Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, a flagship strategy formulated by President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration to nurture ties with countries in ASEAN and South Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand, is getting widespread attention.
However, it has failed to gain much traction in Vietnam.
Taiwan’s engagement with the Southeast Asian nation under the policy framework seems to focus on visible dimensions such as economic ties and scholarships, rather than a thorough people-to-people investment. The lack of a comprehensive approach in its outreach to Vietnam can be testified by delving into perceptions of both sides.
The impression Vietnamese have of Taiwan has largely been on Taipei’s status as one of the four Asian Tigers. An imprint has been left in terms of Taiwan’s economic emergence and resilience, with Taiwanese electronics and high-tech firms operating in Vietnam.
In the past few years, Vietnamese have favored visiting Taiwan, while their enthusiasm for bubble milk tea and healthcare products from the archipelago has grown.
However, there seems to be no profound knowledge of Taiwan other than that.
If there is a rising issue that has caught the attention of Vietnamese, it is likely lingering cross-Taiwan Strait tensions.
When viewed through the lens of academia, Vietnamese journals centering on East Asian studies, notably the Vietnam Review of Northeast Asian Studies and the China Studies Review, tend to focus on Vietnam-Taiwan economic and human resources cooperation, the two vital fields of interest embedded in the New Southbound Policy.
Recently, some Vietnamese academics have studied how Taiwan navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and what nuanced implications Taiwan’s success story might have for trade ties between Taipei and Hanoi.
Some recent articles have dived into the southbound policy, focusing on Taiwanese firms leaving China and a fortified security relationship between Taiwan and Japan.
In Vietnamese media, Taiwan-related news is framed within the field of trade collaboration. Some journalists report on the Ministry of Education’s scholarship grants to Vietnamese students, which are conducted under the southbound policy umbrella, while others recap animated activities reported by the Taiwan-Vietnam Economic Cultural and Educational Development Association.
In general, Vietnamese studies have fallen short of looking into the policy.
This is likely due to Vietnam prioritizing its relationship with China and Hanoi’s official commitment to stand firm with its “one China” policy.
The scant perception among Vietnamese of the southbound policy — although not a major issue — might gradually make Tsai’s ambitious plans less appealing.
To Taiwanese, Vietnam has been framed by its 1,000-year history of thwarting a Chinese invasion, ongoing disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea and labor migration to Taiwan.
Vietnamese migrant brides are often reported as enduring difficulties in Taiwan, while Taiwanese media portray them as seeking money to send to their indigent families. Their nuanced lives are often among the seemingly endless stream of gossip in Taiwan, given that their marriages are seen as a transactional arrangement.
Apart from such issues, Vietnam seems unlikely to gain much attention among Taiwanese.
It is high time that the Tsai administration formulated an innovative approach to Taiwan’s Vietnam policy. On a strategic front, both sides have a lot to share given their middle-power status and aspirations for regional strategic autonomy.
Taiwan and Vietnam have been wrestling a “geographical tyranny” and share strategic values, such as their asymmetric relationship with China, a pragmatic strategy to navigate the Sino-US competition and the strategic flexibility to deal with regional powers.
Taiwan and Vietnam are becoming important partners of regional middle powers, especially of countries in the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US, which considers them to be promising partners. With support from both countries, the Quad could build itself to counterbalance Beijing’s growing economic and military clout in the region.
Some academics have even discussed the potential of engaging Taiwan and Vietnam in the Quad Plus framework with an eye to boosting the Quad’s materials power.
In terms of economic advantage, amid the Sino-US economic rivalry, Taiwan and Vietnam are seen as beneficiaries of the trade dispute and preferred locations for business investment.
They are well-positioned to recalibrate their bilateral relationship.
Taiwan should establish a firmer orientation toward Vietnam. A people-centric approach, which is the spirit of the Tsai administration’s policy, should be forged by leveraging people-bonding between Taiwan and Vietnam.
This approach needs fresh attention not only because people-to-people ties stand at the locus of the southbound policy, but because people connections can provide a more solid, longer-term foundation for Taiwan’s outlook.
Both sides could contemplate viable schemes to forge educational and cultural exchanges, especially by enhancing the interactions of Taiwanese students with Vietnamese society in a wide range of areas, including economic, political and societal aspects.
In recognizing the role of education in cultivating future generations, Vietnam and Taiwan firmly believe that they can “change” the destiny of young people through education.
Sharing educational values can offer leverage for firmer ties.
The number of Vietnamese studying in Taiwan has increased dramatically, from 4,774 in 2016 — the year the southbound policy was inaugurated — to 17,534 last year, making Vietnam Taiwan’s second-largest source of international students, only behind China.
However, Taiwanese students tend to favor Western countries or Japan rather than Vietnam as an academic destination.
The government in Taipei, when figuring out this matter, should generate a workable plan to incentivize Taiwanese to pursue studies in Vietnam, especially in potential fields like Vietnamese studies and language, the history of Vietnam, and even business-related majors.
Educational cooperation in the spirit of reciprocal communication would be a long-term investment, as Taiwanese students — after their graduation in Vietnam — should be encouraged to work in Vietnam to foster the relationship with their immersion in Vietnam’s society.
These students, of course, could return home to turn their understanding of Vietnamese culture and society into initiatives and schemes that could enhance ties.
Huynh Tam Sang, an international relations lecturer and research fellow in Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Center for International Studies, is a junior researcher at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.
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