The nations of Southeast Asia have signed a range of agreements with China which will culminate with the possible creation of a ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (FTA) in 2010, giving China access to the 1.8 billion-person ASEAN market. Southeast Asia has come to resemble China's back yard as a result of Beijing's efforts to create harmony with its neighbors.
Some analysts see China's recent Southeast Asian policies as a kind of Monroe Doctrine with Chinese characteristics. The characteristics of this policy are the generous "offerings" made to Southeast Asia in exchange for long-term benefits, the creation of an image that it is a friendly and peaceful hegemony, and constantly reiterating the "one China" policy.
We should be concerned over the potential economic and commercial impact this arrangement has on Taiwan. Given that Taiwan is a member of the WTO, such impact may be reduced by means of the development of a multilateral trade system. But the diplomatic and psychological impact of China's "Monroe Doctrine" may be more direct and severe -- which, of course, is China's intent.
China has already been successful in marginalizing Taiwan diplomatically. The consequences of China's ties with Southeast Asia may be the result of a vicious cycle from which Taiwan will find it difficult to escape.
Looking at Taiwan's "go south" policy, we can see that too much emphasis was put on economic and commercial benefits, with no real policy to dissuade people from investing in China. The policy failed to build connections with Southeast Asian countries, and has made no progress toward signing free trade agreements with them.
In addition to China's obstructionism, the reason why relations between Taiwan and Southeast Asia have been stagnant is Taiwan's insufficient effort to engage those countries, and even a tendency to withdraw from engagement. This is a result of limited diplomatic personnel and resources, a lack of long-term interpersonal networks and unfamiliarity with Southeast Asian languages and culture.
There is little reason for this situation. Moreover, I believe Taiwan has at least three advantages in establishing relations with Southeast Asian nations.
First, China's diplomatic offensive in Southeast Asia can be countered by Taiwan's comparative advantage in commerce. Moreover, Taiwan can engage in trade-based diplomacy with Asian nations by offering them a generalized system of preferences to promote relations.
Second, geopolitically speaking, Taiwan should reinforce its claims to the South China Sea. By making forceful claims to sovereignty in this region, Taiwan will force Southeast Asia to take note of Taiwan and respect its geopolitical links to the region. This will increase engagement and also enhance our bargaining leverage in negotiations.
As a result, Southeast Asian nations may be willing to sign treaties of cooperation with Taiwan or make agreements regarding standards of conduct in the South China Sea.
Third, while the number of foreign spouses (mainly wives) from Southeast Asia has increased, the policies aimed at them are mostly related to issues of family, education, society and culture. From a long-term perspective, these spouses and their children are an asset to Taiwan, because they can promote better understanding and improved relations with Southeast Asia. After all, intercultural marriages are the most profound form of cultural integration. The children of such marriages will play a crucial role in advancing relations between Taiwan and Southeast Asia.