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Politics

Foxconn boss visits White House and tells Trump 'plant on track'

The two did not discuss Terry Gou's bid for Taiwan presidency, US side says

Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou displays Donald Trump’s signature outside the White House in Washington after meeting with the U.S. president on Wednesday. (CNA/AFP/Jiji)

TAIPEI -- Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou met Donald Trump on Wednesday at the White House, reassuring the U.S. president that his company's massive investment in Wisconsin remains unchanged and also saying that he will not be a "trouble maker" if elected as Taiwan's president.

The tech tycoon's U.S. trip came after Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers in April said the state is renegotiating with Foxconn regarding its investment there -- a $10 billion project that Trump called the "eighth wonder in the world" at the groundbreaking in June 2018 that highlights the president's aim to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. from Asia.

"It is not right to say our investment in Wisconsin has changed," Gou said in a video broadcast by Taiwan media. "We suspended the work around October, November last year because the weather there was snowy and icy cold. We will continue our work in May when the weather gets warmer," Gou said to a group of Taiwanese journalists in Washington after his Oval Office meeting with Trump.

"Yesterday afternoon, President Trump met with brilliant, business leader Terry Gou, creator of Foxconn one of the world's largest companies," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed on Thursday. "Mr. Gou is spending a lot of money in Wisconsin and soon will announce even more investment there," she said. 

A meeting between a U.S. leader and a Taiwanese presidential candidate is highly unusual, but Trump -- facing reelection next year -- and Gou have partially staked their business acumen and political fortunes on the completion of the Wisconsin plant. Foxconn, formally known as Hon Hai Precision Industry, is a major supplier to Apple and a leading global electronics contract manufacturer.

"The President and Mr. Gou did not discuss support for his campaign in Taiwan, he is just a great friend," Sanders said in a statement. 

Gou said that he has invited the president to visit Wisconsin when the production line opens in May 2020. Trump "said yes," Gou revealed, adding that he will travel to Wisconsin on Thursday. 

Gou, who recently announced his plans to run for Taiwan president, also said he discussed his candidacy with Trump. Gou is running for the nomination of the Kuomintang, which seeks friendlier relations with China than the current administration of President Tsai Ing-wen.

Terry Gou is surrounded by media after praying at a temple in New Taipei City, Taiwan on April 17, the day he announced his bid for the presidency.   © Reuters

The U.S. president "told me that it is a tough job," Gou said. "I said if I am elected, I will be a peace maker, not a trouble maker. I will strengthen economic ties with the U.S.," Gou said, adding that he presented Trump with a baseball cap displaying the flags of both the U.S. and the Republic of China -- Taiwan's formal name -- and in return Trump autographed a coaster and gave it to Gou together with his pen.

Gou, whose company has massive investments in both the U.S. and China, views himself as a bridge between Washington and Beijing amid the current trade war. Gou said in Taipei on Tuesday that Taiwan has a unique position between the world's two largest economies, due to its strength in information technology and its geographic proximity to China.

Although he has yet to be officially nominated by the KMT, Gou is the first-ever presidential hopeful from Taiwan to meet with a U.S. president at the Oval Office since Washington severed diplomatic ties with the island in 1979. Gou is regarded as a China-friendly businessman.

Analysts said that with his meeting with Trump, Gou is showing critics in Taiwan that he has the capability to speak directly to the top of U.S. leadership despite his company's massive production footprint in China.

"I would say it's a big get for Gou because [the meeting with Trump] establishes Gou as a global player, able to meet the most powerful leader on earth," Sean King, affiliated scholar at the University of Notre Dame's Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It's nine months until election day and he's now already achieved something that President Tsai Ing-wen hasn't."

However, Ian Tsung-yen Chen, an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, raised doubts over how much Gou could gain for his presidential campaign from his meeting with Trump.

"Gou has recently received criticism and his online popularity in running for Taiwanese president is a bit on the decline, so the business titan definitely hopes to do something to counter that," Chen told Nikkei. "Meeting Trump is definitely good marketing for him, but how long will this effect last is another thing," he said.

Chen said he believes the meeting with Trump is more about Foxconn's investment in Wisconsin rather than focusing on the discussion of Gou's presidential bid, as Trump also has an election in 2020 and he does not want the Wisconsin project that he strongly endorsed to become a challenge.

"In this meeting, they both have their own agendas," Chen said. "They are both businessmen, so they will do things that are for good both sides' interests, and they will hope to have deals that are beneficial for both sides."

Ross Feingold, an analyst in Taipei who advises multinational corporate clients on Taiwan political risk, said that "Beijing is still considering the implications of a Gou candidacy for the KMT nomination," let alone Gou winning the nomination or the election.

"Regardless, during the election campaign, Beijing will call on the candidates, whoever they are, to return to the 1992 Consensus framework that was the basis for China-Taiwan negotiations and agreements during the administration of former President Ma Ying-jeou between 2008 and 2016," Feingold said.

Marrian Zhou in New York contributed to this report. 

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