Inside the State Department’s glamorous diplomatic reception room on June 27, 2017, First Daughter Ivanka Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opened their arms to Taiwanese citizen Allison Lee (李麗華)—a photo op that Washington’s top diplomats dream of—and perhaps gave friends of Taiwan cause to sigh with relief following Ivanka’s surprise appearance at the PRC embassy in February. More significantly, Ms. Lee’s award for her anti-human trafficking work shined a spotlight on efforts by Taiwan’s civil society to improve the welfare of its migrant workers.
With nearly 650,000 migrant workers, alongside a fast growing population of 524,017 “new residents” (新住民), Taiwan’s society today is being quietly transformed by these increasingly diverse demographic trends. Among the new residents (immigrants), the top six countries of origin in Southeast Asia are: Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, and Malaysia. About one in six newborn babies is born to an immigrant family. The number of second-generation immigrants has surpassed 350,000, and 52 percent of their parents are of Southeast Asian origin. By 2030, 13.5 percent of new immigrants’ children will reach the age of 25, which is a significant addition to the working-age population—and political constituency. Given the geographic proximity and economic complementarity between Taiwan and Southeast Asia, this seemingly intuitive fact on the ground is surprisingly underappreciated and understudied.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s signature foreign policy initiative, the New Southbound Policy (NSP), challenges the traditional mindset by calling for a “people-centered” (以人為本) approach as the basis for a comprehensive development of economic cooperation, people-to-people exchanges, resource sharing, and regional connectivity. The policy strategically targets 18 countries, including 10 in Southeast Asia and 6 in South Asia, plus Australia and New Zealand. It is essentially an economic strategy, as one of the Tsai administration’s multi-pronged measures to spur new economic momentum amid subpar growth and stagnant wages, keep pace with regional trade integration, engage with the region’s rapid growth and expanding consumer markets, and maximize the opportunities offered by a trade bloc that represents Taiwan’s second largest export market and investment destination. In the absence of diplomatic relationships with the target countries, bolstering people-to-people ties is the most feasible and practical way to catalyze Taiwan’s relationship with this vibrant and fast-growing region, in addition to pursuing bilateral trade agreements.
The success of the New Southbound Policy will be determined by the quality of human capital available to forge the necessary linkages with target countries. Investing in Taiwan’s new immigrants can transform this vastly underappreciated constituency into Taiwan’s unique strength. To state the obvious, the new immigrants’ close bonds and knowledge of their home countries are valuable assets for Taiwanese companies and investors. Several components of the New Southbound Policy are aimed at harnessing the talents of immigrants and their children and capitalizing on their homecourt advantage in order to access the region’s culturally and linguistically diverse markets. For example, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has allocated nearly US $54 million in scholarships for FY17 to attract inbound students from New Southbound countries as well as encouraging Taiwanese students to study abroad in those countries. The MOE also subsidizes peace corps, overseas volunteer services, and summer/winter camps to encourage second-generation youth to return to their immigrant parents’ hometowns. The government also promotes a two-way flow of professionals by utilizing job match databases such as “Contact Taiwan,” and by integrating existing exchange platforms into institutions like “Taiwan Connection” to centralize information for employment and internship opportunities. Second-generation immigrants, given their dual cultural backgrounds, would have competitive advantages to benefit from these initiatives, while other government programs seek to enable first-generation immigrants to make a larger economic contribution by teaching foreign language and working in the tourism industry.
Other elements of the New Southbound Policy could also have a spillover effect for this new and growing segment of Taiwan’s population. Streamlining regulations on visas, residency, health insurance, and tax incentives for foreign workers will help to upgrade Taiwan’s relationship in the industrial supply chain with the counterpart countries. Promoting tourism via visa waiver programs not only benefits Taiwan’s service industries, but also facilitates more frequent exchanges and thus stronger links between the new immigrants and their home countries.
Socially and culturally, the New Southbound Policy serves a long-term national development goal for Taiwan to reinvent itself in accordance with emerging demographic trends, so that Taiwan can continue to advance as a more open and equal society for people living and working there. At present, over 90 percent of the foreign workers in Taiwan are from NSP target countries, with a majority of them working in manufacturing industries, domestic care, agriculture, or fisheries, like the clients of State Department TIP awardee Ms. Allison Lee’s. How Taiwan treats those short-term or permanent residents will directly impact Taiwan’s reputation and relations with their home countries. While creating a favorable business environment for white-collar foreign expatriates will be an economic imperative, the Tsai administration also seeks to improve the welfare and protect the legal rights of Southeast Asian workers and immigrants.
In Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, 41 DPP legislators joined forces to launch the “Immigrant Affairs Development Alliance” in May, vowing to address the constituents’ concerns of visa and citizenship restrictions by revising the Immigration Act and the Nationality Act. Across the aisle, Ms. Lin Li-chan (林麗蟬), who is of Cambodian descent, became the first immigrant to win a seat in Taiwan’s legislature as a member of the Nationalist party.
The success of this people-centered outreach to Southeast Asia will also require the engagement of non-governmental institutions, and the DPP has taken numerous steps to be at the forefront of the effort. Free weekly language classes in Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese, offered at the DPP headquarters, have been met with great enthusiasm by the staff. The party’s women’s department also established a new immigrant affairs committee comprised of activists for immigrants’ rights. To encourage closer links between second-generation immigrants and their parents’ home countries, the department recently released a trailer of a new documentary following six young adults’ quest for their roots in Southeast Asia.
The leading role of the DPP’s women department in addressing immigrant affairs not only demonstrates the party’s commitment to empowering the disadvantaged (92 percent of the new immigrants are female), but also exemplifies many universal values such as democracy, human rights, environmental protection, and gender equality, for which Taiwan serves as a model in the region. The New Southbound Policy pledges to forge a sense of economic community, but it may well present a great opportunity for Taiwan to become a regional hub for building a community of shared values.
The main point: The success of the New Southbound Policy’s will be determined by the quality of human capital available to forge the necessary linkages with target countries. Taiwan is investing in new immigrants and migrant workers from NSP countries in hopes of transforming this vastly underappreciated constituency into Taiwan’s unique strength.
 New residents refer to naturalized citizens or permanent residents.