Taiwan & America: What Matters Most

Nothing puts one in a reflective mood like turning 70. As the September issue of TOPICS showed, AmCham has been mulling over U.S.-Taiwan ties, of which the Chamber has been such a significant part since its founding on September 14, 1951. Another source of reflection has been a monograph we are co-producing with the prestigious East West Center, titled Taiwan Matters for America; America Matters for Taiwan.

Thinking about what makes our two lands so special to one another, I come up with two big baskets: commonalities and divergences – not unlike with most couples, it seems. Among the values common to the U.S. and Taiwan are adherence to a level playing field, protection of intellectual property, and concern for common goods, like a healthy environment.

At the business level, from product creation to corporate action on ESG goals, we align easily. An American company like TESLA can develop and equip a cutting-edge smart vehicle here, just as readily as a Formosa Plastics U.S.A. can become a founding member of the NGO the Alliance to End Plastic Waste – right alongside, say, the U.S.’ Procter & Gamble. With its tech-savvy and well-networked public, Taiwan is a great place for Apple to both source and sell iPhones. And both economies combine easily in third countries; for example, in bringing products like the Kindle e-reader or Blackberry mobile phone to the world. Taiwan and the U.S. are “additive.”

Variety, we are told, is the spice of life, and divergent characteristics between our homelands create synergies. It has been noted that America, the land of Edison and Ford, has gradually seen high-end manufacturing hollow out, or disassociate lab from shop floor. Thankfully, its #9 trade partner Taiwan continues to advance in precision manufacturing. For example, Taiwanese companies can measure extremely low electrical currents and produce nanopowder that does not clump together. This technology is developed by Taiwanese and nested in comprehensive production chains on one, compact island. Increasingly, firms specializing in artificial intelligence such as IBM or in the production of sophisticated electronic connectors like MOLEX are expanding in Taiwan, not for production economies alone, but to conduct R&D as well.

In the opposite direction, America’s prowess in beef, soybeans, and high-value foods certainly “matter” to Taiwan’s producers and consumers of foodstuffs. Partnerships with Silicon Valley remain as relevant today in fostering a Taiwanese unicorn such as Appier as they did in nurturing genius from other eras – the most notable example being Morris Chang, founder of TSMC. Indeed, hyper-specialization in semiconductor production may stand as the clearest case of a division of labor taken to extremes, such that both sides must now work to “un-kink” and rebalance integrated circuit supply chains. And that great “trend accelerator,” COVID-19, has been a source of mutual learning, with one side pioneering novel vaccines at warp speeds, and the other blazing a trail in non-pharmaceutical pandemic control. These were entirely different approaches that both dazzled the world. Taipei and Washington have also undertaken differing humanitarian responses to the pandemic, both of which, again, have had a global impact. Taiwan and the U.S. are complementary.

Beyond our similarities and differences, Taiwanese and Americans matter to one another – almost viscerally – because we care deeply for one another. Shared affection has been built up through hundreds of thousands of people-to-people exchanges: Olympic and other sporting endeavors, alumni networks, waves of two-way immigration, and intermarriages – including among same-sex couples. There are well more than seven decades of shared or parallel struggles – efforts to live up to our common beliefs about immigrant and minority rights, for example, or securing military stability – that bind us and ensure that we will continue to “matter” to one another for a long, long time to come. Our monograph will hopefully be a modest addition to the body of work that recognizes and celebrates this special relationship. We hope to unveil it at the Chamber’s next Hsieh Nien Fan. Should you or your firm care to share a photo, anecdote, or data point for the effort, please send that to me. Beyond this edition, our partners will curate additional material for a Taiwan Matters webpage, which will support events that explore specific themes covered in the booklet and, with luck, a bigger, better second edition down the road.