Just about every media outlet, as well as politicians of the ruling and opposition parties, has recently been discussing an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) the Taiwanese government plans to sign with China. A couple of days ago, a newspaper reported that US competitiveness guru Michael Porter says Taiwan’s competitiveness depends on signing an ECFA. I find this assertion rather worrying.
It is more important to consider what kinds of products we should be making. If we were to export nuclear power stations, high-speed railways, high-grade engines and precision semiconductor devices, then the ECFA issue would not matter so much for us.
On the other hand, if our industrial products do not have high added value, then even if they can be sold abroad free of tariffs, there will come a day when China can manufacture the same things cheaper. What use would an ECFA be to us then? Therefore, our competitiveness is closely linked with the state of our industrial technology.
Sadly, little attention has been paid to the state of our industrial technology in recent years, at least in the media. There are political discussion programs every night on television. It would be good to see a few opinion leaders talking about this problem but, disappointingly, nobody seems to be interested.
How can Taiwan’s industries be made more competitive? First, we have to realize that it is not because of a lack of creativity that our industrial technology lags behind that of other countries, nor is it because Taiwan has not put enough emphasis on high technology. Rather, our weakness is in basic technology. As a result, we often have to build our technologies on top of a technical base provided by someone else. When other people’s technology moves ahead, ours will quickly fall behind. What is more, our lack of key technologies means that many of our engineers, who may be very creative, cannot get their ideas off the ground.
For example, they may want to make a special electronic device, only to find that we can’t design an amplifier with little noise. Perhaps they need a very stable magnet, but nobody in Taiwan can make it. Another example is when someone thinks of a design for a new kind of precision instrument, but Taiwan can’t make a precision control system and so the invention is left on the drawing board.
I would like to see the whole nation from top to bottom pay more attention to the state of our industrial technology. We must realize that everything starts out from the fundamentals. We need people who can make excellent components and we need plenty of engineers who can design high-performance electronic circuits and machinery. Without such engineers, Taiwan can’t be competitive.
China seems to care a lot about its competitiveness. China has already started exporting its high-speed rail technology and it is planning to build medium-range passenger jets. China has some pretty good semiconductor equipment makers, as well. We in Taiwan had better watch out.
People are always talking about “keeping our roots in Taiwan,” but if those roots are not deep then staying in Taiwan is pointless. If the roots of our industrial technology grow deep, our industry will stay here. We need to foster the notion of “deep plowing Taiwan.” Only with a deep and robust technical basis can we make products with high added value and only then can we be a highly competitive country.
Lee Chia-tung is an honorary professor of National Chi Nan, National Tsing Hua and Providence universities.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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