We came across an article from last Friday on PC Magazine's website entitled, "China-Taiwan Showdown Involves Politics, PCs." Glenn Smith's article is an interesting look at the ways in which a serious turn for the worse in the relationship between Taiwan and China could pose a serious threat to the world's IT electronics market. At face value, Smith's thesis seems a bit obvious: Taiwan is the world's leading producer higher end electronic devices, and many of the components used to assemble these products are sourced from factories in China, so of course a serious confrontation across the Taiwan Strait would harm the industry. Yet the scope of the possible harm done can sometimes be easily overlooked.
According to Smith's article, "Taiwan is the world's number one volume supplier of motherboards, WLAN NIC cards, VoIP cards, VoIP routers, laptops [83%], DSL customer premises equipment, cable modems, IP phones, PDAs [73%], VoIP terminals, LCD monitors [70%], switches, WLAN access points, color tube monitors and large LCD panels." Not only does Taiwan lead in all of these categories, it commands over half the global market share's dollar value in each and every one of them. Taiwan's tech industry is truly a global juggernaut.
Although over the years an increasing share of this nominal output has been manufactured by Taiwanese-owned fabrication outfits in China, virtually all product design originates in Taiwan's venerable scientific industrial parks. Furthermore, TFT-LDC lens and semiconductor production still remains largely on Taiwan soil. From the article:
Tze-Chen Tu, general director of the Industrial Economics & Knowledge Center (IEK), at Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), said that every country wants to keep its first-tier industries at home, and that technology transfers are banned if thought harmful to economic or national security.
"We don't like to see them go but even when Taiwan companies shift manufacturing to China, they come back for design and for critical components," said Tu.
The net result? According to Smith, whereas the production and export of existing electronics to the United States and other tech-consuming countries might be maintained during a crisis, "if things fall apart and a Tom Clancy scenario unfolds in the Taiwan Strait you can forget about upgrading your PC or laptop for a while. The hundred miles of shallow seas separating Taiwan and China happen to be the most important yet most precarious link in the global ICT [Information and Communications Technology] supply chain."
All these are very good economic reasons for the United States and most other countries to take a vested interest in maintaining peace and trade communications across the Taiwan Strait. Yet, in highlighting Taiwan's central role in this global industry, we are also shining light on the real benefits that could be reaped by businesses and consumers in both Taiwan and the United States from a free trade agreement between the two countries.
The electronic 'triangle trade' that currently exists between the U.S., Taiwan and China is formed as major American firms such as IBM, Intel and Apple look to Taiwan firms to design critical components for new products which are then manufactured and assembled in China and shipped to consumer outlets in the U.S. Due in large part to this dynamic, the United States is Taiwan's largest source of foreign direct investment and 3rd largest export market, while Taiwan, an island of 23 million, is the United States' 9th largest trading partner and 8th largest export market. Lowering trade barriers on any leg of the ICT trade flow would lower artificially imposed production costs and therefore equal higher company profits and lower price tags for consumers.
As mentioned in earlier posts on this site, there are of course other economic areas in which Taiwan and the United States, as close allies and trading partners, have formed strong ties. U.S. exports to Taiwan in 2006 amounted to $23 billion and Taiwan is a leading consumer of American meat and produce as well as cars and other industrial products. One 2002 study by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) projected that a Taiwan-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (TUFTA) would double American exports to Taiwan in the agricultural and auto sectors while raising overall exports $3.4 billion or 16% (at the time) annually. In 2004 a study by the Institute for International Economics (IIE) raised the expectations for annual increases in exports to $6.6 billion. Clearly the potential for growth in American exports Taiwan is increasing in proportion to current trade volume and considerably outpacing the current level of growth.
As we have long been consistently advocating here at R.O.C. the Boat, a US-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement would bring tangible economic benefits two both the United States and Taiwan--two countries whose economies are enmeshed but to a large degree do not overlap. Furthermore, an FTA would grease the wheels of the Asia-Pacific tech trade and add to the stability of the region. Finally, according to the same 2004 IIE study mentioned above, TUFTA would create more economic gains for the U.S. than those of 10 other current or potential FTA partners, including Australia, Singapore, Chile and New Zealand. At a time when the U.S. economy seems to be hitting a rough spot at best and perhaps moving into recession at worst, pursuing a free trade agreement with Taiwan would certainly give several sectors of the American economy something sunny on the horizon to look forward to.