Clare G Richardson-Barlow

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A Day in Brussels: March 22, 2016

This post is a joint effort between me and my partner William J. Schaffer, a finance and strategy professional focused on the Aerospace, Defense and Government Services (ADG) sector.

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A Brussels city view from the New Hotel Brussels, which hosted a portion of the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professionals Summit.

Today has been an unexpectedly fortunate day. The two of us, husband and wife, have been temporarily kept from departing Brussels following today’s IS terrorist attacks on the Brussels International Airport and the Maelbeek Metro Station. It has not escaped our attention that this is not the only attack in the last week, or the only incident of extremist violence this year. We are privileged to be safe and in Brussels another day, as the city has been so kind to us for the past week, and we are happy to have another day together. There is nowhere we would rather be.

The event that brought us to Brussels in the first place was the Young Professional’s Summit, a side event of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum. The Forum is an international meeting of political, academic, and corporate leaders from both sides of the Atlantic, focused on addressing the shared challenges of the transatlantic community and the responses required for continued global stability and peace. While a variety of security, economic, and political concerns were addressed throughout the dual conferences, dialogue was often brought back to the pressing refugee crisis in Europe and the threat of terrorism and conflict that has spurred it. It has been extremely difficult for the two of us not to ponder on the irony of attending a high-level conference where the topic du jour was the refugee crisis and Middle Eastern conflict that led to it, followed by what many viewed as the successful capture of Salah Abdeslam on Friday, only to witness a more somber Brussels today. Strategic and innovative security solutions were discussed at the Forum, and today we were reminded that they are part of the vital changes that must happen among transatlantic partners.

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The Royal Palace of Brussels.

For the past 12 hours we have been glued to our Facebook newsfeed, Twitter, and Google news updates. While the images from the airport and metro station a few miles away have been terrifying, the scariest news has been the policy responses proposed by U.S. Presidential Candidates back home. It is our belief, as security and economic policy analysts, that it is the current political and security systems imperative to prevent the prejudicial, protectionist, and reactionary government policies we have seen encouraged across the transatlantic community, both today and in the past several years. This imperative is increasingly apparent as acts of terrorism and violence increase and more and more people are displaced from these acts.

Homegrown terrorism from communities with disenfranchised young populations who have little stake in existing societal formations have a history of presenting security threats to existing political structure. This is a challenge faced by democratic and authoritarian governments alike. However, the ability of excluded and disenfranchised to connect globally, disseminate ideologies, and spread misinformation is unprecedented in human history. Regardless of group, grievance, or region there is a deep-seated need to secure public spaces and critical infrastructure, lest their vulnerability give weight to societal responses far more damaging than most acts of violence.

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The Grand Place in Brussels, a central square in the city.

Social media, smart phones and increased Internet access have provided lone wolves the opportunity to quickly form packs and further radicalize. Self-inspired or remotely recruited individuals and small groups are able to operate independently and deliver significant damage at low cost, representing one of the core security threats of the 21st Century.

To counter this threat the private and public sectors of the transatlantic security community will need to collaboratively build more agile, adaptive capabilities able to efficiently identify, monitor, and deter purveyors and practitioners of violence via video surveillance, signals communications, and data analytics. Capable technology solutions are critical to providing viable alternatives to the xenophobic, closed border policies that prevent successful integration, creating greater, systemic security concerns.

The current transatlantic defense and security industry remains organized around core defense infrastructures and requirements-based procurement. Although certainly evolving, this system was designed to deter State sponsored aggression; it  is ill equipped to quickly develop and implement the solutions needed to reliably prevent violence from non-state aggressors. The string of attacks in Brussels, Paris, Ankara and San Bernardino California points directly to this need.

This is an immense task, but advances in sensors technology and data science are allowing innovative companies to create the real-time security solutions needed to better combat the rapidly evolving, threat of modern-day terrorism. Haystax Technology, Palantir and Digital Barriers are both excellent examples of companies presently delivering these types of solutions. With time, a next generation of technology solutions should not only empower governments to protect the public at the national and local levels but help finance, IT, utilities and other private service providers to affordably police themselves and share information.

Being in Brussels today amid the unfolding crisis we have been reminded of something it is easy to forget in the West: we are fortunate beyond belief. Tomorrow we will get on a train and go home; a home that is not surrounded by the same conflict, suffering, and inequality that is driving people across the Middle East into Europe by any means necessary. We are not in an emotional or physical place where we need to migrate for the safety of our family unit, and we pray that we never will be. However, as responsible voters, informed employees in the global policy community, and kind partners, friends, and neighbors, we must take a stand for those that do not have the same benefits, and we must encourage the adaptation of government policies that will responsibly address and prevent similar crises in the future. A strong balance of tangible security solutions and inclusive policy responses are cornerstones of creating sustained global stability.

Industries, Governments, and the Implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement

This post is part 3 of a 3 part series of articles originally written for the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professional’s Summit in Brussels, Belgium. It has been reprinted on the professional website of the author with permission from the German Marshall Fund. The original post can be found here, along with other interesting articles on foreign policy issues and the Young Professional’s Summit. Part 2 can be found here.

Recognition of the disastrous effects of manmade climate change has led to increased organized, global action to reduce carbon emissions in the 21st century. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the subsequent Kyoto Protocol, progress in the World Trade Organization’s Environmental Goods Agreement, and the recent 2015 COP21 Paris Agreement are among the many significant movements to engage some of the World’s largest greenhouse gas emitters in reducing their carbon footprint.

In 2015 195 economies from around the world approved the Paris Climate Agreement following weeks of negotiations at COP21. The largest climate agreement of its kind and the most comprehensive agreement to date, the Paris Climate Agreement is a seminal development in the global fight against climate change. Technological innovation, creative policy solutions and public-private partnerships are an important part of achieving the benchmarks set out in the Paris Agreement, in particular the ambitious goal of zero anthropomorphic greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 21st century. This goal, while timely and necessary, is quite difficult, requiring a level of global cooperation on climate change that has been difficult to imagine up until now.

The third day of the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professionals Summit saw participants join the ongoing Brussels Forum. One particular discussion on the Paris Agreement and the role of governments and industries in achieving these landmark goals was particularly insightful, and in some ways one of the largest, most daunting issues to be covered at the Brussels Forum.

Discussion about the Paris Agreement and the role of governments and industries in achieving these landmark goals was particularly insightful, and in some ways one of the largest, most daunting issues to be covered at the Brussels Forum.

The transatlantic communities’ own contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of the environment on its economic success and public health have, in part, driven a surge in climate policy commitments, but also placed increased attention on international climate action, pledges and results. Global awareness of environmental challenges are, undoubtedly, having a profound impact on international climate agreements and sparking government interest in improving action and accountability in climate policy.

As climate agreements become further widespread, internationally recognized, and more comprehensive, the intersection of climate policy, economics, and industry interests becomes more apparent. Private investment and innovation, creative funding mechanisms, and ground breaking project proposals must increase in both scope and frequency in order for the Paris goals to be reached. Many of the innovative solutions needed for reaching the Paris goals require industry support and breakthroughs, both in terms of lowering global emissions but also in terms of realizing accomplishments that countries can point to as in line with their climate goals. Clarity of government regulatory policy is one way to assist industries, as is acknowledgment of their role in this global fight. A balance must be struck between lowering industry emissions and maintaining economic stability, as many of the largest industry emitters (transportation, agriculture, and energy) are also the backbones of economies throughout the transatlantic community and the developing world.

A balance must be struck between lowering industry emissions and maintaining economic stability.

Economic and policy solutions to reaching the Paris goals are coming from a variety of places: A number of the world’s largest companies, including financial services products, chemical companies, and beauty products and self care companies have long been making efforts towards reducing waste and emissions. Traditional, hydrocarbon energy producers are investing a lot of time, money, and expertise in finding energy solutions to climate challenges, including some of the largest, joint R&D programs in the world. National governments are investing in localized energy solutions, including physical energy storage and production, as well as public education programs, often with the support of national industries. The private sector is also working on addressing the economic challenges of climate change adaptation, including distinguishing the fiscal and logistical challenges of incorporating their companies into the global response.

The major takeaway of the Brussels Forum discussion is that continued and new coalitions of private sector leaders and forward thinking policy makers will be a key part of achieving the Paris Agreement goals. Such private-public partnerships are a necessary component of the transatlantic communities’ realistic and attainable fight against global climate change.

Managing Migration Flows in the Refugee Crisis: A Global Perspective

This post is part 2 of a 3 part series of articles originally written for the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professional’s Summit in Brussels, Belgium. It has been reprinted on the professional website of the author with permission from the German Marshall Fund. The original post can be found here, along with other interesting articles on foreign policy issues and the Young Professional’s Summit. Part 1 can be found here.

Participants at Day Two of the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professionals’ Summit saw a number of fascinating, lively discussions firsthand. I was particularly struck by the first discussion of the day, covering the current refugee crisis in Europe and its impact on the European Union itself. In the following analysis I will consider the day’s discussion and contrast the transatlantic community’s current refugee crisis with the history of mass migration in the Far East.

Globally, it appears we are at a turning point in the refugee crisis and Europe’s response to that crisis. There is a widespread belief among policy makers that there is a limit to Europe’s absorption of migrants.

Despite the warning signs, the crisis has startled Europe; on the one hand some policy experts believe that the mass migration of people to Europe has only become a crisis because Europe has made it a crisis. The total number of refugees is, by many accounts, a fraction of a percentage of the total population in many European countries. This is, instead of an absorption issue, a structural issue. There is currently a structural mismatch of policies aimed at addressing the social, political, and logistical support of increased migration into a region, long having relatively porous borders.

The refugee crisis in Europe has been front news in part due to the extreme risks refugees are willing to go to in order to leave their home country.

Migration crises are not new, nor are they passing. Europe has a notion that the refugee crisis is temporary, however, globally, there is actually a trend towards the movement of people. Rising rates of economic development, political crises, and technology advancements have aided in the increased movement of people in the 21st century. As one speaker put it, Europe is now a continent of immigration, not emigration.

It strikes me, as an Asia policy expert, lessons and solutions are to be learned from Asia. Asia, too, has been experiencing an increased flow of migrants across borders. Migration in Asia has included internal migration as well as regional immigration, and lessons can be learned from the success and failure of both.

The Internal Hukou Migration Registration System of China

Internal migration in China has a shaky past, marred most dramatically by the Hukou System. Thirty years ago, internal migration in China was heavily restricted by the government’s policy surrounding the Hukou system. The Hukou housing registration system (aka Hukou system) attempts to lock people both to their region (rural/urban in a certain province) and to their sector of production (agricultural/non-agricultural) by linking their place of residence to their entitlement of welfare and social amenities.

Acting as a domestic passport system, the Hukou system inadvertently created two classes of internal migrants — “Hukou migrants” and “non-Hukou migrants,” also known as “floating residents.” Hukou migrants were migrants with local residency rights, allowed to work and live in particular areas outside of their home, while non-Hukou migrants were migrants without local residency rights.

According to China Daily reports, Shanghai (above) is the most popular city in China for the “floating migrant” population. (Photo Credit: Carlos ZGZ)

The challenges the Hukou system has posed to internal migration and economic wellbeing have gradually resulted in the government recognizing such phenomenon is not only inevitable — the increasing amount of migration has become a crucial human resource necessary for the rapid growth of economy in China’s cities. Hence, in response, the Hukou system has been cautiously yet gradually liberalized.

The major reason for the liberalization of the Hukou system has been increased mobility among rural residents since the 1980’s. This increased mobility has led to difficulty in maintaining effective forms of registration. Because the system was designed for an immobile population, increased mobility has directly challenged old ways, most notably, a temporary resident registration system.

Since 1997 major changes to the Hukou system were enacted by the central government, all of which have further liberated the citizens of China and their ability to provide labor in all corners of the country. Certain groups were allowed streamlined procedures and relaxed restrictions; the government abolished the system that set a limit on the number of migrants to small cities; the once experimental “talent-based” selection migration permit, that was once for specific provinces, was extended to the whole country; and the government experimented with abolishing the distinction between rural and urban, being practiced in some areas until more data could be used for further reform.[2] All of these changes meant more citizens were able to migrate more freely, providing both the government and the people with better opportunities for development and innovation.

China’s floating population work in a variety of industries in major cities throughout the country, including restaurants like this one in Nanjing, China.

While the changes and gradual easing of the Hukou system over the last 10 years have been positive in many ways, they have also created unforeseen problems. Today the effectiveness of the Hukou system is questionable, as it has become harder for the government and relative agencies to monitor workers outside of state-run jobs. This means that while the Hukou system is steadily improving in terms of reducing the disparities it once created between urban and rural populations, its overall success in achieving its designated goals — such as curbing illegal migration within China and classify citizens’ socioeconomic contribution — are slowly becoming less evident. Today the system remains relatively intact. Consequently, the criticisms from within China and outside are bringing about an increased concern for revision.

As far as comparisons to Europe go, there is much to be learned in terms of what not to do for internal migrant and labor identification.

Variations of this identification system have been improved upon in places like New York, but innovation is a continuing process, and required for responsible and effective labor migration monitoring.

Labor Immigration and Emigration in the Asia-Pacific

The Asia-Pacific has also experienced significant emigration and immigration as a result of global conflicts from the mid-1900’s to today. The list of migration crises in modern Asia goes on and on: Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam war in 1975, Chinese migrants in the late 1980’s, North Korean migrants, Central Asian migrants following the collapse of the Soviet Union; Chinese Tibetan refugees, Bhutanese refugees in India, Burmese in Thailand and Bangladesh, Muslims from Thailand and the Philippines, both internally displaced and internationally placed Sri Lankan refugees, and Indonesian migrants in the 1990’s round out this list, which is likely missing many others.

Intra-Asian labor migration has grown dramatically since the 1990’s, particularly migration into newly industrialized economies (NIE). While the portion of migrant workers in some Asian countries, like South Korea, is relatively small compared to European counterparts, other countries like Singapore rely heavily on migrant labor. The Philippines in Southeast Asia is a rare example of a country that has actually encouraged emigration, as a result of the value of remittances, roughly equal to 10% of GDP.

There are a number of policy lessons from the many Asian examples provided. One is that long-term migration policy planning is necessary, but lacking in many countries (see short term Chinese policies discussed earlier). The Asian example has also shown us that the dominant, hard-line Asia-Pacific government policies, often focused around ideas of cultural and ethnic homogeneity, will not stop illegal migration. In fact, illegal migration will continue as long as economies experience growth and decline, further exacerbated by conflict. Push factors that are leading refugees into dangerous, uncertain situations in order to leave their home countries are so pressing that people will find a way.

But the policy solutions, adaptations, and adjustments are undeniable and perhaps the answer to joint global leadership in migration and immigration issues, regardless of the region.

Europe is not Asia, this is true. But the policy solutions, adaptations, and adjustments are undeniable and perhaps the answer to joint global leadership in migration and immigration issues, regardless of the region.


[1] Tuñón, Max, “Internal Migrant Labor in China: Features and Responses,” ILO Office (Beijing, 2006), 18.

[2] Wang Fei-Ling, “Reformed Migration Control and New Targeted People: China’s Hukou System in the 2000s,” The China Quarterly (2004), 119–131.

Transatlantic Leadership in the Asia-Pacific

This post was originally written for the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professional’s Summit in Brussels, Belgium. It has been reprinted on the professional website of the author with permission from the German Marshall Fund. The original post can be found here, along with other interesting articles on foreign policy issues and the Young Professional’s Summit.

Today is the first day of the Young Professionals Summit, an associated event held alongside the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, an international, high-level meeting for leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to discuss pressing global issues and the transatlantic responses required for stability and adaptation amid crisis.

The Young Professionals Summit is a useful opportunity for young opinion makers, academics, and corporate and political representatives to engage in high-level discussions across generations. Summit participants are chosen from a global pool of applicants of emerging leaders under the age of 33 in a variety of fields. This year I am privileged to join the discussion as one of the Young Professional Summit representatives. I am excited to bring my trade, energy, and Asia policy expertise to a platform that will not only address these issues directly but also in the wider context of security, economic, and humanitarian issues. As a young person working to establish expertise in a field that emphasizes qualifications developed over a long period of time as a means to determine success, this is really a seminal opportunity. So far over my career I have planned, managed, executed and participated in many similar conferences in the Asia-Pacific, but this is the first Transatlantic oriented conference I have attended solely as a young leader in a policy oriented field, and I am grateful.

A coordinated transatlantic policy response to Asian crises is a necessary component of the transatlantic relationship moving forward.

Considering the perils of international conference and Summit planning, I can only imagine the lengths the German Marshall Fund must be going to in order to include concurrently the Young Professional Summit alongside their larger, higher level conference. If you have ever wondered what it takes to corral policy leaders in an intensive discussions, continents away from their home, imagine planning a weeklong vacation for your entire office — flights, hotels and meals included. Then pretend you don’t know the people in that office and there are strong personal and cultural opinions about “beaches vs. mountains.” That’s just the tip of the conference-planning-iceberg. My hat is off to the German Marshall Fund staff.

Looking forward to the following 3 days, I am intrigued by the inclusion of the Asia-Pacific in many of the issues to be discussed. Yes, this is a conference centered on the transatlantic relationship and how to strengthen and adapt together amid world crises. However, as Middle Eastern migration, economic instability, and terrorist threats lead the list of pressing transatlantic concerns, it is impossible for me not to look at these issues, and the many others that will be on our minds in Brussels, and wonder at the role Asia plays — as a partner and as an additional concern.

The United States and Europe have vested interests in the Asia-Pacific, both in terms of economics and security. Emerging and developed economies in Asia have an important role to play in financial and economic support of their western allies. East Asia in particular is at the forefront of global trade and finance, and it is also the location of many potential regional security conflicts, including tension in the South China Sea and nuclear proliferation in North Korea. Energy and environmental concerns in the Asia-Pacific are the same concerns of the transatlantic partners, but in some cases more immediately pressing, as air quality and energy consumption have converged for the perfect storm of growing health concerns and difficult but innovative energy solutions. A common approach to issues of mutual importance is not necessary — as far as policy responses go, the United States tends to lean towards security stability (see history of U.S. relationship in Asia) and Europe often tends towards diplomatic, economic oriented policy responses. However, increased coordination between the United States and Europe is necessary in order for timely, successful policy to be executed in the Asia-Pacific. The mutual interests of the United States and Europe to see a stable, prosperous Asia is undeniable. Increased dialogue between transatlantic partners on Asia-Pacific issues is critical. Providing new forums for a transatlantic perspective in Asia-Pacific security discussions is one way, as is promoting the examination of Asia-Pacific security issues in current transatlantic policy discussions, and simultaneously emphasizing the role of transatlantic allies in policy forums in the Asia Pacific. It strikes me that the Young Professionals Summit and the Brussels Forum have the opportunity to play a substantial role in these regards.

The forthcoming discussions will likely have a significant impact on all the participants — our careers, our passions, and our future professional relationships will no doubt be influenced. I look forward to continuing my reports on the transatlantic conversations, and will be sure to keep my Asia policy hat on throughout.

Ukrainia Mania

Recent news has much of the West looking toward Ukraine: One week ago riots broke out in Ukraine, the pinnacle of a multi year long struggle between pro EU and Pro Russian citizens in the former Soviet Union. Following the cease of the riots, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted. Since then, Ukraine’s parliament has put in place an interim government and scheduled elections for May, while ousted president Yanukovych fled to Russia. Following the implementation of a new government, Russian troops have entered Crimea, the southern peninsula of Ukraine with a decidedly pro Russian population (many of whom are ethnically Russian). The West has been startled by what many have called Russia’s clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and Ukrainian citizens have broken out in protest in favor of and against Russian forces around the country. Much like the 2008 South Ossetia War, Ukraine has the potential to quickly become a flashpoint of conflict.

Unlike most of the U.S. media, many analysts have been focused on the potential for conflict in the Ukraine for quite some time. The point of focus, however, has been from an energy perspective. Edward Chow, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and mentor to the author, has long focused some of his very limited time on Ukraine. Mr. Chow most recently wrote about Ukraine in December 2013, in the online CSIS Commentary, “Ukraine and Russian Gas–The Neverending Crisis”. Mr. Chow argues that Ukraine is at risk for becoming an energy appendage of Russia, with limited leverage over it’s more powerful neighbor and increasingly high debt. From the outside, it is easy for a lay person to see that this not only puts Ukraine in a vulnerable position economically, but strategically–the majority of Russia’s gas exports to Europe travel through Ukraine, making Russia’s need for Ukraine an important factor in its strong arming over the country.

Yes, other issues are creating a greater conflict between Russia and Ukraine (cultural and linguistic similarities, shared history, and EU vs Russian leaning foreign policies); however, the economic leverage Russia holds over Ukraine resulting from its poor energy policy has long been positioning the two countries for large scale conflict. As the crisis in Crimea escalates, Russia has every advantage, and has already started to send warning signals it may hold Russian Gas hostage as a result. Examining the conflict between Russia and Ukraine from an energy lens provides intriguing insights into the events currently unfolding, but also brings up an interesting question: Given the nature and history of disputes over energy resources, why are we unable to predict a conflict such as this? Are we looking in all the wrong places when making political predictions and charting future points of contention? Depending on the conflict, and the area of the world in question, perhaps tight energy markets and limited resources (or alternatives) do in fact precede conflict. Maybe analysts would be smart to take note of warning signs such as those in Ukraine.

Addendum:

New Russian Map: Posted to twitter via journalist Dave Keating on March 6, 2014, the following Map was used as an illustration of what would happen if Crimea’s parliament votes in favor of joining Russia on March 16:

Pipeline Trade: Pipelines from Russia & Belarus, traveling through Ukraine, carrying Russian gas to EU

A favorite map of Western news sources, via www.ria.ru

A favorite map of Western news sources, via http://www.ria.ru

The Sinophiles’ White Whale: PRC-ROC Relations

For the first time in 65 years Taiwan and China have renewed talks–not since the split between the two “parties” in 1949 have there been normalized relations between the two Chinas.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office met in Nanjing, China on Tuesday, February 11, 2014–at the same time I was visiting Taiwan for my first time in 25 years. As luck would have it my trip was business related, hosted by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) with an official delegation of former government representatives and business leaders from the U.S., allowing me insight into off-the-record conversations on a variety of issues that are of relevance to Taiwan’s other important relationship, the U.S.

The author with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou

While the meetings were as amazing as the delegation members themselves, there were a few striking takeaways for this amateur sinophile. They are as follows:

1.) Taiwan…actually matters. I mean this in the best possible way–coming from an energy and trade background, Taiwan clearly matters to the mainland, and vice-versa. But I have always been under the impression that the status quo of cross-strait relations will forever remain the status quo–neither side will budge and the debate is a moot point.

So what is the point in even pretending change is on the horizon?  One day they will be signing a trade agreement, the next day they will be pointing missiles at each other. The relationship will forever be sticky, and messy, and undefinable.

Well, as it turns out, the status quo is still the status quo, but what many in Taiwan see as actual progress was happening right under our nose at the cross-strait talks in Nanjing. Sure, these talks didn’t include either player’s president (they couldn’t–Taiwan is not a recognized country, so Xi Jinping, President of Mainland China, could never meet with Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan. Further, because Taiwan is so adamant about its status as an independent, democratic China, Ma Ying-jeou could never stoop to meeting with anyone less than the President of China. Talk about complicated), but they do represent warming relations between two nemesis.

2.) Security is Taiwan’s top priority. This may not come as a surprise to most cross-strait experts. However, to other policy analysts this is surprising when compared to the U.S. government’s priorities–defense matters (our government spending shows us that every year come appropriations time), but so do a lot of other issues that are constantly (hotly) debated among our leaders. Cross-strait relations, however, define the majority of Taiwanese politics–from the current President’s approval rating, to the opposition party’s platform for the coming elections, to the new interest from Taiwan in joining the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, Taiwan is obsessed with its neighbor. Rightfully so, of course (similar to other cross-border tensions in Asia that will remain unnamed), but seeing first hand via the Taiwanese Navy, Air Force, and multiple unnamed Ministries the way in which all conversations about Taiwan’s interests come back to China really hammers home the point that cross-strait relations are, literally, everything.

3.) Mainland China is in a really, really good position.

Today China has a monopoly on trade, and Taiwan is a significant part of that monopoly (China represents 21% of Taiwan’s total trade; almost 30% if you include Hong Kong). Take, for example, this great graphic posted by Ian Bremmer on February 27, 2014 on Twitter:

Posted on Twitter by Ian Bremmer, 27 Feb 2014.

Posted on Twitter by Ian Bremmer, 27 Feb 2014.

China, clearly, has the upper hand in the region, leaving smaller economies like Taiwan little choice but to do their best to walk on economic eggshells. Not only does China have the economic leverage, they have the time to wait out Taiwan’s battling political parties and indecisive constituents, and the regional relationships to continue “alienating” Taiwan (to borrow a common phrase used in Taiwan to describe the one-sided Cross-strait relationship).

4.) This potential patience on the PRC’s part brings me to my last point–and one remaining question: Why does a territorial dispute, between two immensely different (some would argue unfairly matched) political foes,  matter except for reasons of principle? Taiwan, it is clear based upon my experience there, is  a democratic China. The culture is the same (nearly), the language is the same (nearly), the history is the same (nearly), but the political system is so different…So, I guess my final conclusion is that Taiwan and China are as similar as… North Korea and South Korea.

Just kidding. My real conclusion is that I, as a person who has been educated in the politics of Mainland China, was unsure what to expect going to Taiwan but was confident I had a firm understanding of the cross-strait dynamics. And as a result my boat was seriously rocked. I may not have a stance on the cross-strait relationship now, but I certainly am more comfortable with the realization that cross-strait relations are much, much grayer than I originally thought.