Figuring out Taiwan: Strait Talk

Last year I attended Strait Talk at Brown University. Strait Talk, in simple terms, is a closed-door weeklong session on Taiwan’s future. The method is through citizen-to-citizen dialogue, without political jargon, in an open space. In one week we, a group of fifteen divided into “delegations” of five (China/PRC, Taiwan/ROC and the US), opened up to each other. As part of the American delegation, I took part with people that are as passionate as I am about Taiwan. We exposed what we believed to be core issues and tried to make a step forward together through forging a “consensus document” outlining what measures all participants consented on to be implemented for peace. Yet, why does Strait Talk need to be conducted in private? This has to do with security.

Facilitor Tatsushi Arai moves along discussion with delegates
Facilitator and delegates in deep discussion

I realized that Strait Talk is selectively catered to people who could not openly express themselves and those who care about Taiwan. Taiwan is a sensitive topic in many circles. Within such a closed-door session, they benefit greatly from this week-long conversation since the value lies with understanding one another using honest dialogue. It allows everyone, as private citizens, to say how they perceive Taiwan. I myself have met people whose insight could not be made public due to well-founded concerns. So by having the whole session closed-door, people can freely express themselves and put forward ideas that may be the breakthrough in the Taiwan Strait. Without a secure framework, nothing of weight would be discussed.

For the people who cares about Taiwan, Strait Talk is a great opportunity to have heartfelt dialogue. The reason is that any dialogue is better than none. A good example was our history timeline exercise. When we reached the year 1996, I told the group about hearing fighter jets screaming across the sky while another told of air-raid sirens and drills. We were talking about the Taiwan Missile Crisis, which to my surprise not everyone knew. Granted, no one knew everything, but this topic jumpstarted a deeper discussion about understanding one another.

Preparing at NYU
Delegates present their results from Strait Talk at NYU Law School

Making the “consensus document”, despite participants’ personal opinions, impacts policy-making at the highest level because it shows that a consensus is achievable. Much like policy-making between governments, it involves private discussions. A relationship relies on the fundamental basis of person-to-person interaction.  Combine that with authority and one would get policy, including foreign relations. But like any enacted policy, agreement through consensus was required. In the case of the “consensus document,” it required unanimous approval.

The fact that the document required unanimous approval showed the importance of positive relationships. This was why participants had to come in open-minded. We had to understand each other to overcome issues to form the “consensus document.” The creation of the document had seen flared emotions, arguments, tears, and soul-searching.

We came in with good intentions and opened up to each other to find solace, but the hardened reality of global politics changed what could have been made. Instead of making a document by consensus, a document by agreement was created; the cold calculus of reality took precedence.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 1.03.27 PM
Click image for 2013 Strait Talk Berkeley Consensus Document From Japan Policy Research Institute
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Click image for 2014 Strait Talk Berkeley Consensus Document From Japan Policy Research Institute

The first few days had us stripping down our defenses to know one another, but when the time came to create the document, we raised up our guards. By putting our thoughts to paper, we created a document that fell short. What idealism we had coming in were vastly extinguished by the time we got out. This caused  some participants to sign anonymously (See one of few public “consensus documents” here). Regardless, the biggest asset was what we, the next generation of peacemakers, walked away with: the connections amongst ourselves.

Hear the findings of the 2016 Strait Talk Brown!

Check out this year’s Strait Talk final presentation:

November 15, 2015 at Harvard’s Harvard Hall 104

November 16, 2015 at NYU School of Law’s Furman Hall 120

You can join Strait Talk too!

Interested in talking about Taiwan? Check out the websites below for more information and how to apply!

Strait Talk Parent Website

Strait Talk Brown (Taking place now!)

Strait Talk Berkeley (Takes place in March)

Strait Talk Hong Kong

Strait Talk Taipei


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