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A celebration—and some questions

TAIWAN—A huge tarpaulin poster of the Banaue rice terraces served as a popular “photo op” backdrop at the lobby of the ballroom of the Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel in Taipei. Monitors flashed scenes from the tourism ad campaign “It’s more fun in the Philippines,” eliciting smiles and giggles at pictures of fiestas, tarsiers, schools of fish and surfers.

It was the celebration of Philippine Independence Day, and much of the diplomatic community, Taiwanese officialdom, and representatives of local Filipino groups and communities had gathered to observe the 114th anniversary of the founding of our republic.

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It was a serious occasion, but celebrated Pinoy-style, with lots of songs, laughter, a few speeches, lots of amiability and heaps of food, including a small lechon that was quickly trimmed to the bone, what with a long line of hungry diners including Taiwanese and other foreigners who had heard so much of this staple of the Filipino fiesta.

Still, in fairness, the Shangri-La kitchens did a fine job duplicating uniquely Pinoy flavors and seasonings in dishes like pinakbet, pancit, lumpia, kaldereta, adobo, and desserts like turron, halo-halo, leche flan and a unique twist to sans rival. Rosemary “Baby” Arenas, a board member of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (Meco) here, had been assigned by Chair Amadito Perez to oversee the food preparation. The nearly empty buffet spreads at the close of the celebration testified to how much the food was appreciated. But the raucous laughter of Filipinos posing in front of the backdrop, the enthusiastic swaying to the music of the bands imported for the occasion, and the good-natured give-and-take among the guests testified to the goodwill generated by this occasion.

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MECO Chair Perez recalled the past year as a “challenging” year for the office, when relations between the two countries were strained with the deportation of 14 Taiwanese among a group of Chinese found to be involved in drug trafficking. But thanks “to the genuine desire of both sides to maintain their historic friendship,” said Perez, both the Philippines and Taiwan have moved on “with even greater vigor in deepening these ties.”

Resident Representative Antonio Basilio acknowledged Taiwan’s role in spurring economic growth in the Philippines, adding that Taiwan currently hosts 80,000 Filipino workers who are “valued for their skills, their ability to communicate in English and their industriousness.” This was a day “to celebrate the friendship and mutually beneficial ties between” our two peoples, and “to recognize the values that we share—democracy, free enterprise and respect for human rights.”

Speaking on behalf of the Taiwanese government was Dr. Gary Song-huann Lin, secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, citing the close relations between the two governments, and saying that the years of amity have “created a golden opportunity for the Philippines and Taiwan to boost bilateral cooperation.”

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Goodwill and bonhomie may have marked the celebration of Philippine Independence Day in Taipei, but in actuality, there is a bit of tension between the two governments over the issue of visa-less entry for Taiwanese to the Philippines.

In 2009, the Taiwanese government granted visa-less entry to citizens of certain countries, including the Philippines, provided these visitors showed they had valid visas to any of these countries: the United States, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand; or held a Schengen visa to Europe; and provided they had never worked as a blue-collar worker in Taiwan. Since then—and I understand this was a campaign pledge made by President Ma Ying-jeou—Taiwanese officials have been pressuring officials in other countries to grant visa-free entry to residents of Taiwan.

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In the Philippines, the new resident representative of Teco (Taipei Economic and Cultural Office), Ambassador Raymond L.S. Wang, who arrived in the country last January, has stepped up his efforts to pressure the government. This is certainly part of his duties as Taiwan’s representative, but what certain quarters are decrying is that Wang is going about it in ways that can only be described as boorish and overbearing.

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Wang, who’s had little previous experience in the foreign ministry, appears to lack the necessary diplomatic experience and cultural sensitivity.

At the moment, Meco is formally rejecting the Taiwanese appeal, arguing that granting visa-free entry to Taiwanese would necessitate granting the same right to Mainland Chinese. This would open the door to Taiwanese and Chinese drug and human smuggling syndicates, Meco officials argue, and even with current visa requirements, our media are already full of stories about Chinese drug rings, prostitution rings and illegal entrants. This is not to mention the rampant smuggling of illegal and fake drugs, and unsafe products ranging from skin-whitening creams to “double-dead” poultry.

“The Philippines and Taiwan governments and people are good friends,” Meco officials say, and the visa requirement seems to present no barrier to the continued arrival of Taiwanese tourists. They cite the 35-percent increase in arrivals from Taiwan since last year, suggesting that “the visa requirement is not a deterrent.”

Apparently, President Ma and his government view the grant of visa-free entry to citizens of their country as a matter of prestige and friendship. And yet he surely must realize that every country has its own unique priorities and needs to balance its national interests with those of its neighbors and friends. Good friends should understand this and respect their mutual interests.

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TAGS: featured column, independence day rites, meco, Taiwan
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