Andrea Sing-Ying Lee assumed his position as Taiwan’s Representative to Italy in 2018. His career has seen him work both at home and abroad, serving as a Representative in Argentina and Mexico and as Ambassador to El Salvador. Before assuming his current role, he was Director-General of the Department of International Cooperation and Economic Affairs for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The interview

INVESTORVISA – You recently came back to Italy as Taiwan Representative, many years after your first assignment in the country. How has Italy changed in your eyes?

SING-YING LEE: Many aspects of Italy never change. Its historical, cultural and archaeological greatness, as well as the warm hospitality of its people, are always the same. It is my third time in Italy, and I have seen many changes for the better, thanks to its ability to develop innovative technologies and renew its international commitment to maintaining peace and stability all over the world. In many ways, Italy’s approach towards internationalisation is much better than it was twenty years ago.
Living in Rome in the Parioli neighbourhood, where most of the Embassies are located, the flow of car traffic before Covid was not the best one. Nonetheless, such minor setbacks do not affect my fondness for Italy.

One of the main activities of the Representative Office is the promotion of better economic relations between Taiwan and Italy. Are there more Taiwanese companies and investors than Italian ones requesting your services?

There is substantial equality in the number of Italian and Taiwanese companies requesting our support. Italians, both companies and individuals, are more likely to ask us for information on the Taiwanese market. We should always remember that, following the latest reorganisation, ICE and Italian Embassies abroad have the task of promoting foreign trade. Therefore, while we are still providing them with our services, we should not discount the contribution of the Italian diplomatic network and non-governmental organisations. Of course, we assist all Taiwanese companies that want to invest in Italy. For example, we help them obtaining a residence permit. Thanks to an increase in reciprocal tourism and the greater freedom of movement for people, we increasingly find ourselves handling consular red tape and paperwork such as those involving the celebration of mixed marriages. In any case, our action is always guided by our desire to give an institutional boost to trade relations and bilateral investments.

We can say that the “Taiwan model” for managing the pandemic handled even the latest May outbreak quite effectively. Were Taiwan and its diplomatic network affected by the profound changes that have reshaped economic and political relations on the international stage over the last year?

Taiwan and Italy are two large countries, but they went through the Covid experience in very different ways. Italy was one of the countries hit by the pandemic in its earlier stages. It has known a lot of loss, both in terms of human lives and economic performance. However, Italy handled the problem admirably, and now the situation should be mostly under control, as it is in other European countries. Taiwan has lived through the first phase of the pandemic peacefully, thanks to decisive preventive measures such as the control of international travel, preceding many countries in stopping tourist arrivals from China. We used all the technology at our disposal to counteract the spread of false information about the virus, relying on what the national epidemiological command centre announced, with the utmost confidence in their transparency. Our people’s discipline and regard for collective well-being also facilitated the government’s action. Thanks to all this, we were one of the countries that best fought the pandemic until May 2021. Our health system, which has 99.9% of the population insured, and guarantees a rapid and quality service to everyone, was never under any kind of strain.
Two months ago, in May, a sudden spike in cases set off alarm bells. A soft lockdown is now in place, with the recommendation to stay at home, but you can go out observing distancing protocols. Today we are again below the twenty cases per day threshold, and the mortality rate is extremely low. We are slowly reopening and starting to produce our proprietary vaccine. It will complement the foreign vaccines used so far in the vaccination campaign. I believe that with vaccination, the discipline of the people, the transparency of the government, and by learning from the experiences of Western countries, we will be able to control the virus even if new variants should emerge. While we wait to tame the virus once and for all, we remain vigilant, carefully analysing any changes in the curve.

Do you think that the pandemic and its aftermath influenced relations with Italy, or may do in the future?

Taiwan’s bilateral relations with the Italian government have improved: we have shown our exceptional generosity by donating fifty million masks to eighty different countries, half a million of which were delivered to Italy. When initially there was a shortage of masks, Taiwan produced twenty million a day, following a tremendous industrial mobilisation effort. We have helped all the major countries in the world by manufacturing respirators, ventilators and PPE for healthcare workers. Bergamo and Milan, the areas the pandemic hit the hardest, seriously benefited from these resources, thus increasing mutual trust between our countries, as evidenced by the recognition of the Taiwanese contribution by the Civil Protection coordinator.
Italian exports to Taiwan have meanwhile increased by 1.5% yearly; Italy trade surplus amounted to one billion. Despite everything, the Taiwanese have never abandoned Italian-made products. Travelling, for tourists and entrepreneurs alike, is still an unsolved issue. The EU recommended reopening the borders to fourteen countries, including Taiwan, but Italy has not yet decided what to do. We hope that Rome will choose to allow all Taiwanese to once again enjoy all the beauty and opportunities that Italy offers. We expect new developments soon: Rome-Taipei flights will be able to resume shortly.
For the future, we must be extraordinarily cautious in making projections. It is better to rely on the knowledge of medical experts than on popular wisdom. The WHO urges caution, as the pandemic has entered a new phase with the prevalence of the Delta strain. However, we have also all lived through this pandemic, so we assume that by scrupulously following the social distancing protocols and, above all, by focusing on a vaccination campaign able to reach everyone, we can more or less go back to life as it was before 2020. These are two extreme predictions, so a synthesis may be in order. In Taiwan, we remain cautious but not without optimism.

What is the state of economic relations between the two countries, particularly regarding bilateral investment flows?

Taiwan is Italy’s fifth-largest trading partner in the Asia Pacific region, among more than 55 other countries. When it comes to exports alone, Taiwan is the third-largest market in Asia for Italian products, equaling three billion annually; imports amount to two billion. Taiwan is one of the Asian countries most likely to invest abroad and has always held Italy in high esteem. In the 2010s, the inward investment stocks from Taiwan businesses in Italy has reached almost EUR 1 billion, and over the last three years, incoming flows have accelerated. The latest example is that of Taiwan Cement Corporation, which invested 160 million to purchase 60% of Engie Eps, a company based in Milan but listed on the Paris Stock Exchange, specializing in energy storage and supply systems for electric cars. LDC Group bought six Italian hotels; Kimco opened a research and design centre in Bologna. Taiwanese companies have also invested heavily in recent years in diverse sectors like green energy.
Italians have invested massively in Taiwan. Italy has one of the best aerospace industries in the world, aiding Taiwan in the launch of one of its satellites. Italian companies have also been involved in the clean-up of a decommissioned nuclear power plant. Another area of Italian excellence is the management and optimisation of power grids. Many Italian companies are present both with their own sales offices and with production investments. For example, Ansaldo-Hitachi won the contract to provide carriages and maintenance for the new Taipei metro line.
Our trade and economic relations are in good shape despite the pandemic. Taiwan can look toward the year of global recovery and build on its 2020 GDP growth of 3.4%. We are unlikely to grow as much as other countries, but we can take advantage of the strong global demand in sectors where we are world leaders, such as semiconductors and electrical machinery components. Taiwanese industry is ready to address the needs of the ecological transition, so we are optimistic about the future of trade relations.

Given the current state of things, do you think there is room for improvement in trade and industrial relations? If so, in which areas?

I think Italian precision agriculture is extraordinarily valid. The sector is excellent in both the traditional and contemporary/organic sectors. Food quality control is also very well developed thanks to proper technology and legislation. Italy is obviously at the forefront of fashion and design. All these sectors have to do with improving the quality of life, something to which Taiwan aspires. The green energy sector, including everything from renewable energy to components and the circular economy, is one of the areas where Taiwan can learn a lot from Italy. These relevant sectors will be on the horizon of our bilateral cooperation.

What do you think are the most effective tools available to a country that wants to attract foreign investors? Do you consider issuing special visas, like the Italian one, to be a valid option?

For Taiwan, the visa for “high value” investors who meet certain criteria proved to be an excellent measure. However, this is not enough, as the best way to encourage foreign investment is to build a better business environment, where the investor feels comfortable doing business and where investments can have better return. Tax incentives are important, but like visas, they are not necessary. Foreign investors must feel comfortable investing and living in Italy, minimizing any hassle in doing business. In Taiwan, for example, there is a one-stop shop where foreign investors can obtain consular, legal, administrative and bureaucratic assistance. It is a single office that answers an investor’s every question, saving his time, and operates under the control of the Ministry of Economy. Without a contact mediating access to all government services and addressing the entrepreneur’s individual needs, he will be a fish out of water. Such an agency is the entrepreneur’s first partner.

Are there aspects of Italian culture that Taiwanese people particularly appreciate? Which of your initiatives aimed at promoting intercultural dialogue has been most successful?

For more than thirty years, Taiwan has promoted its culture and art among the Italian public. Taiwan is attending the Venice Biennale of Art and Architecture, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the Florence Art Biennale, at the Rome Triennale of Visual Arts; we participate in the Udine and Pesaro film festivals and in the contemporary dance competition in Milan. Since October 2020, due to the government’s sensitivity to the issue, we also have had a cultural division within the Representative Office. We are planning, following the limitations on in-person attendance to events, our display in the Rome Film Festival and an exhibition at MAXXI.
Since its unification, Italy has always been seen as a country of great creativity, history, a unique country. I am one of the first italianists in the diplomatic service. I used to say that Italy is a country that would have to be invented if it didn’t exist. It is the heir to the Greek-Roman civilisation, the cradle of opera; the seat of Catholicism with the Vatican; the home of the only true Renaissance; homeland of the best contemporary fashion and most renowned sports cars. No other country can boast such a unique mix of virtues. Of course, it fascinates all Asians, and Taiwan is no exception: fashion, music, cuisine, football, with the recent European Championships victory, appeal to everyone.
But as an Ambassador, I also want to mention that Italy is much more: technological innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, ambitious young people, internationalisation. Italy loves to innovate, travel and learn from foreign partners to improve itself. It is a multifaceted nation, not represented just by philosophy and poetry or its artistic or gastronomical wonders, but also by its very hard-working people. I think everyone should recognise this.

Do you think intercultural dialogue can bring countries closer together in other areas, such as the economy? Could a better mutual understanding encourage Taiwanese companies and entrepreneurs to see Italy in a more favourable light?

Taiwanese visual arts, cinema especially, and literature have a long and storied tradition. We want to encourage our dialogue with Italy, as many of our strong points overlap. A famous film like Roman Holiday stimulating American tourism is just one example of how cinema can bring people together. Cinema is not only a way to foster mutual understanding but also encourages consumption, tourism. Art and culture are the preludes to a better relationship between peoples, and that will influence trade and investment positively.

What events are you planning for the near future? Is there a particular direction in which you think relations between Italy and Taiwan should develop?

In the future, we will focus on cultural activities, such as the MAXXI exhibition focused on Taiwanese cinema. In Venice, at the Biennale of Architecture, the Taiwanese pavilion is set in the New Prison near the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs. In the future, you will see many award-winning Taiwanese comics, of which we are sponsoring the translation, in bookshops. Another project concerns the translation of Taiwanese classics and films. The future is dedicated to culture.