A Farewell Conversation with AIT Director Brent Christensen

William Brent Christensen began serving as Director of the American Institute in Taiwan in August 2018, but that was by no means his first Taiwan assignment. During his three-decade-long career as a foreign service officer, Christensen has served in Taiwan on three separate occasions, including a stint as a consular official in the 1990s and as Deputy Director of AIT from 2012 to 2015. He expresses a deep fondness for Taiwan, its government, and its people and places great importance on expanding and enriching the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Director Christensen connected with AmCham Taiwan Senior Advisor Don Shapiro and TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier by phone shortly before departing Taiwan to discuss some of AIT’s accomplishments during his tenure. He also spoke of some of the significant changes in Taiwan that he’s been fortunate to witness over the years. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Early in your tour as Director, you set out some goals that you wished to accomplish. How do you rate your achievement in those areas?

When I began my directorship, I laid out four priorities I hoped to advance during my post. These included bolstering the U.S.-Taiwan security, commercial and economic, and people-to-people relationships. In addition, I sought to have AIT assist in expanding Taiwan’s role in the international community. I think we’ve seen some really good progress over the past three years in all four of these areas.

In terms of the security relationship, US$18 billion in defensive arms sales were approved by the U.S., a record amount within such a short period of time. These transactions included the sale of 66 F-16V fighter jets and more than 100 M1 Abrams tanks, as well as a range of other systems that will enhance Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities. We also made some significant progress in our discussions with the Taiwan government on reserve reform and civil defense. We also saw more cooperation on cybersecurity and signed an MOU on coast guard cooperation.

As for economic and commercial ties, we launched a major new initiative called the Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue (EPPD). The great thing about the EPPD is it’s not just a once-a-year meeting but rather involves a series of ongoing discussions among working groups tackling specific issues related to investment screening, 5G, supply chains, and others. It has proved to be a very valuable mechanism for strengthening the bilateral economic relationship.

We’ve also had some significant successes in the investment area. In 2019, Taiwan boasted the largest delegation to the annual SelectUSA Investment Summit. And although the 2020 Summit was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m happy to say that this year, Taiwan constituted the largest delegation from a foreign market ever to attend the event, which was held virtually in June.

In addition, TSMC has decided to invest US$12 billion to build a semiconductor fab in Arizona. I believe this project has the potential to change in a very positive way the U.S.-Taiwan high-tech economic relationship and, potentially, the global high-tech supply chain.

Other engagements included a series of discussion with Taiwan on securing supply chains, an area where we think Taiwan will have a very important role to play, and an MOU on overseas infrastructure finance. We also joined with Taiwan in launching the Women’s Bond, a very innovative approach to providing financing to women in the developing world, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific area.

To help with expanding Taiwan’s international space, we established the new Indo-Pacific Democratic Governance Consultations, launched a new Pacific Islands Dialogue, and significantly expanded the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). The GCTF began in 2015 and over the ensuing years, we’ve held a number of workshops on everything from law enforcement and women’s empowerment to environmental protection, energy security, biotech issues, and vaccines. We’re now looking to expand the GCTF workshops outside of Taiwan and are increasing the partners involved.

We also facilitated the establishment of the Taiwan office of a number of NGOs and are pleased to see that Taiwan is becoming a center for international NGOs in the region.

Prior to the EPPD’s inauguration, we welcomed its architect, then Undersecretary of State Keith Krach, who was also the most senior State Department official to visit Taiwan in 40 years. And last August, we welcomed the highest-level government official to visit Taiwan since 1979, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who signed an MOU with his Taiwan counterpart. These visits effectively expanded Taiwan’s international space because they had a big focus on Taiwan’s role in the international community.

Lastly, on the people-to-people level, we launched the Talent Circulation Alliance, for which AmCham has also become an important partner, as well as the U.S.-Taiwan Education Exchange. This effort seeks to expand opportunities for Americans to learn Mandarin in Taiwan and also send Mandarin teachers from Taiwan to the U.S. It also involves an English component, which will help Taiwan achieve its goal of becoming bilingual.

You have lived in Taiwan several times in your career. What have been the most distinctive changes you’ve observed over time?

I think the biggest change has been Taiwan’s democratic transformation, moving from authoritarianism to democracy. Historically speaking, such a transformation is not an inevitability, but I think it’s really impressive that Taiwan has become such a major democratic success story. And as we’ve seen in recent years, Taiwan’s institutions of civil society have also matured, becoming an important part of Taiwan’s society and impacting government policy in mostly effective ways.

Another important change was Taiwan’s embrace of environmentalism over the past two decades. When I served here on my first assignment 30 years ago, Taiwan was not such a clean, green place. At that time, I didn’t initially realize there were mountains surrounding Taipei because you could never see them! But today there’s a lot of green space in Taiwan, the air is really clean, and the public transportation system here is the envy of the world – certainly the envy of the U.S. In addition, Taiwan’s recycling program is truly one of the best in the world, especially in how Taiwan is able to recycle electronic waste at a profit.

On the economic side, Taiwan’s transformation from an agricultural and light manufacturing economy to a major high-tech one. And of course, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry has really attracted the world’s attention just in the past year as people realize just how important Taiwan is for the world economy.

I’d also like to give special mention to Taiwan’s excellent public health and medical system. I know that they’re currently grappling with the latest outbreak of COVID-19. Yet Taiwan has in my view managed the pandemic better than anyone else and the medical care system here is really among the best in the world.

You have used the phrase “Real Friends, Real Progress” to describe the nature of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. How have recent developments between the two partners demonstrated that ethos? What else would you like to see moving forward?

In 2019, when we were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the TRA, we had a theme for each month where we talked about the progress in several different areas, including security, trade and investment, environment, law enforcement, science and technology, education, and others. I think a lot of what informs the expression “real friends, real progress” can be seen in each of those areas, in which the level of cooperation has grown enormously, especially in recent years. And as I mentioned earlier, I think we’ve seen noteworthy progress in the four priority areas I set out to promote early in my tenure.

One thing I would highlight is the State Department’s New Guidelines for U.S. Government Interactions with Taiwan Counterparts. In the past, the U.S. imposed a lot of restrictions on our engagement with Taiwan, but with these updated guidelines, we have adopted a new, more positive framework for interaction. They are designed to encourage the U.S. government at all levels to engage and be seen engaging more with Taiwan. We’ve seen reports from around the world that our representatives or ambassadors are inviting their Taiwan counterparts to their offices or inviting them to lunch or dinner or just appearing in public together. I think this is a way of demonstrating our friendship, but also that we have a mutually beneficial relationship that we want to celebrate and bring attention to.

AmCham Taiwan this year is celebrating its 70th anniversary. Is there any message you would like to deliver to the Chamber membership on this occasion?

On the occasion of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan’s 70th anniversary, I would like to express my appreciation for the Chamber’s cooperation with the American Institute in Taiwan as an essential partner in our efforts to promote the U.S.-Taiwan economic and commercial relationship. I would also like to congratulate AmCham on its impressive success over these seven decades and commend the organization for having the vision to extend its efforts and support to all U.S. business interests in Taiwan. Best wishes for the next 70 years!

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