Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dispatch from the Road--Day 5: Meeting the President

Having in some way damaged my internal timing mechanism, I awoke at 0340 today with a start, and immediately began thinking about all the things I have to do.  We leave early today, 0700, for a train ride south to visit an Air Force Base and a Navy Base.  I wanted to knock off a few things before then, including this little slice of heaven with you, Dear Readers.

Yesterday was blissful---the piece I wrote to you was part of an extended morning in, as we did not meet until 1030.  I slept until 0800, worked out, drank coffee, blogged, drank some more coffee, marked a paper, and then went to Starbucks before hopping on the bus en route our first call on the Deputy Defense Minister.  Another of a serious of ultra-polished dudes, he came up through the Foreign Affairs Ministry but was moved over to Defense for his first, current post.  We met in a spartan, military style meeting room, u-shaped table, with him and our delegation leader looking down the legs of the U at the rest of us.  Across from our group was a murderers row of Admirals and Generals from the Navy, Air Force and Army.  It was a pleasant chat....I sometimes get the feeling that there are folks in our group who possess wisdom or knowledge unavailable to these men facing the Chinese threat every day of their lives, because that wisdom and knowledge is conveyed with such certainty and confidence.  Were I one of the guys across the table, I might find myself having a moment of ... irritation with the know-it-alls in ties.  But I digress....

Grand Hotel
After this meeting, we headed out to the edge of town to the Grand Hotel, Taipei, for many years the only 5 star hotel in the city and apparently a favorite haunt of Chiang Kai-Shek.  This was to be our lunch spot, and it was wonderful.  Unlike some of the other meals on this trip, the languid pace seemed just right.  Very good food and very good conversation.  We have a great group, including a retired Air Force three star and a retired Navy Seal two-star...and they've gotten into a few good-natured tussles about the A-
Lunch Homeys
10.....good to hear guys who really know their stuff argue their positions.  From here we headed to the Presidential Palace for two meetings.

The first was with the Deputy Secretary General of the National Security Council, a retired Army three star.  Very bright guy.  You get a sense of how bright someone is when they sound smart in what is obviously a second language.  Sometimes, however, you only get the full measure when he speaks in his native tongue and is then translated by someone of skill.  That was the case with this fellow.  He was great using his English, but only when he tired of it and launched into long interludes of Mandarin was I able to get the full measure of his big, quick, brain.  After about an hour, we started upstairs to meet the President.
Presidential Palace

We were ushered into a formal meeting room in which comfy chairs ringed the wall.  Each of us had a bag with a gift/name tag on it sitting net to our chairs.  Since I am one of the few non-retired flag/general officers on the trip, I tend to be seated farther from the places of distinction.  Such is life.  The room was high ceilinged and ornate, festooned with fragrant blossoms (many of the places we meet and our hotel lobby are similarly awash in very smelly flowers--nice smells, but a bit overpowering at times) and while not overwhelmingly Asian in decor, Asian enough for you to get a broad sense of where you were.  There were a few functionaries hanging out and also some members of the Press Corps.   President Mawas ushered in once everyone was in their place, and he (in perfect English) informed us that he would read an opening statement in Mandarin (which was translated for we benighted Anglo-Saxons).  The statement was pretty straightforward stuff, with a dig now and again at the rival political party for their inability to be as wise has his reign has been. This was obviously for domestic consumption, for when his statement was over, the reporters were ushered out of the room and the rest of the meeting was conducted solely in English.
President Ma

Ma is a very, very good politician.  We've seen some pretty smart and smooth operators during our trip here, but this guy is in the major leagues.  What amazed me was that here was the head of state of a nation of 26 million people, and he spent an hour with us, taking our questions and getting into a very good discussion of some very sensitive issues.  For those interested, I asked a question about the growing, warm, relationship between Taiwan and Japan, and he seemed very happy to talk about that for a bit.

At the end our time with the President, we had one more meeting, a 1700 meeting with Deputy Minister for Mainland Affairs, which is a cabinet level ministry separate from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Why, you ask?  Why because if it were in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that would be a sign that Taiwan considers China a foreign country...which it doesn't.  Capice?  An uneventful interlude, we finished up and went to dinner---at which point I was once again nearing exhaustion.  Some of the party exercised good judgment and hopped back to the hotel rather than go to dinner, only because (as I'll talk about below), meals here are extensive and time consuming.  

Some quick hits?
Meals.  Far bet it from me to complain about food...but here goes.  The food here is wonderful.  Really, really good stuff.  But every course is served separately and there are many courses in each meal.  At the end of the day when hung dog tired, the last thing I want is a meal that comes in little parts spread out over two hours.  As I said, it was good at lunchtime yesterday, because I was alert and in good company.  It is less so when I'm grumpy and tired, the company notwithstanding.

Presents.  We have been given presents at some of the stops.  Little things, books, paper weight, etc.  The bags are ornate though.  I fear I will have to purchase another bag to get this stuff home with me!

Flowers.  The Kitten (and the Kittens) all have allergies to strong smells, and so our house is pretty smell free.  We use fragrance free detergents, soaps, shampoos.  We tend to keep only neutral smelling flowers in the house, etc.  But here, flowers are on full display.  Huge arrangements of flowers that smell wonderfully, but because of the hermetically sealed environment in which I spend much of my time, become somewhat overpowering after a while.  

Situation.  I will probably write extensively about his on some Foreign Relations type blog, but for the time being, I'll share a thought or two with you.  This trip has given me a greater appreciation for the real pickle these guys are in.  They have to walk fine lines, wherever they go.  They need to be strong to deter an attack from China, but not too strong as to be provocative.  They need to curry favor with the United States in order to be protected and have arms sales, and they have to listen to us complain that they don't spend enough on their own defense.  If they spend more on defense, they get viewed by the CHICOMS as provocative.  The cycles are vicious and lines are fine.  I've come to admire the path President Ma appears to have chosen, and his people seem to like it too.

Ok, that's it for now.  


Mudge said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your travelogue. Thanks for taking the time to share it and congratulations on what sounds to have been a successful mission.

Dear ol" Dad said...

Yes, I too am thoroughly enjoying the blog every day. We here at home are all pround of your past accomplishments and this trip you are on rates a giant A plus.

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