The incoming government is to establish a “new southbound policy office” and a national-level think tank for ASEAN and South Asian studies. As president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) prepares to launch the policy, here are some suggestions:
First, Taiwan should deepen its bilateral relations with Southeast Asian countries, which are in a region rich in cultural and developmental diversity. Building a shared community requires pragmatic cooperation among regional states, but the assistance of major powers based on their strategic considerations is even more important. When it comes to the US’ return to Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership on one hand and China’s “peaceful rise” and strategic “One Belt, One Road” initiative on the other, an integrated ASEAN is the lowest common denominator for these two major powers.
However, Taiwan’s priority should be to improve its bilateral relationships with ASEAN and use these as an opportunity for a breakthrough when pushing for integration into the region. ASEAN affairs are highly complex and China’s “coordinating country” approach deserves consideration.
When former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) were in office, Vietnam was the coordinating country between China and ASEAN, and with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), Thailand has been the coordinating country. Singapore has played a similar role in cross-strait affairs and Taiwan-ASEAN relations.
When looking for another coordinating member of ASEAN in addition to Singapore, Vietnam might be a good option.
Second, there should be a shared focus on both Taiwan and its ASEAN counterparts. Past and current southbound policies focus on unilateral Taiwanese investments in Southeast Asia, but Tsai’s new policy is to include three improvements. It would not solely focus on investment; there would be bilateral rather than unilateral interaction — for example by attracting high-tech talent to Taiwan resulting in a win-win situation; and it would link Taiwan with Southeast and South Asian countries, as well as with the Indian subcontinent, creating a regional strategy for South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Tsai’s new policy stresses the advantage of having “Southeast Asia in Taiwan,” as it includes a plan to help second-generation Southeast Asian immigrants in the hope that they provide a fresh force to help Taiwan integrate with ASEAN. This plan is a “project hope” of strategic significance. However, if Taiwan cannot improve the functions of its representative offices in the region to boost the power of “Taiwan in Southeast Asia,” it would be unable to build a favorable environment and create opportunities for a smooth entry into the region, in which case the new policy would fail to achieve its innovative strategic objective.
Third, Taiwan should focus on expertise and professionalism among its diplomats. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Taiwan’s diplomatic strength in Southeast Asia has been gradually weakening. As President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) attaches little importance to diplomatic affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has lost its role in the decisionmaking process and it has been a long time since diplomatic expertise was respected. As a result, it has been difficult for outstanding diplomats to give full play to their professional knowledge and abilities, while Taiwan has lost its voice and ability to act in the international community.
The success of Tsai’s new policy depends on a focus on expertise and professionalism.
Hugh Chen is president of the Taiwan Association for Southeast Asian Studies and a professor in the Graduate School of Southeast Asian Studies at National Chi Nan University.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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