Providing Leadership at a Time of Crisis

AmCham also worked closely with the Taiwan government in 1979 to preserve – or refashion – important expat community institutions.

The U.S. decision in late 1978 to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan suddenly put at risk the ability of various American community institutions in Taipei to continue operating. Those entities’ legal status in Taiwan had been tied to the American military presence, which was about to be phased out during 1979 with the termination of the Mutual Defense Treaty.

By virtue of its contract with the U.S. Defense Department to educate American military dependents, the Taipei American School had been covered under the U.S.-Taiwan “Status of Forces Agreement.” But once the military departed, there was no certainty that Taiwan’s Ministry of Education would be willing to permit a school run by a board of foreign parents to stay open.

At the time, the only English-language radio station on the island was the U.S. military’s AFNT (Armed Forces Network Taiwan). In the pre-internet era, its ability to broadcast emergency information about typhoons and earthquakes was considered vital.

The American Club was located on property belonging to the Taiwan military. And most of the youth-related activity programs for the foreign community – everything from the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to Little League baseball – had also come under the military umbrella. Substitute arrangements would need to be devised – and in a hurry.

“The U.S. Embassy was gone, and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) hadn’t yet been created. AmCham stepped forward as the new leader of the American community,” recalled two AmCham leaders from that period, Marinus “Dutch” van Gessel and Robert Parker, in a joint article in 2009 for Taiwan Business TOPICS.

As a result, at the same time as it was mobilizing to urge the U.S. Congress to enact the strong legislation that would emerge as the Taiwan Relations Act, the Chamber took on the challenge of ensuring that organizations serving the foreign community could survive and prosper.

Parker, the AmCham chairman that year, and van Gessel, a former chairman, had plenty of support from AmCham’s member companies.

“The great thing was how everyone came together and asked how they could help,” Parker said during a recent visit to Taipei. “Kent Price, the head of Citibank, was especially supportive. He assigned each of his top executives to get involved with a different committee.”

The Chamber asked for a meeting with Premier Y.S. Sun, who knew the foreign business leaders well from his previous position as Minister of Economic Affairs, and submitted a series of requests for government action:

  • Providing the Taipei American School with a new status tying it to the about-to-be-established AIT rather than the U.S. military.
  • Turning land in the Tienmu neighborhood that had been used for U.S. military housing over to the Taipei American School to allow it to move from its frequently flooded campus in the Shilin district.
  • Granting AmCham permission to arrange for a new International Community Radio Taipei (ICRT) to take over the English-language broadcasting function of AFNT.
  • Authorizing the creation of the Taipei Youth Program Association (TYPA) to offer after-school activities for foreign youngsters.
  • Allowing the overcrowded American Club to move into larger premises that formerly housed the U.S. military’s non-commissioned officers’ club.

In less than two weeks, the Premier’s office came back with a positive response to every request.

With so much going on regarding both the TRA and the community organizations, for several months Parker barely had time for his law practice with the Taipei branch of an American firm. His understanding partners dispatched an attorney from the U.S. to help out for the interim.

Parker considered it important to keep the Chamber membership informed of every new development in the discussions with the U.S. and Taiwan authorities. Without the convenience of email or even fax, he resorted to mailing out a letter every two or three days.

With regard to the community issues, the biggest challenge turned out to be ICRT, as there was no provision under Taiwanese law for a foreign-language radio station.

“But President Chiang Ching-kuo avidly supported the idea. He saw it as a good way to emphasize continuity in the relationship with the U.S.,” Parker recalls. “He ordered that the new station go on the air immediately without a minute of silence after AFNT shut down. We ran into many bureaucratic obstacles, but each time we could remind the people involved that the President was behind the initiative. Did they want to be the one who was obstructing it?”

The ICRT project was the only issue over which the AmCham Board was divided, Parker says. “Some said it’s not AmCham’s role to run a radio station, but a majority saw the importance for the expat community.”

The U.S. military agreed to sell AFNT’s broadcasting and transmission equipment for a token one dollar, and a Hawaii-based consultant was hired to help recruit personnel and get the station organized. Once the spadework was accomplished, AmCham gladly handed responsibility for ICRT over to a foundation led by prominent Taiwanese financier Jeffrey L.S. Koo.

As for the American Club’s planned move to the former non-commissioned officers’ facility, some last-minute complications nearly scuttled the project. Two weeks before the scheduled move-in date, while extensive renovations were just nearing completion, Parker was notified that the deal was off – and that he couldn’t be told the reasons for the change. After making inquiries, Parker concluded that the problem was probably security officials’ concern about the proximity of the club site to President Chiang’s residence.

Through local friends with high-level connections, Parker confirmed that the President was unaware of the problem and had no objections to having the club in his neighborhood. The move took place as originally scheduled.

At the Premier’s directive, key Taiwan government officials met frequently with the AmCham leaders to help ensure that the plans for the various community organizations were carried out smoothly. One of the officials was Fredrick Chien, then the deputy foreign minister. “Despite the disruption in diplomatic relations, we wanted to see to it that the lives of American residents in Taiwan would be as comfortable as possible,” he recalled in a recent interview.

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