By Wichit Chaitrong
“If we could have some sort of free-trade arrangement, I’m sure our bilateral trade would grow rapidly,” President Tsai Ing-wen told The Nation during an interview including six reporters from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and India at the Office of the President Republic of China (Taiwan) in Taipei on Friday. She gave the interview in both Mandarin and English.
President Tsai said Taiwan and Thailand had agreements already – on investment protection, agriculture, a double taxation treaty and labour cooperation. But Taiwan wanted to expedite economic cooperation.
She referred to the Prayut government’s structural reforms in the launch of Thailand’s 4.0 policy, which aim to create high-value innovative industry sectors, such as agriculture, biotechnology, healthcare and “smart” electronics, which are also strong industries for Taiwan. There was a lot of room for cooperation between the two countries, she said, referring to technology transfers and the exchange of research and development.
Thailand and Taiwan’s industrial strengths complemented each other, she said. At the end of last year, Taiwan was the third-largest investor after Japan and the US, with Taiwan’s accumulated investment amounting to US$14.2 billion (Bt492 billion).
Taiwan has major investments in Asean, with accumulated investment in Vietnam and Malaysia of $31 and $12 billion respectively last year.
There are over 5,000 Taiwan firms investing in Thailand and 140,000 Taiwan businesspeople in the Kingdom, Taiwan officials say.
Taiwan and Thailand signed an investment protection agreement in 1996. According to senior officials, Taiwan wants to revise the deal to create a better dispute-settlement mechanism that would ensure stronger protections for Taiwanese investors.
Most Taiwanese companies are small and medium-sized enterprises investing in industries in Thailand such as electronics, electrical home appliances, chemicals and paper, metal machinery and processed food.
Annual two-way trade with Thailand reached $9.3 billion last year.
During the first three months of this year, Taiwan’s exports to Thailand were worth $1.5 billion, jumping 19 per cent compared with the same period last year, and imports from Thailand rose nearly 18 per cent to $1 billion, resulting in Taiwan having a trade surplus.
The trade surplus has grown at a rate of 22.5 per cent, according to Taiwan’s Bureau of Foreign Trade in the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
The number of Thais visiting Taiwan showed the largest increase among Asean tourists, jumping 57 per cent to 195,640 last year, said Tsai.
Taiwan already has free-trade deals with Singapore and New Zealand, and is seeking agreements with Thailand and other countries in the Asia-Pacific.
After Tsai took office in May last year, she initiated the so-called the New Southbound Policy (NSP), aiming at strengthening cooperation with Asean and South Asian nations, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
“Past southbound policies have emphasised developing market and short-term business opportunities. The NSP is different. This time we are setting down a long-term policy agenda that places focus on wide-ranging cooperation. This mutually beneficial arrangement will put people at the heart of what it does,” a statement from the President’s Office said.
“The New Southbound Policy ... is about how we can build more mutually beneficial relationships with the international community, and the community here in Asia. It’s taking another look at how Taiwan can play a more proactive role in a community of so many close neighbours,” Tsai said.
The statement appeared to address concerns Taiwan may try to play politics with China and the US after President Trump stirred controversy by calling Tsai after he was elected.
Tsai also said the NSP and China’s Belt and Road Initiative were two completely different models.
One flagship project, Tsai said, encourages Taiwanese students to study abroad while offering foreign students scholarships to study in Taiwan. Some 16,000 Malaysian and over 1,700 Thai students were studying in Taiwan last year as the Taipei government worked with companies by providing scholarships for students from Asean and India. Tsai said her government encouraged foreign students who complete study in Taiwan to work with local companies before they return to their home countries.