Taiwan's S$172 million boost for closer trade ties with the region

TAIPEI - Taiwan has launched a NT$4 billion (S$172 million) plan to strengthen its economic links with South-east Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand, as part of President Tsai Ing-wen's ambitious plan to "pivot south" to make the island less dependent on China.

Dubbed the new Southbound Policy, the government will help Taiwan companies ink trade tie-ups with their regional counterparts in 18 countries.

The areas of cooperation will also be expanded beyond Taiwan's traditional strengths in the fields of agriculture, manufacturing and technology to include medicine, culture, tourism and education.

Besides economic and trade partnerships, Taiwan also wants to better share resources and facilitate talent exchanges, said Minister without Portfolio John Deng, who unveiled the key initiatives on Monday(Sept5).

Besides helping Taiwanese enterprises to get favourable terms, Taiwan will also provide scholarships for students to study in the region's universities.

Mr Deng said relevant government agencies will draft their proposals while Cabinet will monitor the implementation. A trade negotiation office set up under the auspices of the Cabinet will be responsible for communicating with the countries.

The new Southbound Policy is part of the Tsai government's efforts to diversify Taiwan's flagging economy, which analysts say has become vulnerable because of its over-reliance on exports to China. For instance, two-thirds of the island's overseas investments and 40 per cent of its exports go to China.

Ms Tsai, in her inauguration speech on May 20, said the policy will "elevate the scope and diversity of our external economy, and bid farewell to our past over-reliance on a single market".

National Development Council Deputy Minister Kao Shien-quey said that Taiwan hopes to tap on the strong network of free trade agreements that Singapore and Japan have built to better integrate Taiwanese companies into the global trade system.

But this may prove tricky as a growing chill in cross-strait relations has raised concerns among countries in the region who may feel caught between Taiwan and China, which objects to other countries signing trade deals with the island that it regards as a breakaway province.

Beijing is also aggressively pushing its "One Belt, One Road" initiative to boost its ties with the region.

Mr Deng on Monday sought to soothe concerns that Taiwan is competing with China for the same pie.

"There is no need to compete. we have our own strengths...our businessmen are honest and our foreign counterparts have had a good experience working with our enterprises."

jermync@sph.com.sg