The phenomenal growth of Taiwan's economy can be credited to its brisk foreign trade. From 1970 until 1990, the country amassed huge surpluses from its earnings in international trade, which peaked in 1987 when the trade surplus reached US$18.7 billion. However, several other countries became alarmed at Taiwan's huge surpluses and the corresponding economic power it might exert on other economies. The United States demanded that Taiwan remove trade restrictions and allow more foreign products into the country. Since then, Taiwan has reduced or removed a significant number of trade barriers, thus allowing foreign products to compete with local products in the domestic market. From 1992 to 1996, Taiwan's trade surplus declined by nearly 30 percent. However, from 1998, trade figures have once more shown a steady rise and, according to the Central Bank of China, Taiwan's foreign exchange reserves in 1999 amounted to US$106.2 billion, one of the highest in the world. In 2000, Taiwanese exports reached US$148.38 billion against imports of US$140.01 billion, producing a trade surplus of US$8.37 billion.
Taiwan is a major exporter of industrial products ranging from mechanical appliances and accessories, electronics, electrical appliances, personal computers and peripherals, metal products and transport equipment, to furniture and clothing. The United States has been Taiwan's most important trading partner over decades. However, as Taiwan pursued the expansion of its economy, it began seeking out other trading partners, which resulted in a decrease in trade with the United States. In the 1980s, 40 percent of Taiwan's total exports were U.S.-bound; by 2000 only 23.5 percent of the island's total exports were destined for the American market.
|Trade (expressed in billions of US$): Taiwan|
|SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1999.|
Until 1999, Japan was Taiwan's biggest export destination after the United States. However, since 1999, Hong Kong has replaced Japan as the second leading export partner, since Taiwan uses it as an indirect link to send goods to mainland China. Major items exported to Hong Kong include electrical and electronic equipment and peripherals, machinery, accessories, raw plastic materials, and textiles. In 2000, exports to Hong Kong amounted to 21.1 percent of Taiwan's total exports, while those to Japan, due also to the slowdown of the Japanese economy, only accounted for 11.2 percent.
Southeast Asia has become an attractive trading partner for Taiwan. Many Taiwanese businesses have set up in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and the Philippines to take advantage of abundant skilled labor, availability of raw materials, and lower land prices. In 1986, only 5 percent of Taiwan's exports were bound for countries in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), but by 2000 the figure had climbed to 12.2 percent.
Taiwan has also set its sights on the large and economically strong European market. In 2000, Taiwan recorded exports to Europe at 16 percent of its total. The country's top 4 European trading partners are Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, which, together, account for more than 60 percent of exports to the continent.
With huge exports fueling the economy, the spending capacity of the government and the population has multiplied. In the past, the government aggressively discouraged the entrance of imported products to the island by trade barriers and restrictive laws. However, with the new economy, the government has liberalized the situation and, in 2000, Taiwan's total imports amounted to roughly US$110 billion. More than a quarter, or 27.5 percent, of these imports came from Japan. Taiwan's industries, especially the information and automobile industries, rely heavily on the supply of parts and the transfer of technology from Japan. Most of the items imported from Japan are machinery, auto parts, electrical appliances, electronics, chemicals, and metal products. Other imports come from the United States (17.9 percent) and Europe (13.6 percent).
Despite the absence of direct transport links to mainland China, Taiwan's economic ties with the country are strengthening through the substantial Taiwanese investment being poured into China. Taiwanese businesses are eager to invest in mainland China, one of the most sought-after markets in the world. With a population approximately a billion strong, China is not only a huge market for any country's products, but also has one of the biggest manpower resources in the whole world. Trade relations between the 2 economies are so intertwined that breaking them off would bring major repercussions. Mainland China is a big contributor to Taiwan's overall trade surplus. In 1987, Taiwan had a trade surplus of just over US$1 billion with mainland China, and by 1998, this had grown to US$15.7 billion.
Based on data from Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the value of 2-way trade between Taiwan and mainland China amounted to US$23.95 billion in 1998. More than 82 percent of the indirect trade consisted of exports from Taiwan, which totaled US$19.84 billion. Some major items exported to mainland China are industrial machinery and equipment, electronic parts, plastics, man-made fibers, and industrial textiles. Meanwhile, imports from China climbed to 4.1 percent in 1999 from 3.9 percent in 1998. Agricultural and industrial raw materials accounted for a huge percentage of these imported goods. However, in view of the uneasy political relations that prevail between the 2 territories, Taiwan does not concentrate too great a part of its investments in China. Taiwan is mindful that political upheaval in its dealings with China would jeopardize its own economic development.
Taiwan is gearing itself for membership in the WTO and is setting the proper economic policies in motion to ensure its acceptance. One of the long-standing trade issues for which Taiwan is criticized is its violation of agreements on the protection of intellectual property. Piracy in different forms—such as copying and reselling the contents of entertainment and software CDs—remains a serious matter. To its credit, Taiwan's government is addressing the problem through a combination of rules and regulations to control piracy, and efforts to raise awareness of the issues involved with it.