When President Donald Trump and PRC President Xi Jinping met last week, the White House said it was important for them to “discuss global, regional, and bilateral issues of mutual concern.” Likewise, when a country like Australia meets with the US, the two discuss global security issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan, regional issues such as the Indian Ocean region, China, and the South China Sea, and bilateral issues. When Taiwan talks with the United States, for the most part, they talk just about Taiwan.
A key feature of diplomacy is that major powers want to work with others beyond bilateral issues. These major powers want to enhance a mutual network of geopolitical linkages and to combine efforts in third countries. Essentially, they learn from one another and help one another in distant regions. In this way, the standard format for any US bilateral dialogue—especially the State Department’s strategic dialogues in East Asia—is for both sides to first share one another’s views on global issues, then move to regional topics, and finally to bilateral concerns.
Along these lines, Taiwan’s approach in its New Southbound Policy is inherently a broad regional strategy for Southeast Asia. Therefore, a potential benefit of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy that has not been mentioned to date is how it can strengthen US-Taiwan collaboration in the greater Asia region. This alone should be an important focus of the New Southbound Policy office.
Far too often, Taiwan’s diplomacy with the United States narrowly focuses on each side’s interests, devoid of a regional or global discussion. For Taiwan, these economic and security interests include prospects for US arms sales and Taiwan’s prospects of joining regional or bilateral trade agreements. For the United States, interests include arms sales to Taiwan to ensure Taiwan’s security in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act and opening up trade in beef and pork.
There are many possible reasons as to why Taiwan’s diplomacy might be overly focused on narrow bilateral trade and security issues. Perhaps Taiwanese officials want to devote valuable and limited time in meetings with US officials to raise key bilateral points and so they do not want to crowd the agenda with other issues. In international security terms, perhaps Taiwan plays less of a role since it does not provide troops in the Middle East, participate in UN peacekeeping missions, or send naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden for counter-piracy operations. Therefore, there is less to discuss in the arena of global security. No matter the reason, Taiwan should still try to broaden the discussion, especially since it desires greater international space and a more mutually beneficial relationship with the United States.
In the US’ diplomatic dealings with many other countries, it is typical to cover much beyond narrow bilateral issues. The standard formula for the US State Department’s “strategic dialogues” include global and regional issues and are typically led at the Assistant Secretary level at the US State Department. They include the US-India Strategic Dialogue, the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, the US-New Zealand Strategic Dialogue, and more. The example earlier about US cooperation with Australia refers to the regular Australia Ministerial (AUSMIN), which is a meeting between the US Secretary of State and US Secretary of Defense and their Australian counterparts on a range of global, regional, and bilateral matters.
To be sure, Taiwan does have a global reach and it is already a close partner with the United States in some ways. In 2010, immediately after the disastrous earthquake in Haiti, Taiwan sent search-and-rescue teams and humanitarian supplies to Port-au-Prince. In 2015, Taiwan delivered 350 prefabricated homes to displaced families in Northern Iraq as a member of the counter-ISIL coalition. In the same year, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and TECRO signed an MOU creating the Global Cooperation and Training Framework for Taiwan to assist Asian countries with issues such as women’s empowerment, public health, and e-commerce. However, Taiwan can do more in the region and around the world, and Taiwan’s new plans for trade in Southeast Asia present good opportunities for such cooperation.
The possibility that the United States and Taiwan can improve cooperation in the Southeast Asia region should be rightly seen in a proper context among the main priorities of the New Southbound Policy. President Tsai has mentioned that these top regional economic priorities include high level exchanges with foreign countries, cooperation with foreign think tanks to research industrial sectors, renewing bilateral investment and tax agreements, and hosting exhibitions. Many of these are compatible with US activity in the region. Taiwan can hold exchanges with Southeast Asian countries and can also discuss Southeast Asia with the United States. As Taiwan’s engagement in Southeast Asia grows, it will open up new opportunities to exchange its perspectives with the White House, State Department, and Commerce Department.
One question is: what is the right level on which to hold a dialogue on regional and global issues? The most effective engagement will be with offices that have broader geographical responsibilities or officials at mid-to-senior levels of government. Working-level officials can be narrowly focused, so an official covering Taiwan issues might not have any responsibility or interest in Southeast Asia, and vice versa. Instead, it would be promising to approach functional offices that cover an entire region or the world. In addition, discussing matters with the heads of regional bureau, such as the Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s East Asia and Pacific Bureau, and even higher at the Under Secretary or Deputy Secretary levels—as well as their equivalents in other agencies—would be more appropriate to raise regional or global issues.
Exchanging regional and global views during bilateral dialogues is a first step toward working together in the region. Indeed, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy can open up opportunities to have dialogues about issues more far-reaching than just Taiwan’s trade with the region, especially since it is a new way to partner with the United States in the region. Doing so will demonstrate Taiwan’s importance for more than its own sake, and demonstrate its greater value in a regional or global role.
The main point: Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy is a new opportunity to improve US-Taiwan diplomacy and economic cooperation in the Southeast Asia region.