks as the world’s 18th-largest trading nation, has the world’s 13th-busiest port (Kaohsiung) and sits on a whopping $446 billion in foreign reserves—No. 5 in the world after China, Japan, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia.
Zinger, whose city has been paired with Taoyuan for two years, told me that despite the disparity in population (Ramat Gan is home to 170,000 people, while Taoyuan’s population exceeds two million), the two have much to learn from each other.
“Our relations are very warm, and we find many similarities,” Zinger said. “When our delegation went to Taiwan, we gave them ideas for education, and they had suggestions for us on smart-city development in the last 10 or 15 years — and how they plan to develop over the next 20 years.”
That’s not the only sister-city relationship involving the two countries. Majdal Shams, a Druze village in Israel’s Golan Heights, is now paired with Shen Gan Township in Taiwan’s Chang Hua County.
“Our cooperation also extends to the medical field. This coming December will see a Taiwan-Israel medical conference held at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon,” said Chi, whose country also houses a tiny Jewish community numbering about 150 people.
He noted proudly that Taiwan now ranks higher than even the United States on the Freedom House Index (with a score of 91 out of 100), and that Reporters Without Borders considers Taiwan’s press to be the most liberal in Asia.
Yet not a single speaker mentioned the obvious elephant in the room: mainland China.
Under intense political pressure from Beijing, the number of countries with actual embassies in Taiwan has dwindled throughout the years. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter switched U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, prompting many others to follow suit.
Today, only 19 nations plus the Holy See maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan—down from 30 in the early 1990s—though the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative’s Office (TECRO) has missions in more than 110 countries including Israel.
In 2007, Costa Rica became the first Central American nation to abandon Taiwan. In a classic case of “checkbook diplomacy,” then-President Oscar Arias announced he’d recognize China, which later built a new sports stadium in San José worth $100 million (a year earlier, incidentally, Arias moved Costa Rica’s embassy in Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv—also for business reasons).
China relaxed its aggressive efforts to isolate Taiwan in 2008, when Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party became president. Since Tsai’s election in May 2016, however, Beijing has renewed those efforts with a vengeance, prompting both Panama and the tiny African nation of São Tomé e Principe to jump on the Beijing bandwagon.
To this day, Taiwan still has only observer status at the World Health Organization. And at the Olympics, Taiwan is forced to compete as Chinese Taipei.
However, as Stanley Kao, TECRO’s representative to the United States told me in a recent interview in Washington, “even with no diplomatic recognition, we’re able to conduct ourselves as de facto diplomatic missions, promoting peace. Life is not always fair. Some of this is cold, brutal reality, but we don’t bow to this pressure.”
Indeed, even as Israel’s relationship with China flourishes, it’s doing more and more business with Taiwan every year.
In 2001, Taiwan’s Macronix Ltd. poured over $100 million into a chip fabrication plant built by Tower Semiconductor in Migdal Ha’emek, and in 2005, Taiwanese chip fabrication firm Winbond bought one of the Israeli divisions of National Semiconductor to establish an R&D center here.
A decade later, the two nations signed a key industrial agreement on research and development cooperation during an Asia visit by Avi Hasson of Israel’s Ministry of Economy and John Chen-Chung Deng, Taiwan’s minister of economic affairs.
In 2016, bilateral trade came to $1.59 billion, a 15.6 percent increase over 2015 figures. Of that total, Taiwan imported $929 million worth of Israeli goods and exported $629 million to Israel—mainly electronics, computers, car parts, motorcycles and bicycles.
More impressively, during the first six months of 2017, Taiwan imported $625 million from Israel — a 66.7 percent jump over the same period last year — while exports to Israel came to $341.8 million, a modest 9.9 percent growth from the year-ago period.
“The statistics are encouraging, but still are not satisfactory, considering Taiwan’s total trade volume of $510.8 billion in 2016,” said Chi, noting that his country ranks as the 10th largest trading partner of the United States. “There remains large room for improvement.”
None of those Israel-Taiwan trade statistics includes military sales, a subject the diplomat declined to discuss (though it’s worth noting that mainland China has no less than 1,600 missiles pointed at Taiwan at any given moment). Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced its first arms sale to Taiwan: a $1.42 billion package including advanced missiles and components such as the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon and MK 48 6AT Heavy Weight torpedoes.
“Trade and business is not connected to politics,” Chi said in a quick interview after the reception. “You can have business [without diplomatic relations]. It’s separate.”
These flourishing ties also extend to tourism. In 2014, about 5,000 Israeli tourists visited Taiwan, and 6,000 Taiwanese returned the favor, said Chi. Of particular interest to Taiwanese: a forest grove in Israel’s Negev Desert that includes 1,000 saplings donated by the government of Taiwan to the Jewish National Fund in December 2015.
“Last month, we sponsored—with the cooperation of El Al—a group of seven Israeli journalists to visit Taiwan to explore our nature, culture and people. Their first-hand experience will surely help Israelis to appreciate the charms of our country,” said Chi, estimating that Israel is today home to about 40 Taiwanese citizens, most of them married to Israelis.
“I am especially glad to see more and more Taiwanese youth coming to Israel to participate in volunteer work, such as taking care of children with autism, handicapped people and the elderly,” he explained. “This new trend warranted reports in several Israeli news agencies such as the Jerusalem Post, Yediot Aharanot and i24 News.”
Chi’s previous assignments have brought him to the United States (where he was TECRO’s deputy director-general in New York from 2004 to 2010) and South Africa (where for most of the 1990s he served as deputy consul-general in Cape Town as well as first secretary at Taiwan’s then-embassy in Pretoria).
At the end of January 2018, this veteran diplomat plans to retire from his country’s foreign service.
“I do hope one day that Israel will recognize Taiwan,” Chi told me with a smile— conceding that even though such a breakthrough won’t happen soon, given current realities, “anything is possible.”