Asian tiger, hidden treasure: Taiwan’s green success

In some countries, the issues of climate and economics are treated entirely separately, divorced from one another except insofar as finance is required to fund environmental initiatives.

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Others however have shown you can get away with doing both. This can be seen in Taiwan, which has been so successful in building its green credentials and capability.

"The green island’s success economically is doing a lot for Australia’s green exports, with environmental technology being a major economic success story in Taiwan."
Tim Harcourt, Fellow in Economics, UNSW Business School

On this author’s first trip to Taiwan, I experienced a trip with a difference. Thanks to my generous conference hosts, I was put up in the magnificent Grand Hotel in Taipei.

The hotel itself is draped history. When the ruling Kuomintang party lost the war to Mao in 1949, they fled over to the island of Taiwan (formally Formosa) to start the Nationalist Republic of China.

Not only did they take a lot of great art and jewels from the Ming Dynasty but also a lot of great ceramics and cultural relics as well. Much of this can be found in Taiwan’s National Museum but the rest can be found in the Grand Hotel, perched on top of one of Taipei’s numerous hills.

In between conference sessions, I felt I was walking around a wonderful museum and art gallery rolled into one, with a few 5-star Chinese and Japanese traditional restaurants thrown in.

It made a nice change from the usual one size fits all life of many business hotels. You felt like you were living history without leaving the hotel grounds!

The stay in Taiwan was a good chance to witness the dynamism of the Taiwanese economy and Taipei’s special interest: the environment. In fact, the local word on my visit to Taipei is that it is easy being green.

After all, Taiwan is a small lush semi-tropical green island which is half the size of Tasmania’ in terms of area, but with a population of 23 million (plus another 1 million Taiwanese in China).

The green island’s success economically is also doing a lot for Australia’s green exports, with environmental technology being a major economic success story in Taiwan.

According to Austrade’s Taipei based Senior Trade Commissioner, Jeff Turner, at the time of my visit, Taiwan’s major industrial groups are interested in forming business relationships with suppliers of alternative fuels and enabling technologies.

“As customers request more efficient and cleaner products, Taiwan’s larger firms are looking to Australian businesses that can supply ‘green’ technologies and energy sources,” Turner says. 

“Major players in Taiwan’s energy and ICT sectors are facing domestic and international pressure to deliver cleaner and more energy efficient solutions and are keen to work with companies that can supply the materials, technologies and know-how to help them achieve these goals. In addition, Taiwan has companies that would look to invest in value-adding in Australia.”

According to Sidney Chen from Austrade Kaioshing (Taiwan’s second biggest city), products like polysilicon and biodiesel are in big demand in Taiwan.

“Taiwan is committed to renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions, so fuels like biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oils, is in demand as it is renewable, contains no sulphates and is almost 50 per cent more efficient than traditional diesel,” he says.

Whilst Australia’s trade relationship with Taiwan has been traditionally based on traditional commodities like coal, aluminium, crude and refined petroleum, copper and iron ore, the relationship is now becoming reasonably diverse.

“More Taiwanese are now recognising Australia as the home country of companies that provide products and services as diverse as biotechnology, ICT, services, quality foods and beverages, designer fashion, luxury skin care and cosmetics, as well as leading engineering, infrastructure and construction expertise,” Turner says.

In fact, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics there are just under 2000 businesses exporting merchandise to Taiwan, which together with over 5600 businesses exporting to China and the 4900 plus exporting to Hong Kong, makes the region a real magnet for Australian exporters.

Australia also does well in services exports to Taiwan, with Australia having a good name in aviation, financial services and of course education. Over 10,000 Taiwanese students study in Australian classrooms and lecture halls.

So what about relations with the mainland? Despite the headlines you read about the political situation, Taiwan and China are pretty well integrated, economically speaking. As well as the one million Taiwanese living in China, there is significant Taiwanese investment into China.

Recent estimates indicate that Taiwan has invested over $US70 billion into some 50,000 businesses in China – many of whom are exporters.

In fact, with all this cross-straits economic activity, many Australian exporters talk about the market as ‘Greater China’ – that is China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

With significant Taiwanese investment in China and a large Taiwanese business community in cities like Shanghai, it makes sense for business to talk about a Greater China market.

Taiwan is also a bit of a trend setter in terms of economics and business. Many practices and innovations in Taipei find themselves across the straits in pretty quick time.

In conclusion, Taiwan is one key market where Australian technology exports are prospering – particularly in the environmental sector – and we can expect this area to grow to China and the rest of the region.

Taiwan has shown that when it comes to economic competitiveness, size isn’t everything, and Australian exporters have been key beneficiaries of the island’s commercial success.

Tim Harcourt is the author of ‘Trading Places’ and JW Nevile Fellow in Economics at UNSW Business School.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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