On September 22nd, President Tsai attended the 2016 Annual Conference on Southeast Asian Studies in Taiwan (臺灣的東南亞區域研究年度研討會), hosted by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (國立政治大學東南亞研究中心) and Institute of International Relations (國立政治大學國際關係研究中心) at National Chengchi University. At the conference, the president stated that Taiwan will pursue a reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship with counterparts in Southeast Asia to increase mutual trust and community awareness under the New Southbound Policy. These elements reflect the core value of the policy’s people-centered agenda.
There are two major constituencies promoting the New Southbound Policy. The first group is focused on the policy’s reinforcement of the Taiwan’s industrial layout and trade investment in Southeast Asia. For instance, the trade, tourism, and industrial cooperation plans advanced by economic and trade ministries promote business development, cultivate human capital, and advance the Agreements on the Promotion and Protection of Investments (投資保障協定). The second group is focused on people-centered initiatives, taking into account the social welfare and rights of new Southeast Asian immigrants to Taiwan rather than narrowly focusing on economic and industrial aspects.
Against this backdrop, the Tsai administration emphasizes two components of the New Southbound Policy under a people-centered approach: individuals (人民), civil society (公民社會), and I would add a third: democracy (民主).
At the individual level, the Tsai administration should intensify people-to-people exchanges with Southeast Asia, including exchanges between skilled laborers, professionals, academics, and future leaders. Efforts to cultivate regional awareness among talented young people convey the importance of the Taiwan-Southeast Asia relationship, and should be carried out by the government, private, and civil society sectors. For example, Taiwan’s Education Ministry is encouraging local young people to conduct in-depth fieldwork in international organizations, non-profit organizations, and in Southeast Asian countries. Only by enhancing the level of co-habitation, resource sharing, and joint innovation to solve common challenges, will a sense of community be fostered between the Taiwanese and Southeast Asian people.
Civil societies within Taiwan and Southeast Asia also share a history of close ties. More transnational civil society exchange will help create common interests that bind Taiwanese and Southeast Asian counterparts from the bottom up, and will strengthen resilience against natural disasters, economic challenges, and social transformation. It is time for the DPP government to reaffirm the significance of civil society as a major catalyst for linking Taiwan and Southeast Asia.
Last but not least, for the time being, the first phase of New Southbound Policy Promotion Plan focuses on the inter-connection of cultures, tourism, health, agriculture, and small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) between both sides. For Taiwan, the most imperative value of the policy is to advance democracy and share democratization experiences with Southeast Asian counterparts. While confronting the political development and social transformation in Southeast Asia, Taiwan can utilize its successful story as a reference for jointly promoting the quality of democratic governance in the region.
In July, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan organized the Parliamentary Friendship Association for Taiwan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (臺灣與東南亞國會議員聯誼會), which encourages young lawmakers to engage in more dialogues and interactions with Southeast Asian counterparts. This initiative aims to promote national and local development conversations among young politicians and create more opportunities for bilateral cooperation. Indeed, constructing a strong, strategic network of like-minded democracies will be the key to regionally integrating the politically isolated island with Southeast Asia.
Some people question whether the New Southbound Policy is meant as a strategic alternative to the policy of “Westward engagement” (西進) with China. This is, however, a false dichotomy. It is not a binary choice between “Southbound” or “Westward.” While the Policy is a strategic choice made by the DPP government, for the purpose of exploring economic and social linkages beyond the cross-Strait level, the motivation was not to evade China. Rather, the Policy represents Taiwan’s effort to re-invent itself as a part of the region and align more closely with Southeast Asian countries, societies, and people who have long been less emphasized by Taiwanese society.
The New Southbound Deal is a long-term social engineering project for the Taiwanese government. In the future, the policy will help to reinforce the “internalization” (內化) of social reform and “normalization” (正常化) of external relations. The former requires time and trans-sectoral collaboration to optimize the Deal. The first phase of the New Southbound Policy is driven by an economic impetus. A second phase needs to reinforce Taiwan’s social and cultural linkages with Southeast Asia. As to normalizing Taiwan’s external relations, the New Southbound Policy amplifies Taiwan’s expectation of opening more windows to both international and regional community that will bring about a common future.
The New Southbound Policy requires bipartisan support and should be adopted as a long-term foreign policy option that spans administrations. As a vital economy in Southeast Asia and a hub of Asia-Pacific civil societies, the New Southbound Policy will help Taiwan integrate into the regional community as well as highlight Taiwan’s contributions in Southeast Asia.
The main point: The New Southbound Policy should not be viewed in the context of a binary choice between “Southbound” or “Westward.” While the Policy explores economic and social linkages beyond the cross-Strait level, it represents an effort to re-invent Taiwan as a part of the region and align more closely with Southeast Asian countries, societies, and people.