A number of like-minded countries have placed ASEAN and its centrality at the core of their Indo-Pacific strategies. Likewise, Taiwan has emphasized the importance of Southeast Asian countries for its own policy vision. The emergence of the Indo-Pacific construct has provided further thrust for Taiwan to expand its external engagement. This complements Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy.
There is little doubt that Taiwan’s policy framework and external outreach to the Southeast Asian region has been an encouraging story. This is one reason that when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) introduced her administration’s flagship proposal, the New Southbound Policy, she included the 10 ASEAN members as well.
Since the 1990s, and more precisely under former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), Southeast Asia has been an important region for Taiwan. Proximity and cultural affinity between Taiwan and some countries in Southeast Asia made it easier for Taiwan to establish robust economic ties. Taiwanese businesspeople who moved to Southeast Asian countries in the 1980s have also contributed to the advancement of these ties. The bond with Southeast Asia has only grown stronger in the past three decades.
Taiwan has advanced relations with ASEAN members in a wide range of areas, including the four pillars of the New Southbound Policy: promoting economic collaboration; conducting talent exchanges; sharing resources; and forging regional links. While Taiwan is slowly moving toward expanding ties with the other New Southbound Policy countries, all four pillars are well-placed in Taiwan’s relations with ASEAN members.
Strengthening commercial ties with the thriving economies of the region has been an area of utmost importance for Taiwan. With the approximately US$90 billion in two-way trade, ASEAN is one of Taiwan’s largest trading partners. ASEAN members have also been some of the biggest beneficiaries of Taiwan’s foreign direct investment. Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam account for majority of Taiwan’s commercial exchanges with ASEAN.
Taiwan also signed an economic cooperation agreement with Singapore in November 2013, a bilateral investment agreement with the Philippines in 2017 and another with Vietnam in 2019. Countries such as Vietnam become more relevant for the New Southbound Policy when Taiwanese businesses are slowly pulling out of China and looking toward Southeast Asia.
After five years of the policy, it is not merely about reducing economic dependence on China. The focus of Taiwan’s engagement with the region is expanded beyond the economic realm. Taiwan made a clear choice to diversify its external engagement, and the 10 ASEAN members are instrumental in this endeavor.
Civil society engagement between Taiwan and Southeast Asia is also growing. For instance, think tanks and non-governmental organizations are an important tool for exchanging ideas. The Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation with its annual dialogue, the Yushan Forum, was launched to foster dialogue with its Southeast Asian counterparts along with six South Asian countries along with Australia and New Zealand.
The Yushan Forum is held annually to facilitate dialogue with the countries under the policy, and exchanges between the think tanks and civil society representatives from Taiwan and the Southeast Asian countries provide a holistic view of the relations. There have been efforts to engage young people in these countries as well, with initiatives such as Asia Young Leaders Engagement and the Southeast Asia-South Asia-Taiwan Youth Camp.
Among all the policy countries, interpersonal links between Taiwan and ASEAN members are the most advanced. While Taiwan receives fewer than 100,000 tourists from South Asia, it receives more than 2 million from the ASEAN region annually. This figure is helped by visa free entry for citizens of Southeast Asian countries. About 509,000 Southeast Asians reside in Taiwan, whereas only about 6,700 people in Taiwan are from non-ASEAN New Southbound Policy countries. Taiwan is home to hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Taiwan has established strong economic links and robust interpersonal ties in the region. It is time to bolster other aspects, including culture, science and technology, which would lead to further progress in developing ties and foster regional links, especially in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era.
One important step would be to adopt countries’ specific policies within the broader context of the policy. For example, Singapore and Malaysia are fast-emerging economies, while countries such as Cambodia and Laos are relatively weaker. Therefore, Taiwan’s outreach should be different with each member states. Within the policy and its outreach to ASEAN, it needs to devise sub-regional action plans on the basis of mutual benefit.
The China factor looms large in elevating areas of cooperation with ASEAN. Even though both sides are moving beyond the China factor, ASEAN and its member states still need to expeditiously explore ways to manage ties with China and Taiwan. It is in the interest of ASEAN members to diversify their relations and engage with Taiwan while safeguarding ASEAN centrality. It is time to look toward Taiwan purposefully, and perhaps establish unofficial dialogue partnerships with Taiwan.
There is no doubt that Taiwan’s outreach and the New Southbound Policy have been successful in Southeast Asia. Based on the nation’s achievements, a consistent approach with a roadmap for future cooperation with the Southeast Asian countries would boost its efforts to elevate its ties in Southeast Asia, and enhance the New Southbound Policy along with it.
A focus on areas such as pandemic governance, developmental cooperation in the post-pandemic recovery, high-quality infrastructure investment, think-tank cooperation, educational ties, and fostering interpersonal connections could be emphasized more in Taiwan’s Indo-Pacific vision and the next phase of the New Southbound Policy.
Alan H. Yang is distinguished professor and deputy director of the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, and executive director of the Taiwan Asia Exchange Foundation. Sana Hashmi is a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
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