Taiwan's GDP increased by 3.11 per cent in 2020 compared to the global average of negative 4.5 per cent. It is the first time in three decades that Taiwan has achieved a growth rate greater than China's, said CHIER author Roy C Lee, reported Canberra's East Asia Forum.
Mr Lee is deputy executive director at the Taiwan WTO and RTA Centre, Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research.
But political debate broke out over one key element that enabled this achievement. Taiwan's GDP growth in 2020 was mainly underpinned by an increased trade surplus and domestic investment.
Exports increased to a record-breaking 4.9 per cent in 2020, with China (Hong Kong included) receiving close to 44 per cent of Taiwan's exports, a 12 per cent increase from 2019. This makes China Taiwan's single most important trading partner and a key source of trade surplus.
Many in Taiwan argue that trade dependence on China indicates that the current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government's approach - keeping China at arms-length while pursuing a closer alliance with the United States - is just political rhetoric. Taiwan, after all, needs China for economic prosperity.
There are calls to address this high export concentration issue based on economic security concerns. One key risk is that this structure may increase China's ability to coerce Taiwan for political benefit. China's decisions in January and April 2021 to block Taiwan's pork and pineapple imports based on arbitrary quarantine reasons are recent examples that support this argument.
The key question is whether trade concentration represents low resilience levels, over-dependence, and other economic security risks that Taiwan faces, or to the contrary, is an indication of China's 'supplier dependency' on Taiwan.
The top five export product categories from Taiwan to China measured in export value are electrical machinery and equipment and parts; machinery, mechanical appliances and computers; optical and other precision instruments and accessories; plastics and articles; and organic chemicals. Together, they accounted for 86.3 per cent of Taiwan's exports to China in 2020.
Cross-strait trade is predominately electrical machinery trade - accounting for 64 per cent of total exports. Semiconductors are the most important product item under the electrical machinery category, accounting for 78 per cent of electrical machinery exports. As such, the 27 per cent increase in semiconductor exports to China in 2020 was the main factor underpinning the overall increase in exports.
Chinese demand for semiconductors surged in 2020 because of the growing demand for electronic consumer products due to the worldwide proliferation of working from home and home-schooling. The stockpiling strategy of Chinese tech firms, including Huawei and SMIC, in light of potential US export controls contributed to the surge of demand as well.
As far as the danger of economic coercion is concerned, the risk for Taiwan is at this stage limited. Taking semiconductor trade as an example, China's current domestic capacity can only supply somewhere between 15 to 20 per cent of semiconductor demand. Semiconductors from Taiwan and South Korea are the main sources of supply underpinning China's position as the global manufacturing powerhouse for semiconductor-enabled electronic products.