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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: 079 - (26/08/10)

The Economic Framework Cooperation Agreement (EFCA) with China has now passed into law. Taiwan’s unicameral legislature ratified the accord on 17 August after 10 hours of debate. Not unexpectedly, the KMT dominated house, voted down all amendments proposed by the opposition DPP party. Government legislators naturally praised the accord saying “its implementation will ensure the country’s prosperity for 50 or 60 years”. Those in the Opposition naturally took the reverse view claiming that the ECFA has been “cooked up by the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party” to bring Taiwan under the control of China economically and hastening unification.

It is still too early to tell how the ECFA will alter the course of Taiwan’s future development but given the continued expansion of China’s hegemony over East Asia, analysts are probably right to sound the warnings – they are there for all too see.

Over the past decade and even under the DPP leadership, Taiwan’s economy has become increasingly dependent on the Chinese mainland in what has been termed a triangular pattern of trade whereby orders are booked in Taiwan but manufactured and shipped from China to other markets. One Taiwanese newspaper editorial has pointed out that the percentage of Taiwan’s trade carried out in this manner has grown from 13 percent in year 2000 to 50 percent this year. It is this triangular trade arrangement that has led to a hollowing out of Taiwan’s manufacturing base (with consequent declines in employment levels) despite the continued growth of exports and GDP.

The key question is whether the signing of the ECFA will reverse this pattern by allowing Taiwan to sign trade agreements with other countries and perhaps develop new industries (especially in services) or will it act as a vacuum cleaner sucking up what remains of Taiwan’s industrial base and transplanting it to China. The signs so far do not give much cause for optimism.

But first the good news; the government has once more upgraded Taiwan’s domestic growth prospects for this year based on improving export orders, better than expected private investment as well as robust consumer spending. The 6.14 percent domestic growth forecast for 2010 announced back in May, has now been revised to 8.24 percent.

GDP rose 12.53 percent year-on-year in the second quarter, the third consecutive quarter of growth since Taiwan came out of the 2009 recession. For the two remaining quarters of the year, further quarterly expansion rates of 6.9 percent and 1.37 percent are forecast. Looking ahead, the outlook for 2011 is for a growth rate of 4.64 percent.

The main reason for the slowdown of growth in the latter part of the year has been attributed to the base effect rather than any significant real slowdown. This could be an oversimplification as the most recent economic data from the major economies suggest that the pace of recovery could be slowing with the debt crisis in Europe not yet resolved and unemployment in the United States remaining stubbornly high.

The value of export orders in July, at US$33.8 billion, climbed to their fourth highest level ever and their second highest level since the global financial meltdown. Cumulative orders from January to July totalled $227.9 billion, a year-on-year rise of 35.2 percent (but remember the low base effect). Taiwan is hoping that for the year as a whole, orders will surpass $400 billion.

All of this looks very encouraging, but as the Taipei Times pointed out recently in an editorial, few benefits from this continued economic expansion are trickling down to the person in the street. The wealth disparity in Taiwan is at a record high: “In 2008, those in the top 5 percent of the income pyramid enjoyed, on average, an annual income of NT$4.5 million (US$140,530). The bottom 5 percent only earned an average of NT$68,000. In 1998, the highest incomes were only 32 times more than the lowest.” It appears that the winners in the economy are the exporters and their shareholders who are able to invest their growing wealth in property, pushing home prices ever higher. The same editorial pointed out that the cost of a home in Taipei City now represents more than 11 years of salary for the average wage earner.

It is hard to see how the ECFA can improve matters for the man in the street. Other commentators have drawn attention to the manner in which China is now enticing Taiwan’s high-tech farmers to China under the guise of cross-straits agricultural cooperation. As a result, high-value domestic Taiwan species: animal, fish and plant are now being bred in China on a large-scale sufficient to become a threat to Taiwan’s rural industries. Low cost entry of these products into China from Taiwan is only possible if there is a market for them. If China is replacing Taiwanese exports with domestic local production, then rather than expanding the market for Taiwan produce, it will simply disappear entirely. And once China produces these species in sufficient quantities to export, Taiwan is in further difficulty.

Despite the continued reassurance from President Ma Ying-jeou that the signing of cross-straits economic pacts have no political significance; such claims are sounding increasingly hollow. China’s agenda for Taiwan is clear for those who want to read the signs and is worrisome not only for Taiwan but for much of East Asia.

Back in the 1990s China passed domestic legislation claiming the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters; this was widely considered to be an ambit claim since many other countries bordering the Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines were making claims of their own. Recently China upped the ante by proclaiming to visiting US officials in March that the South China Sea was part of its “core national interests” and crucial to its territorial integrity.

Similar to its claim to Taiwan, this puts the matter beyond negotiation as far as China is concerned.

One third of the world’s maritime commerce passes through the South China Sea and the implications of this declaration are only too clear. This is a clear laying down of the gauntlet to the United States and in particular the US Navy.

The US attitude towards China’s strategic expansion has appeared ambivalent and as a consequence, President Barack Obama’s overtures towards China have given Beijing the impression of US weakness. This has tempted China’s leaders to press their advantage believing that the US is unwilling to challenge China directly. While US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was quick to reassure ASEAN nations that the US considers the maintenance of security and stability in the South China Sea as matters of US national interest, China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi, was equally quick to issue a condemnation of Clinton’s comments.

And while ASEAN is seeking multinational negotiations to resolve issues involving common interest maritime areas, Beijing is equally adamant in insisting that the ASEAN countries negotiate bilaterally.

A multilateral forum would, of course, involve the United States, Japan and possibly Korea and this is the last thing that China would want to happen. Nevertheless, where there is action there is reaction. The interesting aspect in all of this is that such a multilateral form – whether or not Taiwan was given a seat at the table (and the likelihood is that it would not be invited) – would serve to give Taiwan a little more freedom to manoeuvre.

But not only has Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou followed a policy of appeasement towards Beijing, he is on the record as vowing that no matter what, he will never ask the US to defend Taiwan. No wonder that most of Taiwan’s population are bewildered.

With the US economy decidedly shaky, the question for the State Department to ponder is how to deal itself back into the game.   

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