The “New Southbound Policy” (新南向政策)—aimed at building economic as well as people-to-people ties between Taiwan and 18 countries across South and Southeast Asia—has been the hallmark of President Tsai Ing-wen’s foreign policy since she assumed the presidential office in May 2016. While already in its fourth iteration, a visible feature of this ‘new’ policy has been an apparent emphasis on city diplomacy. To be sure, the absence of formal diplomatic relations between Taiwan and all target countries under the policy impedes national, government-level contact that could help promote the policy’s objectives. Yet, in the past decade, there has been increasing global recognition of city diplomacy as an important facilitator of stronger connections between localities that can yield major economic benefits for both sides. Indeed, within the past year, local governments of several large cities in Taiwan have either led delegations to several countries within South and Southeast Asia or hosted international conferences inviting officials from these countries to visit Taiwan’s cities.
For example, in March the mayor of Taiwan’s capital, Taipei (pop. 2.71 million) Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), led a high-powered delegation to visit countries including—but not limited to—Malaysia, Thailand, and India. In the same month, Tainan-mayor (pop. 1.89 million) Lai Ching-de (賴清德) led a delegation to Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. On July 14, the largest port-city of Kaohsiung (pop. 2.78 million), in southern Taiwan, organized a large-scale forum bringing together business leaders and trade and investment officials from the region. There are indications that Taiwan will expand these efforts to help enhance the New Southbound Policy.
City diplomacy is neither a foreign policy tool unique to the New Southbound Policy nor only to Taiwan. For instance, a delegation led by Taoyuan (pop. 2.12 million) government just finished a tour of the western United States from July 4 to July 15, and visited cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among others. The city of Taichung (pop. 2.75 million) in central Taiwan has sister city relations with 29 cities across the world (17 of which are in the United States). In the absence of direct national government contacts between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—since Beijing froze national government-to-government contacts in June 2016—city-to-city interaction between Taipei and Shanghai (pop. 24.15 million) have continued since their start in 2010. Since 2016, the forum has emerged as a window into the current state of cross-Strait relations. The forum—which has taken place twice already during Tsai’s administration—has been used as a sounding board by Chinese officials to convey its position on cross-Strait relations. For instance, during the 2016 forum, Beijing lowered its representation in the dialogue by sending a non-senior party official to attend the meeting ostensibly to degrade its profile in the dialogue.
On July 14, the southern-port city of Kaohsiung hosted the second annual Taiwan-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Strategic Investment Partnership Forum. The first forum was held in Taipei in July 2016. This year’s forum saw participation by trade and investment officials as well as businesses from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Laos; it was reportedly attended by 600 people. During the meeting, Kaohsiung city signed an MOU with Asia Taiwanese Chambers of Commerce Junior Chapter (亞洲臺灣商會聯合總會青商會) to enhance trade and investment exchanges.
In his opening remarks, Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs Shen Jong-chin (沈榮津) highlighted how this year’s forum, which included an emphasis on young CEO exchanges, is in line with the Tsai administration’s widely-touted New Southbound Policy. Efforts to promote engagement between young entrepreneurs in the region are in line with the policy’s people-centered approach and ostensibly provide a counterweight to Beijing’s vigorous push to court Taiwan’s youth.
The ruling-party is set to release the report, “Strategic Proposals for the New Southbound Policy” (新南向政策策略建議書), produced by an independent research group and outlining several supplemental recommendations for the new policy. In seven chapters, the strategic proposal outlines a set of ideas for the ruling-party to implement by the New Southbound Policy Research Group (新南向政策專題研究小組). The proposals include ways to enhance political party and parliamentary diplomacy, civil society exchanges, the role of Taiwanese businesses, as well as a focus on India and city diplomacy.
Specifically, the chapter on city diplomacy proposes that the national government utilize city diplomacy as a channel to bypass the sovereignty constraints imposed by China and develop deeper ties with the target countries. However, city diplomacy has been underleveraged. According to the study, six major cities (i.e., Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung) in Taiwan combined had only 11 only official city relationships with target countries under the policy (i.e., Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam) out of a total of 165 such relationships.
The group making the recommendation is comprised of 10 members from the academic community. The group was convened by Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), and members include Lai I-Chung (賴怡忠), Chen Mu-min (陳牧民), Yan Jian-fa (顏建發), Lu Jeng-feng (盧政鋒), Alan Yang (楊昊), Doong Sy-chi (董思齊), Jau Jung-chi (趙中麒), Hong Jr-jie (洪智杰), and Chang Ching-yun (張靜芸).
The main point: The absence of formal diplomatic relations between Taiwan and all target countries under the policy impedes the Taiwan government’s policy objectives with respect to the New Southbound Policy. Yet, city diplomacy may become an important facilitator of stronger connections between localities that can bypass the sovereignty constraint and yield major economic benefits.
 All population estimates are taken from 2016 data.