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Interview with the Executive Director of the Thailand Trade and Economic Office
Taiwan News
2013-09-17 03:11 PM
Thailand is a country many people in Taiwan are relatively familiar with - whether it is about Thai food, which nowadays you can find in almost every district of Taipei, or Thailand as one of the top most popular tourism destinations for Taiwanese people. Yet the ties between Taiwan and Thailand go much deeper than the Southeast Asian country’s role as a prime source of leisure activities. Significantly, Thailand, with an area of approximately 513,000 km2 (198,000 sq mi) and a population of around 64 million people, as well as a land with evidence of human habitation dating back to around 40,000 years ago, is indeed a country rich in culture, natural resources and economic growth potential. In the post-war period the relationship between Taiwan and Thailand has long been smooth - as silk, even back as early as half a century ago, much earlier than most people in Taiwan would acknowledge. Before mulling how to further fertilize a mutual beneficial friendship, it is worthwhile to gain a more sophisticated and up-to-date understanding of developments at present.

In the wake of the fifty-fifth anniversary of the King of Thailand (known as Rama IX)’s first visit to Taiwan in 1963, Taiwan News interviewed Ambassador Kriangsak Kittichaisaree, the Executive Director of the Thailand Trade and Economic Office. The Ambassador started with economic relations. Taiwan was among the earliest foreign investors in Thailand and, remarkably, the first highway in Thailand was built by Taiwanese. Given such decades of ever-deepening economic ties, Taiwan today is one of the top 6 biggest foreign investors in Thailand, with around $57 billion in accumulated capital invested (including those via offshore banking). Under the rule of competitive advantage as well as the growing prevalence of international supply chains, many of Taiwan’s investments in Thailand are in the sectors of food processing, auto parts, electronic components, information technology (IT) goods and the like. One of the recent efforts by the Ambassador was leading an investment delegation of Taiwanese businesses including companies engaged in automobile parts, electronics, medical equipment, textiles and beverage industries to Thailand on August 19-23 to explore and assess local investment opportunities.

“SMEs are the prime driving force of economic growth,” noted the Ambassador, who is well aware of the fact that many of Taiwan’s SMEs (which have been the main contributors to the island’s economy and employers) are eager to seek markets overseas. Noteworthily, in addition to attracting more Taiwanese investment, one of Ambassador Kriangsak Kittichaisaree’s top priorities is to introduce the business model of Taiwanese enterprises - whether SMEs or big global groups like Acer, Asus and others - to Thai firms. Moreover, investing in a big-size country like Thailand means that Taiwanese investors are gaining an additional big market. The Ambassador further pointed out that one of the most popular instant noodles in Thailand is made by a Thailand-based Taiwanese firm. Furthermore, what accompanies such ever-increasing investment is the rising number of Taiwanese business people and their families residing in Thailand, which has reached around 150,000 (around 0.65 percent of Taiwan’s entire population). As for bilateral trade volume, time and time again Thailand ranks on the list of the top 10-20 trade partners for Taiwan, which enjoys a trade surplus.

Since taking his post last year Ambassador Kriangsak Kittichaisaree has overseen the signing of three agreements between Thailand and Taiwan. They include the Avoidance of Double Taxation, signed in 2012; the Prevention of Fiscal Evasion, in early 2013; and the Taiwan-Thailand Education Cooperation Agreement, on September 11, 2013. Besides agreements of an economic nature, what attracts the eye and signals the Thai government’s focus on people-to-people exchanges between the two countries is the education cooperation agreement, under which a Taiwan-Thailand 600 Elite Scholarship program subsidized by the Thai government offers 600 Thai nationals in the next five years to take graduate and doctoral courses in Taiwan in the future. Given the ample number of past examples of many present-day rich Thais who pursued their education in Taiwan, hopefully spending some years in Taiwan as a student prior to embarking on their career will be useful for themselves as well as for the Thai economy.

As for tourism, the Ambassador has obvious reason to be optimist about the prospects for growth in light of the 96.5 percent increase in the number of Taiwanese who have chosen Thailand as a holiday destination in the first quarter of this year. Statistics also demonstrated that in the first half of 2013 some 231,500 Taiwanese visited Thailand. Largely, this robust growth can be attributed to the rising number of airlines flying between Thailand and Taiwan in addition to the increased frequency of this route for some airlines, pointed out Ambassador Kriangsak Kittichaisaree. In the face of such promising potential, it is fairly likely that this year’s Taiwanese visitors to Thailand may well outreach the annual level of 500,000, which previous statistics constantly showed for years. Yet, the flow is certainly not a one-way street. These days, with the popularity of Taiwanese movies including those directed by Ang Lee, and the growing prevalence of other Taiwanese forms of entertainment such as pop stars, more and more Thais are travelling to Taiwan. Happily, setting foot in Taiwan also means they are in the homeland of their much loved bubble-tea, the tea-based drink mixed with milk-powder and small chewy tapioca balls in recent years has won many hearts in Thailand, added the Ambassador.

Astonishingly, Taiwan (a relatively small island) is the biggest overseas destination for Thai immigrant workers. At its peak, the number even amounted to more than 100,000. Currently it stands at around 62,000 as quite a few of them went to China with their Taiwanese employers after the Taiwanese government adjusted its investment policy, leading more Taiwanese firms to relocate to China. Now the majority of Thais, around 50,000, are based in Taoyuan, a northwestern county of Taiwan, where, encouragingly, a Thai Culture Centre has opened in large part as a result of the dedication of Thai government and the Thailand Trade and Economic Office to take care of Thai citizens in Taiwan. As a well-thought-out scheme, a statue of Buddha - an emulation of the biggest one in Thailand - has been erected there, affording much spiritual consolations. The center is the first ever in Taiwan, providing a venue for Thai festival activities as well as arts and cultural performances. Furthermore, with Thai workers having played such an integral part in Taiwan’s economy, attention is being paid to the provisions and assistance given by the Taiwan government regarding their living conditions, which, the Ambassador stressed, are satisfactory.

Besides the significant presence of Thais working in Taiwan, around 8,000 Thai women are married to Taiwanese nationals. Since many of them are of Chinese descent, meaning they are fluent in Mandarin, one big obstacle in adapting to a new environment is removed, which no doubts helps them in networking with locals. Ambassador Kriangsak Kittichaisaree said that these Thai ladies enjoy the same access to entitlements in Taiwan after switching their citizenship from Thai to Taiwanese (under Taiwanese law, only one citizenship is allowed). In other words, the “new immigrant” (a term used in Taiwan to refer to the foreign spouses of Taiwanese nationals, though quite a few of them already obtained Taiwan nationality) with their origin in Thailand have been getting along well in Taiwan society, which is partly due to some similarity in cultures and customs, and partly the efforts of the Thai government, whose representative office in Taiwan has set up venues or organized Thai people’s commonly shared cultural activities for them. Also, the availability of home-origin TV programs via satellite TV suggests that Thais living in Taiwan are no longer disconnected from their motherland and present-day Thai society. Happily, the number of lonely hearts is not that great.

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