Opinion & Analysis

Experiencing Taiwan: Life in a Potential Conflict Zone

Media reports that numerous experts believe the next conflict akin to the Russian-Ukraine-situation might occur between China and Taiwan. However, while the international community braces for such a possibility, the residents of Taiwan appear to be continuing with their daily routines, showing more concern for their everyday lives than the threat of a potential attack. Daniel Scott, one of the members of the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network, reflects on his experience visiting Taiwan for the first time.

I visited Taiwan in October 2023, along with 15 other members of the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network. We all came from diverse backgrounds, including academia, medicine, data science, consulting, engineering, law, and entrepreneurship.

We were based in Taipei and had the opportunity to gain experience and grow connections in the region.

Prior to visiting Taiwan, many of my peers were curious about how it feels to be in an area close to a potential conflict zone. However, upon our arrival, the atmosphere on the ground was different from what we had expected.

Contrary to the portrayal made by the international media, Taipei is a fantastic, vibrant city.

Most news reports about Taiwan lately, in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, seemed to centre on mainland China's possible incursion of the self-administered island. But we noticed that this wasn't the people's main worry when we were there.

With the exception of conspicuous street signs designating the closest air raid bunkers, which resembled signs designating tsunami evacuation zones in New Zealand, everything in Taiwan, particularly Taipei, seemed to be operating as usual.

Most of the Taiwanese people I met were extremely friendly, hospitable, and welcoming. In conversations with them, it appeared that their primary concerns revolved around everyday matters like paying bills and finding the best deals at night markets.

The experience made me feel more relaxed and connected to the people of Taiwan than I had anticipated before my visit.

During the hui, we had the chance to utilize Taipei's public transport system for independent travel to various events in the programme and during our free time. Using Taipe's public transit made me feel more connected to the city, as it allowed us to observe people on their regular commutes and going about their daily lives. In addition to the subway and buses, the transport system includes the Youbike/Ubike bike-sharing system. These bikes can be hired using the same metrocard required for the subway and buses.

When we met with the Taipei City Government, we learned about the real-time monitoring of Youbike locations and availability. The collected data is displayed in an app, helping people find available bikes near them.

Cycling around Taipei, I found the cycleway infrastructure well integrated in the city's roads and footpaths, which made it feel quite safe to cycle in Taipei, despite the often-busy footpaths and roads.

Biking around Taipei using YouBike/Ubike. Photo: Daniel Scott.

Establishing confidence in Taiwan

My time in Taiwan offered a revealing glimpse into its political landscape, thanks in part to insights from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD).

During our visit, which coincided with New Zealand's 2023 general election, I found myself drawing comparisons between the political environments of both countries.

Taiwan, set to hold its general election next year, sees its political discourse largely dominated by the relationship with Beijing, a topic of contention among its major political parties.

This focus led me to ponder the prioritisation of pressing social issues faced by the Taiwanese public and how they are addressed politically. This reflection highlighted the relative advantages of New Zealand's political system. Despite its imperfections and need for improvement, we have the capacity to engage in meaningful discussions on critical social matters.

I also admired Taiwan's commitment to nurturing democracy across various age groups, particularly among the youth.

Bangka Longshan Temple in Taipei. Photo: Asia New Zealand Foundation.

As a professional engineer, I seized the opportunity to visit Taiwan's National Centre for Research on Earthquake Engineering (NCREE).

Their work, particularly in the realm of innovative seismic-resistant infrastructure designs, was fascinating. Similar to New Zealand, Taiwan, situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, contends with natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis.

Another enlightening visit was to the Industrial Science and Technology International (ITRI) campus in Hsinchu, where we gained insight into how applied research and technology foster the commercial success of cutting-edge companies.

Impressively, alumni companies from ITRI contribute to 16% of Taiwan's GDP. This includes Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a trailblazer in the semiconductor industry with global significance.

At ITRI, we learned about the myriad start-up companies in various sectors, such as automotive and green energy, thriving under ITRI's guidance and following TSMC's successful model.

Interacting with NCREE and ITRI bolstered my confidence in engaging with professional organizations, not just in Taiwan but across Asia.

Connecting with the Indigenous People

I also considered our excursion to Hualien, located on the east coast of Taiwan, as one of the highlights of our eight-day programme.

This trip provided us with a unique chance to explore the culture and heritage of Taiwan's indigenous people.

Our visit underscored the ancestral links shared between New Zealand's Māori and Taiwan's indigenous communities, enhancing the potential for stronger ties and relationships between New Zealand and Taiwan.

The College for Indigenous Studies at National Dong Hwa University graciously hosted us in Hualien. Our activities included a visit to the university's millet farm, which operates in accordance with indigenous principles, witnessing a traditional dance performance, and exploring Kakita'an, a local Pangcah community's equivalent to a marae. The day concluded with an exceptional dinner at a community space, featuring a variety of locally sourced vegetables.

Leadership Network's hui visited Kakita'an in Taiwan. Photo: Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Overall, my visit in Taiwan serves as a reminder of the importance of firsthand experiences in understanding the complexities of life in regions like Taiwan. My journey together with my cohorts reflects a unique blend of professional growth, cultural exchange, and a deeper understanding of Taiwan's resilience and focus on everyday life amidst geopolitical uncertainties.

About the author:

Daniel Scott is a professional engineer based in Auckland, and he works in the energy and water industries. He has been a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Leadership Network since 2013.