INTERVIEW: Southbound projects to show nation’s worth: minister

Minister Without Portfolio John Deng, who has been tasked with supervising implementation of the Cabinet’s New Southbound Policy, spoke to ‘Liberty Times’ (sister paper of the ‘Taipei Times’) reporter Lee Hsin-fang about his expectations for cooperation with the targeted countries on public infrastructure, medical and agricultural projects, and about the nation’s chances of joining the CPTPP

Tue, Jan 02, 2018 - Page 3

Liberty Times (LT): By October, government investment under the policy had increased 113 percent, while investment in Taiwan by partner countries under the policy had grown by roughly 20 percent. How do you feel about these results?

John Deng (鄧振中): There have been a number of clear developments over the past year or so. First, the nation’s familiarity with partner countries, such as India and ASEAN members, has grown steadily. Numerous Taiwanese industry professionals, academics and non-governmental organization workers have been planning development projects in those countries.

These projects are a great asset for the nation and are an important foundation for the development of Taiwan’s international relations. The desire to better understand these countries and to have more interactions with them is a continuing trend and will grow stronger with time.

The government undertook projects in the countries in the past, but the scale was much smaller and efforts were not as coordinated. For example, a few farmers might have been sent to teach agricultural skills to farmers abroad.

Over the past year we have seen government departments coordinating, each sharing its expertise and working together with others to find what key areas to focus on in development projects. Our goal is to work out how best to make use of our resources, figure out what to focus on and to set accurate targets.

The Legislative Yuan has gotten involved with the policy and many lawmakers have already been active in its development. Legislators from the Southbound countries have also been making visits to Taiwan. Naturally, our ambitions do not stop there.

LT: What do you think of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) instructing the Office of Trade Negotiations to establish a New Southbound Policy task force and coordinate with the National Security Council’s policy task force?

Deng: The council’s task force aims to assist the president with formulating policy. The president has very competent advisers in this regard. The work of the office has always been to promote the policy. The establishment of a new office task force is intended to further empower the office to carry out its work.

A number of large-scale projects need to be set up to serve as benchmarks for the policy. We hope that these projects will yield visible results, showing partner countries the benefits of partnership and what Taiwan can do for them.

Supervising officials have said that the policy’s goals are not clear, but its strategic aims are already very clear: It seeks to mobilize the strengths of all of society.

LT: The government last year pushed five “flagship” programs for the New Southbound Policy. What are the government’s major goals for the policy this year?

Deng: Agricultural and healthcare collaborations are showing a lot of potential. We expect great things in those areas this year. We have advantages in those fields and our partners welcome our contribution.

Take healthcare, for example. Many hospitals are offering internship and residency to health professionals from Southeast Asia. At the same time, Taiwanese doctors are practicing in Vietnam. Taiwan offers quality medical care at a low cost and ever more countries are becoming aware of that.

There will be more cooperative programs in this area. We hope to establish Taiwanese medical facilities in the Southbound countries and export large volumes of equipment. We also aim to provide training for more aspiring Southeast Asian health professionals.

In terms of agricultural cooperation, plans are in motion to cultivate hundreds of hectares of farmland as agricultural demonstration zones. As these projects prove successful, they will serve as the template for future collaborations, a process the Council of Agriculture is overseeing.

Of course, we must take care when negotiating the terms for those projects with local governments, when constructing irrigation systems and selecting crops that local farmers will benefit.

Transferring our agricultural technologies will facilitate our partners’ agricultural economic development, while expanding our agricultural equipment and fertilizer exports. We expect our efforts to help raise income levels among Southeast Asian farmers, who tend to be poor.

In fact, our partner governments in two or three of the agricultural demonstration zones have already expressed interest in focusing on such projects.

LT: Should Taiwan try to become a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that Japan and other governments have launched after the US pulled out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

Deng: Although the US has abandoned the TPP, the CPTPP remains an important project.

First, the CPTPP is the largest regional trade agreement of the past few years, with 11 prospective member states.

Second, it is to set high standards for market openness, institutional transparency and liberalism. That is important for Taiwan, as our continuing efforts toward modernization, reform, efficiency and competitiveness require us to live up to its principles.

Whether or not Taiwan will be a part of the CPTPP, we must keep up with its rules. We need to open our markets. With open markets, our enterprises will get a better sense of how to bolster their competitiveness.

Admittedly, this is not an easy task. Our challenge is to design policies that would facilitate our participation and to overcome international political challenges.

As the CPTPP would create a no-tariff zone, the government will have to improve the competitiveness of industries that have been protected by high tariffs. Some enterprises would be placed at a disadvantage and it would be important to introduce policies to help them. Such a system must be comprehensively designed, or they would certainly put up resistance.

In the realm of international politics, although we have concluded free-trade agreements with two of the 11 prospective members, namely Singapore and New Zealand, our trade volumes with the remaining members are not high and there are very few major investments between them and us.

We need to actively lobby for their support, because a Taiwanese bid to join the CPTPP would need to be approved unanimously by all 11 member states.

Translated by staff writers William Hetherington and Jonathan Chin