AmCham Taiwan at 70: Taiwan and the Economic Rise of China

Then AmCham Taiwan President Richard R. Vuylsteke, now president of the East-West Center in Hawaii, greets ROC President Chen Shui-bian.

Hearty congratulations to current and past AmCham members and staff on your 70th anniversary! Countless fond memories wash through my mind as I look back on my years at AmCham’s helm. Then, and now, the Chamber has played a key role in Taiwan’s economic and commercial success, both as participant and cheerleader.

Behind the Chamber’s White Papers, roundtable talking points, and candid interactions with Taiwan officials was a dedicated coterie of AmCham board and committee-chair leaders lending their valuable time, energy, and expertise to the goals of improved local and international business in Taiwan.

We were almost always less successful than we wanted, but we did persevere.

For decades, the rise of China has been one of the most difficult challenges to Taiwan economically, politically, and socially. AmCham has long been a voice urging Taiwan to counter China’s impact on Taiwan, particularly in the business and commercial sectors, by facilitating increased access to foreign investment not only from the U.S. but also from countries around the world.

At the time, a few of our hoped-for results included:

  • Counter-balancing Chinese investment in Taiwan and Taiwan business investment in China by broadly opening Taiwan’s markets – including a much broader range of services – to investment sources from the U.S., EU, and Southeast Asia. The goal was an upgraded Taiwanese economy offering compelling business and career opportunities. The Chamber urged efforts to attract internationally diversified investment and trade to avoid economic coercion by China. Today, we see how China does not hesitate to apply pressure by abruptly limiting trade and tourism.
  • Boosting the qualitative dimensions and variety of Taiwan’s economy by attracting a broad range of foreign business skills, talent, and practices to help raise the economic, business, and commercial environment to levels of excellence. A more domestically competitive economy was seen as a way to strengthen international visibility, support, and overall economic impact.
  • Raising Taiwan’s labor capabilities as international business operations provide expanded opportunities for more skills acquisition and cutting-edge training. With local and foreign businesses competing for the best talent, more foreign business operations would also break the near inertia in raising wages domestically. In an environment of higher salaries, the economy and society would be strengthened by the commitment to upgrading education and training.
  • Freeing up regulatory controls that stifle innovation and investment. The one sector that has escaped the moldy blanket of regulatory restrictions has been high-tech – with the success of TSMC as a sterling example. That success was facilitated by keeping regulators at bay. More openness to innovation could also happen in other sectors with a bit more regulatory flexibility and restraint.

For many decades, AmCham’s White Paper recommended ways for Taiwan to make specific business sectors more competitive. During my time at the Chamber, these suggestions hovered around 100 a year, with typically less than a handful gaining traction. It was disheartening. Taiwan’s expressed goals of modernizing its economy had an annual template at hand for step-by-step upgrading that would have attracted greater international investment. All too often the recommendations fell into an intransigent morass of political and bureaucratic inertia.

Fortunately, Taiwan is now addressing many of these topics more vigorously. May the pace of cultivating foreign investment and opening markets accelerate. It will be increasingly important since the coercive economic threats from China will only grow in intensity. 

Taiwan has a near-term advantage as a result of China’s heavy handedness both internally and internationally. Although the PRC’s economic power always helps it mute external criticism, its image as an alternative form of governance is suffering mightily due to the focus on the survival and total dominance of the Chinese Communist Party over everything else.

Taiwan’s vigorous democracy and stubborn refusal to be swayed by Chinese pressures are great strengths. But Taiwan needs to cultivate its friends. Encouraging international business investment through a more attractive investment environment surely is one way to build its stature and strength as a counterforce to China’s increasingly authoritarian approach to all things.

I wish the Chamber – and Taiwan – every success in the future. May there be another 70 years of constructive cooperation for the good of Taiwan and U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Footnote: One fond memory worth mentioning is that when I arrived at AmCham, TOPICS was a 10-issues-per-year publication. I added annual Wine & Dine and Travel & Culture issues as a means to highlight some of the most attractive aspects of Taiwan. I am delighted to see those issues continue to flourish.