On May 5, President Tsai Ing-wen highlighted the new approaches of her administration’s flagship foreign policy: the “New Southbound Policy” (NSP, 新南向政策). The policy—which has been much-vaunted as the “pivot/rebalance” of the Tsai administration—has been beleaguered by questions about its effectiveness and purpose. As her administration closes in on its one year anniversary, in a meeting with foreign press from the Indo-Pacific region, the president appeared eager to quiet any doubts about the new policy’s objectives.
In a session with six media outlets from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, the Taiwanese president went to great lengths to underscore the apolitical character of the NSP. In reference to growing tensions in the South China Sea and Beijing’s sweeping “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Tsai asserted, “in contrast to some major countries that have geopolitical considerations in the region, the New Southbound Policy’s aims are simple … it [the NSP] is not about geopolitics. It is about economics and trade.”
The Southbound policy—which is now in its fourth iteration—has enjoyed bi-partisan support from Taiwan’s major political parties although the approach has shifted between administrations. Over two decades ago, Lee Teng-hui (1992-2000), who was then president and chairman of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), launched the “Southbound policy” (南向政策) in 1993. Driven by diplomatic necessity and economic motives, the policy was put forward as a broader foreign policy strategy to engage Southeast Asian countries based on Lee’s “pragmatic diplomacy” (務實外交) in the face of Beijing’s long-standing efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally. Lee’s policy was enhanced by Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) in the first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration by expanding the volume of investments and prioritizing free trade agreements. The latter focus was likely motivated by the PRC’s push to negotiate the China-ASEAN free trade agreement (which came into effect in 2010). While not using the same name, the Southbound policy was continued under the Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) administration. Shaped by the Ma administration’s primary focus on improving cross-Strait relations, the government promoted the concept of “viable diplomacy” (活路外交) and ostensibly downplayed the diplomatic elements of the Southbound policy.
From the 2016 campaign trail to the presidential office, the DPP and Tsai have gone to great lengths to argue that the new policy is not just window-dressing on old ideas. In addition to a series of new guidelines and plans, the policy was apparently prioritized when the Tsai administration established the “New Southbound Policy Office” (新南向辦公室) in the Presidential office.
To further distinguish her administration’s initiative from predecessors’, President Tsai outlined four prongs to her new approach: 1) developing and sharing talent and resources, 2) developing industrial cooperation and the development of domestic markets, 3) developing manufacturing capabilities, and 4) developing small and medium-sized enterprises.
Underscoring the difference, the DPP Central Committee in early April organized a conference with experts on Southeast Asia and put forward the “Strategic Proposal for the New Southbound Policy” (新南向政策策略建議). The report explained the new orientation of the NSP as re-positioning Taiwan’s regional identity in Asia, re-interpreting the concept of “people-centered,” and re-establishing the multi-layered links between Taiwan and neighboring countries and societies, as well as pursuing normal interaction in external affairs, and remodeling internal development.
How the NSP will be received by regional governments remain to be seen, but the Tsai government’s efforts to assuage regional countries about the motives of her administration’s revamped Southbound policy appear to be paying some dividends. As a recent editorial in the Times of India argued:
Beijing shouldn’t be perturbed by Taipei’s New Southbound Policy. Just as Taiwan welcomes Malaysia’s participation in the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative, China too shouldn’t have a problem with the Taiwanese New Southbound Policy boosting ties with Malaysia. It is important to note that Taiwan is trying to secure its own economic future through the New Southbound Policy. Therefore, Beijing’s objection to this would only alienate the Taiwanese people further. And that certainly can’t be good for cross-strait relations.
In the final analysis, the “China factor” remains the key spoiler for the success of the New Southbound Policy. To be sure, Beijing is wary of any initiatives undertaken by the Tsai administration that appear to lend greater legitimacy to the government in Taiwan. In an effort to stymie the initiative, Beijing is ostensibly cautioning other countries, including the United States, against providing any support for the NSP.
Against this backdrop, President Tsai’s recent statements about the NSP appear intended as a signal, not only for Southeast Asian countries not to be concerned about the Tsai government drawing them into a political tussle between Taipei and Beijing, but are also a signal to China, communicating that the region should not be viewed in zero-sum terms.
The main point: President Tsai’s recent statements about the NSP appear intended as a signal, not only for Southeast Asian countries not to be overly concerned about the Tsai government drawing them into a conflict, but are also a signal to China, communicating that the region should not be viewed in zero-sum terms.
Update: The DPP Central Committee’s Strategic Proposal for the NSP was written collectively by nine related experts after four months of deliberations.