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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2002)
Millions of US $  406,000    
GNI per capita
 US $ 18,000
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Taiwan

Update No: 077 - (28/06/10)

The marginalisation of Taiwan
Taiwan’s economy continues its rebound with a number of research agencies upgrading their economic forecasts. Trade has returned as the driver of growth. While the trade figures look particularly good thanks to the low base effect, the fact that exports have reached record high levels underscores the positive sentiment. Despite the good macroeconomic picture, unemployment continues to be a major problem with job vacancies, particularly unskilled jobs, in short supply. Government debt also appears to be a looming problem. President Ma Ying-jeou, continues to insist that Taiwan has to tie itself in with China to secure its future; many others remain unconvinced of the wisdom of this approach.

June 24 2010: Taiwan’s exports in May rose to US$25.54 billion or by US$9.4 billion from the same time last year—a year-on-year increase of 58 percent. While the percentage growth was influenced by the low base effect, this amount represents a record high. Imports reached $22.3 billion, the highest amount since September 2008 when the global financial crisis first hit. Year-on-year the increase was 71.4 percent. Demand came from Asia; exports to China, Hong Kong, the ASEAN-six and the Republic of Korea were all at historic levels.

Exports to ASEAN showed the largest increase rising more than 67 percent from a year earlier, followed closely by China (including Hong Kong) which rose by nearly 66 percent. For the first five months of the year, Taiwan’s exports totalled US$109.2 billion, an increase of 52.7 percent year-on-year, while in the same period imports rose 71.4 percent to US$98.55 billion. The trade surplus reached US$10.7 billion, down by 23.1 percent from the previous year.

The pleasing trade numbers plus suggestions of recovering domestic demand have enabled a number of Taiwan’s economic research agencies to again revise upwards their growth forecasts for 2010. Polaris Research institute is now forecasting 6.82 percent GDP growth for this year—up from 4.65 percent in March. Cathay Financial Holdings is punting on seven percent growth which could increase to eight percent should Taiwan conclude an economic framework cooperation agreement with China. Provided global recovery continues and exports remain robust, Citibank Taiwan concurs that eight percent growth is achievable.

There are downside risks of course. Globally, the primary risk is that recovery will not be sustained and that export growth will falter should the present crisis in Europe worsen and flow on to other markets. The state of the US economy also gives cause for concern. While Taiwan’s economy is recovering slowly, much uncertainty remains and latest data suggests that companies are remaining cautious about hiring new workers – preferring instead to extend the working hours of their existing workforce.
Unemployment fell by 0.25 percentage points in May to 5.14 percent of the workforce and the lowest level in 17 months. The ranks of the unemployed now numbers 567,000. Despite the improvement, Taiwan’s unemployment rate is still the highest among comparable Asian economies, outstripping Japan at 5.1 percent, Hong Kong at 4.6 percent, the Republic of Korea at 3.2 percent and Singapore at 2.2 percent. The government’s stated objective of lowering the unemployment rate this year to below three percent seems a forlorn hope. Most expect unemployment to remain above the five percent mark until next year.

The government is still banking on an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China to boost growth and employment but many remain sceptical. A third round of talks on the ECFA was held in Beijing on 13 and 14 June and while progress appears to have been made, no consensus was reached on the so-called “early harvest list” or those items that would be marked for immediate tariff reduction or elimination. According to reports there are around 500 items from Taiwan including petrochemicals, machinery, auto parts and textile products. Tariff reductions will likely be around 60 percent for petrochemicals and 80 percent for textiles. China has around 250 products on its own list. However, neither list has yet been finalized.

President Ma claims that without a trade and investment agreement, Taiwan will be marginalized. He has sought to sell the ECFA on the basis that with China set to become the world’s second largest economy, Taiwan can be transformed into a global innovation centre and regional trade hub as well as a global operation headquarter for Taiwanese businesspeople and a regional operation centre for foreign investors.

This concept was fashionable during the last KMT administration during the 1990s but time has moved on. It may be an overly optimistic ambition nowadays since Shanghai has already become the regional trade hub as well as the regional operational centre for many foreign investors—as the hollowing out of Taiwan’s international business community over the past decade clearly attests.

Fearful that Ma may be a single-term president, China is placed in a dilemma. On the one hand it wishes to lock down its pre-eminence over Taiwan as early as possible so as to reduce any future government’s freedom to manoeuvre while at the same time it wishes to avoid forcing Ma into accepting unpopular terms that move ahead of public opinion in Taiwan. The sticking point at the present time appears to be the issue of whether Taiwan, under an ECFA, will be allowed to enter into bilateral trade agreements with other countries which, in the absence of a successful Doha round of WTO negotiations, have now become fashionable.

Here much ambiguity abounds. Ma Ying-jeou appears to have changed positions several times claiming on different occasions that an ECFA must be a precondition to Taiwan being able to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with other countries; then the conditional tense was introduced with the statement that “an ECFA should lead to…” and then further doubt was introduced when he said that it “might lead to…”.

China has been less equivocal. According to a Chinese spokesperson the idea that an ECFA would lead to other FTAs for Taiwan was not even on the table. A Chinese Foreign ministry spokesperson went further during a routine press briefing in saying that China “strongly opposes any official ties in any format that Taiwan might develop [with other countries] although it was not against any unofficial trade ties between Taiwan and China’s diplomatic allies.

One newspaper editorial (admittedly pro-Taiwanese) has claimed that Taiwan’s “worst nightmare” will be realized if China blocks Taiwan from concluding FTAs with other countries. The press has also pointed out that for many years, Taiwan’s economy prospered without China. During the martial law years when Taiwan was run by former presidents Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo Taiwan often posted double-digit economic growth. The mantra at that time was that Taiwan had to open up a wide range of markets in order to minimize the risk to its economy. Of course, that was in a different age and before China embarked on economic reform but the fact remains that it is only in recent years that Taiwan’s investments into mainland China have skyrocketed and that investment, some of it quite high risk, correlates strongly with a drop in domestic investment. This goes some way to accounting for the historic high levels of unemployment now being experienced in Taiwan.

Given this constant increase in investment—more than $1 billion since Ma came to power in 2008, China accounts for an increasing share of Taiwan’s GDP that may be difficult to reverse. According to this line of reasoning, this shows that Taiwan itself is embarked on a high risk gamble in getting too close to China instead of using the opportunities of globalization to adopt policies that would involve diversifying investments and risks around the globe. When it comes to the marginalisation of Taiwan, perhaps that has already happened; the only question is which is the best road back?   

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