22 October 2016
Mainlanders, the largest group of visitors to Taiwan, spend an average of US$260 a day, second only to the US$265 spent by Japanese. Photo: Internet
Mainlanders, the largest group of visitors to Taiwan, spend an average of US$260 a day, second only to the US$265 spent by Japanese. Photo: Internet

Is Taiwan’s reliance on the mainland irreversible?

Shin Kong Mitsukoshi, one of Taiwan’s biggest department store chains, is opening a branch June 25 in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, one in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in the fourth quarter, and one in Chongqing next year.

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau said mainland tourists, the largest single group, spend an average of US$260 a day, second only to the US$265 spent by Japanese.

These are just two of many items in one day’s newspaper in Taiwan — evidence of its increasing economic reliance on the mainland for exports, tourists and inward investment.

Last year, China, including Hong Kong, accounted for 39.7 percent of Taiwan’s exports.

An island with a population of only 22 million, Taiwan relies on exports, which account for nearly 70 per cent of its gross domestic product.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education said the number of students from the mainland nearly tripled from 12,155 in 2011 to 32,911 last year.

“Of course, we do not like this dependence,” said Liang Ming-wei, a hotel manager. “We do not want to be like Hong Kong.

“But, in some sectors, like tourism, this reliance is unavoidable. In other sectors, like high-tech, we must work extra hard to be competitive and stay ahead of our rivals in the mainland.”

Lin Hsiao-hung, a factory worker, said: “Taiwan should be independent. “But the US will not support this, so it is impossible.

“But Taiwan’s military is at least 20 years ahead of the [People's Liberation Army]. This military superiority is what we rely on to keep us separate from China.”

Taiwan’s dependence on the mainland is a major issue in the campaigns for president and the Legislative Yuan; the vote will be held in January.

The strong favorite for president is Tsai Ing-wen, candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Tsai is on a 12-day visit to the United States, where she has pleased members of Congress and the Barack Obama administration by saying she will maintain the status quo with mainland China and aims to reduce Taiwan’s dependence and make it less vulnerable to political and military pressure from Beijing.

She wants to increase growth from domestic demand and trade and investment from places other than the mainland.

Tsai said she will be cautious about signing new agreements with Beijing.

President Ma Ying-jeou has signed 21 since he took office in May 2008.

But big business and the ruling Kuomintang say there is no alternative economic strategy.

Jiang Yi-huah, who was prime minister until December, summarised this position: “Those who oppose our increasing economic relations with the mainland and want to develop them with the US and Southeast Asia are very idealistic but impractical.

“The mainland is our neighbor and accounts for most of our trade and outside investment.

“So many Taiwan goods rely on the mainland for their production process. Without this, they would not survive.

“If we do not join trade blocs of which the mainland is a member, we will very easily be marginalised.

“Trade and business links with the mainland are not only good for our economy but also give us strength in our negotiations.

“On the other hand, if our economy collapses, we have no cards to play in the political negotiations and it is harder for us to guard our sovereignty.”

So the voters next January will have a clear choice.

They can choose the Kuomintang and deepen Taiwan’s reliance on the mainland.

Or they can choose Tsai and the DPP and bet she can find an alternative strategy.

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Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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