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Make it in Michigan: Governor Whitmer Opens State Office in Taiwan

Taiwan Asia

Building on a historic agreement signed in May 2023, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has visited Taiwan twice in the last six months. Her most recent visit witnessed the opening of a state office that will strengthen Michigan's economic and bilateral relations with Taiwan, a pivotal move promising increased prospects for Michigan’s industries and educational sector.

On a recent investment mission to the Republic of China (Taiwan) in March 2024, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer proudly announced and celebrated her state's first office on the island. Gov. Whitmer inaugurated the Michigan Taiwan Office in Taipei, with a ceremony attended by Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. To be managed by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the Michigan Taiwan Office will focus on attracting investments in critical industries such as automotives, semiconductors, electronics, renewable energy, and advanced manufacturing to generate lucrative employment opportunities and bring essential supply chains back to the state of Michigan. KC Kong, a University of Michigan graduate, will be the Michigan Taiwan Office’s representative.

The office was established as a byproduct of a landmark Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Michigan and Taiwan during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on May 18, 2023. The MoU aimed to, “boost economic investment, supply-chain resiliency, technology and innovation collaborations, and industry-academic connections between Taiwan and Michigan.” Michigan is now the 21st American state with a government representative office in Taiwan and is affiliated with the American State Offices Association, a forum to facilitate and enhance trade and investment relations between states, territorial governments, and Taiwan.

The inauguration of the Michigan Taiwan Office is a natural development given Gov. Whitmer’s September 2023 visit to Taiwan where she promoted Michigan as the best choice for Taiwanese investment in the United States, making mention of the manufacturing industry for electric vehicle (EV) batteries. In her remarks during the inauguration of the Michigan Taiwan Office, President Tsai Ing-wen commended Michigan as a "global hub" for the automotive industry, where numerous Taiwanese firms have opted to make investments. For his part, Foreign Minister Wu pointed to Michigan as the backbone of the American auto industry.

Engaging over $14 billion in EV and battery investments in 2022, and continuously expanding its manufacturing capacity, Michigan is steering to prop the United States as a global EV competitor, with EV battery production capacity in 2030 projected to be about 20 times greater than in 2021 in North America and seen to provide adequate support for 10 to 13 million all-EV vehicles annually, according to the US Department of Energy.

CNBC points to Michigan as one of three states poised to propel the United States to lead EV battery manufacturing by 2030, citing a 2022 report by Argonne National Laboratory that forecasts the production of between “97 and 136 gigawatt hours” worth of EV batteries per year by 2030 based on the combined capacities of Michigan, Georgia, and Kentucky. Michigan now produces and develops one-third of American batteries, and in the words of Gov. Whitmer, Michigan continues to work to make “an electrified future a reality” and takes great pride in being recognized as a “leader in shepherding in this new evolution.”

Not only will the Michigan Taiwan Office strengthen trade relations and open more avenues for collaboration and investment between Michigan and Taiwan, but it will also afford opportunities for the state to tap into new markets and leverage technology, making full use of Taiwan’s potential for innovation and enhancement in various industries.

Prior to this most recent agreement, Michigan had already established strong commercial and economic ties with Taiwan across a wide range of industries. Taiwan is Michigan's fifth-largest import source and sixth-largest export destination in Asia. In 2020 alone, Taiwanese investments in the US were placed at $137 billion, directly supporting around 21,000 jobs in the US and generating $1.5 billion in exports.

During the Michigan Taiwan Office's inauguration, Gov. Whitmer also met with Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te to reemphasize the strengthening of US-Taiwan and Michigan-Taiwan relations. Lai will assume the presidency in May 2024. Gov. Whitmer also welcomed investment pledges from three Taiwanese firms. Automotive radar systems manufacturer Tung Thih Electronics plans to broaden its research and development (R&D) as well as production operations in its new facility in Northville, Michigan. TYC Americas, an automotive lighting maker, also intends to grow its R&D footprint through its new office in Wixom, Michigan. Lastly, Sumeeko, an automotive fastener producer, is planning to grow its operations at a new site in Fraser, Michigan.

In her visit to the American Institute in Taiwan, where she met with alumni from Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of Michigan, Gov. Whitmer also took part in a semiconductor roundtable discussion about Michigan's industrial potential. The establishment of the Michigan Taiwan Office will likewise be an opportunity to commence the process of nurturing the talent required to cement Michigan as the center of the semiconductor industry. Dr. Leo Kempel, Dean of the MSU College of Engineering, joined Gov. Whitmer’s delegation in Taiwan as one of the state’s academic representatives.

Dean Kempel, speaking to the East-West Center in Washington, shared that MSU had hosted many Taiwanese students over the years, dating back to the early 1960s when Dr. Kun Mu-chen, the first faculty member born in Taiwan, joined the MSU College of Engineering. All over the United States, records show that Taiwanese students represent the sixth-largest group of overseas students. For the school year 2022-2023 alone, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States reported that 21,834 Taiwanese students enrolled in US colleges and universities, contributing $906 million to the economy, while 3,124 American students attended classes in Taiwanese universities, including 572-degree students and 2,552 non-degree students.

The United States and Taiwan have always worked very closely in the field of education, launching the US-Taiwan Education Initiative in December 2020 at the height of the pandemic to strengthen collaboration on international education. Since 2005, 26 agreements relating to educational cooperation have been forged among 24 states in the US, involving 2,056 inter-university links between the US and Taiwan.

Dean Kempel told the East-West Center that, “Our students are our best ambassadors for Michigan ‘can-do and grit’. We are making sure that every student in the College of Engineering has the opportunity for internships with companies, in the Great State of Michigan, around the nation, and internationally. In addition, we have a number of exchange programs with universities in partner-countries, including South Korea. We welcome more collaborations with universities and companies in Taiwan and South Korea in the coming year in areas of mutual interest, including EVs, mobility, and semiconductors,” when asked how schools in Michigan can prepare their students for the opportunities created by the new Michigan Taiwan Office.

“At MSU, we have a nation-leading learning abroad program. That includes not only courses taught abroad but also experiential-education opportunities at partner universities and companies. We are exploring expanding those partnerships in Taiwan. The new Michigan Taiwan Office will be a fantastic enabler and partner in growing opportunities for our students,” Dean Kempel shared, citing that opportunities abound for students in Michigan to learn more from key industries such as EV storage and semiconductors, when they visit Taiwan in the future.

Enhanced collaboration between Michigan and Taiwan can not only facilitate exchanges and joint research initiatives but can also enhance academic partnerships for many years to come.

The author would like to thank Dean Leo Kempel of Michigan State University for corresponding with him via email and for being a valuable resource for this article.

John Angelo Gerard "Jag” D.O. Calbario is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, DC. He is a graduate student at the American University School of International Service, enrolled in the Master of Arts in International Affairs program with a concentration in global governance.