As I write this column, my plane is taking off from Taiwan's Taoyuan Airport to bring me back home. It was a special visit to Taiwan -- one that helped put so many earlier visits into a larger perspective.
My first visit to Taiwan occurred 40 years ago. The changes since then have been remarkable.
When I first visited, U.S. foreign aid was still a mainstay of the Taiwan development pattern. Today Taiwan provides assistance to other nations. Back then, products made in Taiwan were certainly not high-quality -- the label "made in Taiwan" was something of a joke.
Today workers there build components for the most sophisticated consumer electronics and high-tech industries around. "Made in Taiwan" is now a label of quality and a badge of pride.
On the political front, Taiwan has long since shed its martial-law past and has evolved into a full-fledged democracy. In January 2012, elections for the legislature and the presidency will take place. The two primary candidates for president are running neck and neck, and the people of Taiwan are paying attention to real policy questions.
This was a special trip to Taipei, the capital city, for another reason.
With several of my Washington colleagues, we helped launch a new television station, "Taiwan Yam." It is an interesting venture for several reasons: most notably, it's the first local station on the whole island of Taiwan. The other TV stations are in Taipei, which leaves the rest of the country having to rely on, in effect, single-source news based in the capital city Tainan, the location of the new station, was for more than three centuries the capitol of Taiwan. It's the start of a new chapter in the annals of this beautiful port city, which already boasts a rich and broad history.
The Americans who participated in the first policy roundtable discussion -- liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats -- have served in various presidential administrations over the years, but all of us share a single commitment. We've seen how Taiwan has developed as a democracy with free institutions. We've seen it become home to a thriving, market-based economy and a carefully constructed rule of law. And we're determined to highlight the fact that these principles can indeed work in the Chinese context.
It's important for other leaders throughout Asia to recognize this. It's also a moment for us to take pride that we have stood by the people of Taiwan through some difficult times and worked with them in developing a free and prosperous society.
But such a society cannot last if a nation lacks the ability to mount an adequate self-defense. That's what makes it so regrettable that President Obama has decided not to sell Taiwan the 66 F-16 C/D jets that Taiwan requested several years ago. They're the real meat of Taiwan's pending requests. Those requests are designed to dissuade Beijing -- which considers Taiwan not a sovereign nation, but a renegade province -- from taking over the island by force.
Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the United States is obligated to assist the island with its defense. Of course, we also have to work with China, and it has many missiles pointing at Taiwan. This situation makes managing cross-Strait relations tricky, but we must remain resolute, and honor our promise to Taiwan.
After all, this isn't just about Taiwan's defense. It's about our nation's credibility as a security partner. It's about the maintenance of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. And the decisions we make today will help decide whether Taiwan retains its hard-won freedoms -- and shows the world what a free-market economy and vibrant democracy in Asia can do.