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Taiwan Steps up Asia Business to Reduce Dependence on China

  • Ralph Jennings

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during the National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017.

Taiwan is offering visa waivers and setting up overseas investment offices across a swathe of countries to its south, the latest moves to deepen a rebalancing of economic relations away from political foe China.

Officials in Taipei hope to foster more tourism, trade and higher education links with 18 countries covering most of South and Southeast Asia plus Australia and New Zealand. Stronger ties in theory would reduce the role of China, which is Taiwan’s top trading partner now, as the two sides struggle over political differences.

In the latest phase of Taiwan’s effort, called the New Southbound Policy, Philippine citizens may visit Taiwan visa-free for 14 days during a trial period that starts next month and ends in July. Taiwan offered waivers to citizens of Brunei and Thailand in August 2016. Those efforts complement new investment offices, growth in the number of university students in Taiwan and more Taiwanese development aid.

“The purpose of the New Southbound Policy is for us to hold a more advantageous position in international society,” Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said in a National Day speech earlier this month. “I also want to use this opportunity to tell our friends from around the world that faced with a rapidly changing Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan is ready to play a more important role in shaping regional prosperity and stability.”

Shaky relations with China

Tsai announced the New Southbound Policy after taking office in May 2016 to rebalance relations for Taiwan’s $529 billion economy.

Taiwanese business people traditionally choose China for investment because of its relatively low costs, skilled workforce and cultural links. More than 93,000 Taiwanese businesses invested in China between 1988 and 2016, according to the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

But China claims sovereignty over Taiwan despite the island’s democratic self-rule, causing enough friction to stop dialogue under Tsai’s presidency.

How the New Southbound Policy works

Taiwan’s economic affairs ministry has established investment offices in Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines to help investors find projects in those countries based on local needs.

The Taiwan government is offering as well credit guarantees for smaller businesses headed to Southeast Asia, where aid from Taipei will help pay for infrastructure and other major projects in those countries. The visa waivers facilitate travel to Taiwan, another boon to the economy.

Taiwan’s trade with the 18 countries covered by the policy had risen 20 percent this year compared to last, Tsai said in her speech without giving an exact time frame.

Tourist arrivals from New Southbound countries are rising as the headcount from China decreases, official data show. The number of postsecondary students in Taiwan from New Southbound Policy countries went up 10 percent over the six months to March from a year earlier, while the number of non-degree university students from China has eased since mid-2016.

Taiwan’s Investment Commission last year approved 252 applications for projects intended for China last year, down 21.5 percent from 2015.

But China remains Taiwan’s top trading partner thanks to a thriving consumer market and the maturity of its supply chain for the likes of tech and machinery. Imports and exports totaled $117.9 billion in 2016.

Feedback from South and Southeast Asia

Indonesia has been a bright spot for finding new investment projects, especially in agriculture, an economic affairs official in Taipei said earlier in the year. Thailand had already approved 274 Taiwanese investment applications, worth $1.39 billion, from 2010 to 2015.

About 3,500 Taiwanese investors had invested in Vietnam as early as 2011 because costs were rising in China while Vietnam was offering incentives to lure foreign capital.

The restart in May of Taiwanese-owned Formosa Plastics Group’s Vietnam steel plant could draw a “cluster” of related Taiwanese firms, said Liang Kuo-yuan, president of Taipei-based think tank Polaris Research Institute in Taipei. Factory work had stopped over a suspected toxic leak that killed fish.

The Philippines, an investment-thirsty Southeast Asian archipelago, is actively looking for Taiwanese companies, said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila. Taiwanese electronics firms consider the country an export manufacturing base, he said, while healthcare firms may find partners such as hospitals. The growing consumer base lures others.

“We’re seeing entrepreneurs from Taiwan looking into the Philippines, given that it’s a very big retail market,” Ravelas said.

But one Southeast Asian country, Cambodia, may fear angering China by veering too close to Taiwan. Beijing forbids its allies from establishing formal ties with Taipei. In February Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declared a ban on raising the Taiwan flag. Two years earlier the government forbid Taiwan from establishing an informal trade office.

Still early days

Similar go-south policies fell flat under former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui in 1993 and his successor, Chen Shui-bian, after 2000. China in those years was cheaper, with less competition from local companies, in turn drawing Taiwanese investors.

Today’s policy will struggle as Taiwan faces competition in the 18 target counties from other foreign investment sources, Liang said. Competitors include China, India, Japan and South Korea. China and India were less competitive before 2000. Taiwan lacks a material advantage, he said.

“The biggest problem is that Southeast Asia is not a blue ocean market,” Liang said. “There are too many competitors, so Taiwan can’t just use its point of view to go compete in that market. Taiwan after all has what strength?”

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