While Taiwan's TSMC is setting up a massive plant in Arizona, the U.S. still largely relies on it for semiconductor chip production. Photo by Chris Ried on Unsplash

Taiwan‘s factories will work overtime to expand capacity for semiconductor chips to help U.S. auto makers meet surging demand, its economic minister told a Global Atlanta audience Thursday.

Wang Mei-hua said the move is the latest evidence that Taiwan is a reliable (and irreplaceable) node in the world’s manufacturing supply chains, particularly as the high-tech sector has become a new global trade battleground. 

Germany had appealed to Taiwan to prioritize its car manufacturers, prompting a critical op-ed in The Wall Street Journal from the president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council last week. Taiwan, Ms. Wang said, is committed to aiding the U.S. recovery. 

Economic Minister Wang Mei-hua

“The car industry is critical to the U.S., as it employs about 900,000 workers,” the minister told an audience convened by Global Atlanta and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Atlanta. “Therefore, the chip shortage will potentially lead to factory shutdowns, and countless families will suffer due to unemployment, which will further slow down the U.S. economic recovery as well as globally.” 

For that reason, she called a meeting with Taiwanese chip foundries to figure out a way to boost efficiency, extend factory hours and prioritize surplus chips for U.S. manufacturers, though she put the onus for the shortage squarely on “carmakers’ misjudgment of the market trends.”

She likened the new initiative to Taiwan’s push to churn out personal protective gear as COVID-19 spread around the world last year. Largely thanks to its containment of the virus early on — weathering just 10 deaths throughout the entire pandemic– Taiwan has been able to export millions of masks to its friends around the world. 

Dr. Peter Tsai explains the production process behind the N95 mask.

“The production of face masks was increased, in just 25 days, from 1.88 million pieces per day to 10 million pieces per day. By turning crisis into a new opportunity, Taiwan is recognized globally as a reliable supply chain partner,” Minister Wang said in recorded remarks during a webinar titled “Taiwan: Innovation, Investment and the future of U.S. Trade in Asia.” 

This dependability is indicative, she added, of Taiwan’s broader utility to a world economy that is growing more oriented toward technology, with the rise of sectors like 5G in communications, artificial intelligence and electric vehicles, all strategic sectors she pointed out for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship going forward. 

After a warming under former President Donald Trump, who sought ways to needle China and increase leverage in his signature trade war, the trajectory of Taiwan-U.S. relations is more uncertain with a Biden administration so far taking a more cautious, methodical approach to Asia. 

Ms. Wang said Taiwan has set up an Advanced Semiconductor Materials and Components Hub to bolster the supply chain in a sector where Taiwanese firms accounted for an estimated 63 percent of global revenues. 

She added that Taiwan shored up intellectual property protections during her time as head of Taiwan’s intellectual property office, ensuring it would be complementary to American innovators like Micron, Google and Microsoft, all of which have invested in Taiwan in the last year. 

Big names from Taiwan are also making themselves more known in the U.S.: TSMC, a world leader in chips, is investing $12 billion on a semiconductor factory complex in Arizona. 

Tech talent is at the core of Taiwan’s outsized role in the global electronics ecosystem, said Jeffrey Yiin, who serves as the Internet of Things lead for investment firm Sycamore Ventures. 

A Georgia Tech graduate and semiconductor engineer, Dr. Yiin returned in 2018 from a 10-year stint in Taiwan, where he saw first hand its army of small, flexible factories that collectively power the world’s innovative brands, working alongside well-known contract manufacturers like Hon Hai (FoxConn), Pegatron, Quanta computer and others. 

“I was really delighted to find out that there are so many unsung heroes or hidden gems all over Taiwan, and it’s across different industries. Those power the supply chain in ways that we can’t imagine,” Dr. Yiin said. 

Panelists explore electric vehicles and other complementary tech sectors between the Southeast U.S. and Taiwan.

He noted that Tesla Motors — now the world’s most valuable auto maker by market capitalization — got its start sourcing many of its components from Taiwan. (Ms. Wang put the number of Taiwanese Tesla suppliers at 29 and cited electric vehicles as a core sector that could drive the bilateral relationship going forward.) 

“EV is absolutely one of the best fields that will propel growth for Taiwan industry,” Dr. Yiin said, noting that more Taiwanese firms could grab the spotlight by investing in the U.S. “Instead of Tesla going to Taiwan to find those hidden champions, we could do the other way around.”

For the Metro Atlanta Chamber, finding complementary sectors like EVs is crucial to the recruitment process, according to John Woodward, vice president of global commerce. 

“A fundamental thing we look for strategically at the Metro Atlanta chamber when we’re doing international economic development is where are those parallels? Where are those strings, there and here?” Mr. Woodward said. 

Mr. Woodward pointed to T-Mobile‘s newly announced 5G incubator in metro Atlanta and CuriosityLab‘s autonomous vehicle testing ground in Peachtree Corners as potential synergies, as well as Taiwan’s growing smart-cities sector and a growing biomedical cluster in Hsinchu, a district near Taipei known for high-tech research. 

Sueling Wang, a longtime Atlanta resident and owner of Norcross-based toner manufacturer Color Imaging Inc., is set to give Mr. Woodward’s outreach efforts a natural boost later this year. Dr. Wang, whose family runs factories in Taiwan, mainland China and throughout Asia, has been named chairman of the World Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce, a massive and influential network of Taiwanese executives across 30 chapters in six regions of the world. As his last contribution before retirement, he expects to welcome hundreds to Georgia this fall as part of the organization’s annual conclave (pandemic-permitting, of course.)

In the meantime, Taiwan is touting its global health success to lobby for participation in the World Health Organization‘s General Assembly and to highlight how the U.S. benefits from partnering with the Taiwanese innovation ecosystem. 

Peter Tsai, who invented the core material for the widely used N95 respirators so named because they protect the wearer from 95 percent of viral particles, has been held up as an illustration of how that trickles down to the Southeast U.S. 

Early in the pandemic, Dr. Tsai came out of retirement to rejoin the University of Tennessee and fight the pandemic. In his presentation during the TECO and Global Atlanta forum, he outlined how N95s and non-woven surgical masks are created using a “meltblowing” process, after which they are charged with “electrets” — an anti-magnetic material that creates a “quasi-permanent electric field” and vastly improves their efficacy. 

He also enumerated the differences between the various types of masks, respirator shelf life, the time needed for natural sterilization of N95s (five days at room temperature), methods and materials for DIY masking and even how best to knot one’s mask or wear a second one to increase their ability to better protect the wearer.

During the Q&A session after the panel discussion, TECO Atlanta Director General Elliot Wang and Economic Director Martin Chen answered questions on Taiwan’s travel restrictions and its participation in initiatives to boost exports by women-led businesses. Bob Rolfe, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, provided recorded opening remarks. 

Supporters of the event included the Atlanta Global Studies Center, the Monte Jade Southeastern Science and Technology Association and the Metro Atlanta Chamber. More than 220 registered to attend. 

View the full event in the embedded video above or click here. 

See the bios of the panelists and participants here. 

Contact the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Atlanta at https://www.teco.org. 

Editor’s note: The TECO Atlanta office sponsored the organization of the event and compensated Global Atlanta for its services in this regard but did not have any input on the production of this article. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...