Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer Visits Japan and Taiwan

Asia Taiwan Japan

As part of a series of overseas trade missions this year, Governor Gretchen Whitmer concluded an approximately week-long trip to the Indo-Pacific on September 12, 2023. Her two stops were in Japan and Taiwan, with aims of promoting cultural exchange and facilitating foreign economic investment into Michigan.

Bridging Business and Bonds in Japan

Starting in Japan, Governor Whitmer and Michigan Economic Development Corporation CEO Quentin Messer Jr. met with a business delegation from DENSO — a Japanese global automotive components manufacturer employing more than 3,500 workers across several locations in Michigan. Due to negotiations and connections facilitated by the trip, Michigan secured a $63 million further investment from DENSO in its Battle Creek thermal manufacturing facility. At this location alone, there are over 2,100 employees. Similarly, the governor and her team visited leadership at Musashi, FANUC, and Aisin World Corp – three other Japanese conglomerates centered around the automotive industry and advanced manufacturing.

Michigan has a long history with Japan, where 9,908 jobs have been created by Japanese businesses through $3.1 billion dollars of greenfield investment since 2003. The state hosts 456 Japanese facilities providing 39,890 jobs, a third of which are in direct manufacturing. Leveraging these ties, Michigan secured a series of deals, including Toyota’s $47.7 million investment for a battery testing facility at its R&D campus in Saline/York Township. These strong manufacturing connections have enabled $2 billion in exports to Japan.

Besides the focus on business, Governor Whitmer joined cultural celebrations with Michigan students in Japan during her visit to Shiga Prefecture – Michigan’s sister state since 1968. Student exchange has been a particularly cooperative point in the sister state relationship, where the Japan Center for Michigan Universities – a study center operated by a consortium of 15 public universities in Michigan and Shiga – offers academic programs allowing students to learn Japanese language and culture. It also provides English instruction to the local Japanese population. Similarly, the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange allows 15 Michigan students to visit Shiga in the summer and host their Shiga counterparts in the fall. Whitmer’s attention to the cultural dimension of the relationship underscores the commitment to such exchange programs.

Charging Ahead in Taiwan

After concluding her participation in the annual Joint Meeting of the Japan-Midwest US Association, Governor Whitmer embarked on a two-day visit to Taiwan – making her the first sitting governor of the state to visit the Republic of China (ROC). As a result of the trip, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed aiming, “to boost economic investment, supply-chain resiliency, technology and innovation collaborations, and industry-academic connections,” according to Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister Roy Lee. This partnership builds off a first-of-its-kind agreement achieved in a May gathering in Detroit between business and government leaders. Particularly, both exchanges exemplified Michigan’s central and growing role in the electric vehicle supply chain and market. Governor Whitmer visiting the leadership of ProLogium – a preeminent Taiwanese solid-state battery developer and manufacturer – highlights the focus in growing Michigan’s role in the EV market. The hope is that more collaboration will strengthen Taiwanese economic interaction with Michigan, boosting the $82 million already invested into the state and increasing exports, which stand at $348 million.

While Governor Whitmer’s time in Taiwan focused more on business than her time in Japan, this trip reflects an increasing desire to understand the ROC and develop people-to-people connections. At the beginning of 2022, a bipartisan “Taiwan Friendship Caucus” was established by the Michigan State Legislature. This group was mostly responsible for drafting a resolution in July called SR 52, which aimed to strengthen ties with Taiwan. More specifically, the resolution emphasized “a long history of educational and cultural exchange,” where the Michigan Department of Education and Taiwanese Ministry of Education’s collaboration on an English and Chinese language teacher exchange program since 2006 was noted.

Federal Economic Consequences and Cultural Trends Nationwide

Since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), it is estimated that 13,702 clean energy jobs have been created in Michigan, thus helping the state on its path in achieving 100% carbon neutrality by 2050. An influx of foreign direct investment has in part assisted the creation of these opportunities and poised Michigan to be one of three states, along with Georgia and Kentucky, to dominate electric vehicle battery manufacturing in the United States by 2030. Most pertinently, Japanese firms are behind only South Korean companies when it comes to total investments spurred by the IRA nationwide. This data suggests that federal legislation has encouraged foreign investment into Michigan and certainly helped Governor Whitmer pitch the state to Japanese and Taiwanese delegations. Compared to when Michigan was in the throes of the Great Recession with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, interest from East Asian firms in the state’s manufacturing industry is a remarkable economic change.

Additionally, the cultural connections emphasized in Governor Whitmer’s trip indicate a broader American interest in promoting educational exchange with Japan and Taiwan. As travel restrictions have eased, the Japanese and US governments collaborated to launch a campaign to reinvigorate young people in going abroad. Earlier this year, an MoU was signed to encourage high-level education dialogue between both countries and alleviate residual barriers resultant from the pandemic. Launched in 2020, the US-Taiwan Education Initiative has aimed to expand Mandarin study opportunities for American students under Taiwanese instructors, highlighted by a third high-level dialogue conducted this past February. As a result of the agreement, the number of Taiwan Centers for Mandarin Learning has grown dramatically, with more than 50 now established in the US. Given the growing national interest and enhanced educational collaborations between the United States, Taiwan, and Japan, there is clear opportunity for Michigan to expand its cultural cooperation with both countries.

Matthew Willis is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in International Relations, Economics, Government, and East Asian Studies.