During Taiwan’s presidential election campaign in 2015-16, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) proposed the “New Southbound Policy” (新南向政策) as an initiative to deepen the linkage among industries and societies of Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The goal of its New Southbound Policy is to amplify the exchange and intensify the collaboration between both Taiwan and countries in the region. Since the DPP won the presidential election in January 2016, the Tsai administration has highlighted the policy’s strategic imperative.
Right from President Tsai Ing-Wen’s inauguration on May 20th, perception of and concern with Southeast Asia among public sectors, private enterprises, and civil society organizations in Taiwan have been elevated. A new task force in charge of Southeast Asian policy consultation, innovation and coordination called the New Southbound Office (新南向辦公室) was established within the Office of the President (總統府).
The guidelines for the New Southbound Policy (南向政策綱領), which outline short to long-term goals was adopted during a meeting on international economic and trade strategies convened by President Tsai on August 16th. Shortly afterward, on September 5th, the Executive Yuan (行政院) announced its New Southbound Policy Promotion Plan (新南向政策推動計畫). The plan declared, among other things, “long-term cultivation, diverse exploration, and mutual reciprocity” as the core principles of the new administration’s engagement strategy with Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the plan emphasizes that Taiwan should begin with the issue-areas of economic and trade cooperation, exchange of young talent, resource sharing and intra-regional connectedness.
Increasing numbers of ministries and local governments have already embarked on enhancing awareness of Southeast Asia, and these policies are reinforced by the New Southbound Policy. Indeed, President Tsai’s New Southbound Policy is essentially different from that of President Lee Teng-Hui in the 1990s. The difference is characterized by the former being a more pragmatic and comprehensive way of building all-around connection between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the new policy is based upon a people-centered appeal and two-way exchange. The policy would stimulate Taiwan’s overall engagement in Southeast Asia by meeting the development and social needs of Southeast Asian localities, strengthening people-to-people connections with Southeast Asian societies in the hope of becoming part of the regional community.
Relocating Taiwan in Southeast Asia
Geographically, Taiwan is an offshore island of the Asian continent barred by the Taiwan Strait. The distance and barriers indirectly contribute to the isolated-island attitude found deep in local society.
The general public has not been very keen on Asian affairs, let alone politically aware that Taiwan is a part of the region. Over the decades, Taiwanese people generally paid more attention to the politically constrained cross-Strait relations, worrying about the negative impact of China’s influence on Taiwanese society, markets and industries. Overreliance on China has prevented Taiwan from engaging with other interested parties and surrounding stakeholders, even missing the prime time for participating in regional integration.
So, the advancement of the New Southbound Policy is not merely a unilateral declaration of external economic strategy, but is an opportunity for self-transformation.
With regard to Taiwan’s regional identity, the implementation of the New Southbound Policy reflects an effort to transform Taiwanese consciousness from a closed society on an isolated island in Asia into a society willing to open up its arms and further integrate with its neighbors.
With increased attention and support directed by Asia-Pacific powers towards the ASEAN Community and ASEAN centrality, Taiwan must determine how to substantially take part in the regional community by utilizing its advantages.
Furthermore, from the perspective of national development, the New Southbound Deal is also a magnificent governmental re-invention project of domestic reform and transformation. The Taiwanese business network has been long developed and rooted in Southeast Asia. In Taiwan, tens of thousands of New Taiwanese (新住民) and migrant workers from Southeast Asia have long ago become a part of the country, demonstrating existing transnational linkages between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. As a result, social welfare and rights for Southeast Asian communities in Taiwan, as well as the social promotion for Southeast Asian awareness are pivotal elements of Taiwan’s reformation and transformation from the bottom up. Particularly considering the New Southbound Policy Promotion Plan of the Executive Yuan, it is apparent that the two-way interaction with and cultivation of young talents, next generation leaders, and human resources are being strategically highlighted. The leaders of tomorrow will be deeply invested in bringing forth a genuine shared community between Taiwan and Southeast Asia.
These plans and schemes did not merely appear out of thin air. Instead, they are undoubtedly refinements of the continuing efforts of Taiwanese governments and administrations, whether KMT or DPP. By redefining Taiwan’s capacity, mission and contribution, through the process of resource-sharing and recognition of shared values, Taiwan is surely capable of showing itself to be a good regional citizen.
The main point: Taiwan’s pivot to Southeast Asia demonstrates the island’s determination to take part in the current regional process of ASEAN-centered integration. In addition to state-led efforts and initiatives, the natural social connectedness shaped by the ASEAN diaspora in Taiwan and the Taiwanese presence in Southeast is the key to the success of the New Southbound Deal.