Soon after entering office in May 2016, the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration signaled its intention of turning Taiwan into a regional hub for non-governmental organizations (NGO). Nearly four years later, little has happened and very few international NGOs have established regional offices in Taiwan. The current lackluster situation is not due to lack of interest among foreign organizations. In fact, the circumstances could not have been more favorable for Taiwan to open its doors to international NGOs (INGOs) wishing to establish a presence in the region or relocate to Taiwan from their current location. In the spring of 2016, Chinese authorities passed the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-Governmental Organizations in the Mainland of China (中華人民共和國境外非政府組織境內活動管理法), a new measure that severely restricted the ability of INGOs to operate in China. Around that time, the political environments in other countries in the region including Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines also saw tighter restrictions—and in some instances crackdowns—on NGOs and foreign organizations, forcing them to draw down their operations or to resettle, often temporarily, in a neighboring country.
Arguably the most liberal and permissive democracy in the entire Indo-Pacific region, Taiwan is an alluring alternative for NGOs wishing to continue their work in the region without fears of harassment, intimidation, or other forms of government obstruction. Moreover, the ongoing global reassessment of the risks and costs of dealing with authoritarian China, accompanied by a renewed interest by the United States and likeminded countries in engaging with Taiwan on various fronts, created an unprecedented opportunity for Taiwan. Facing rekindled efforts by Beijing to block Taiwan’s access to international governmental organizations and peel away its official diplomatic allies, NGOs could provide an alternative pathway to international engagement, playing to its strengths while benefiting from China’s increasingly hostile environment for such organizations. However, this has not been the case.
A Missed Opportunity
It would be invidious to claim that the Tsai administration altogether failed to take advantage of the opportunities created by the current environment to reach out to likeminded INGOs. For one thing, in cooperation with the US Department of State, it helped to develop the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) while organizing several conferences and workshops at the Track 1.5 and Track 2 levels. These events brought together various experts, government officials both active and retired, and academics from around the world to tackle important issues, such as religious freedom and combating disinformation, to name just two. Those initiatives were a clear example of what can be accomplished when the Taiwanese government successfully assesses the intentions of partners within the international community and balances its desire for engagement with respect for those partners’ limits due to their respective “One-China” policies and fears of angering Beijing. Furthermore, the success of programs like GCTF and other efforts undoubtedly played a role in mitigating China’s attempts to isolate Taiwan internationally.
Yet, nearly all of these initiatives involved governmental counterparts at some point, with civil society playing an auxiliary role at best. During that period, Taiwan largely failed to attract NGOs to open offices in its territory. Only one prominent international NGO, the Paris-headquartered Reporters Without Borders (RSF), opened its regional bureau in Taiwan, though this was only after much deliberation (the organization had initially hoped to set up its office in Hong Kong). Moreover, the RSF “success” was arguably the result of ad hoc measures rather than the outcome of deliberate policy on the part of the Tsai administration.
Nevertheless, the intention was certainly there. In the fall of 2016, the Taichung City government, then under Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), proposed setting up a hub for international NGOs in Wufeng District. Efforts would be made to attract international NGOs involved in three areas—human rights and democracy; ecology; and women’s rights. Signaling her support for the initiative, President Tsai appointed Vice Premier Lin Hsi-yao (林錫耀) to coordinate with the Taichung City government.
This initiative saw early successes. In March 2018, when the center was officially launched, two German NGOs operating in the field of search-and-rescue—BRH-Bundesverband Rettungshunde e.V. (German Search and Rescue Dog Association) and International Search and Rescue Germany (ISAR Germany)—officially opened branches in Wufeng District. However, there was very little success after this. This was in part due to the location of the INGO center, which suffered from incomplete infrastructure and, while located in a major city, is nevertheless too far from the political center of gravity of Taipei. While the location may be appropriate for the training of rescue dogs, it is far from ideal for international organizations that seek to lobby governments and work on regional issues. Additionally, Mayor Lin’s defeat in the November 2018 elections may have put the brakes on the initiative. His successor, Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) of the Kuomintang (KMT), does not appear to have shown much interest in continuing the project, let alone coordinating with the central government to ensure its expansion.
Even more problematic, however, was the fact that the Taiwanese government’s efforts were largely aspirational and limited to providing, as one observer put it at the time, the “hardware”—i.e, physical facilities—while failing to ensure that the “software” was appropriate. By revamping the oft-antiquated regulatory environment for INGOs to set up shop in Taiwan and providing incentives such as tax breaks, the government could have more effectively encouraged INGOs to invest in the project. Such work needed to be done. Simply signaling the intent to turn Taiwan into an INGO hub was insufficient.
Getting it Done
A number of highly visible INGOs involved in human rights promotion and protection, such as the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Human Rights Watch have run afoul of local (authoritarian) authorities in the region in recent years. Those developments have compelled them to move their operations to a temporary location (in NDI’s case from Cambodia to Thailand) and to look for alternatives to relocate on a more permanent basis. Several European INGOs, such as the German Marshall Fund, RSF, and European Values, have also begun to focus more on Asia and could contemplate strengthening their Indo-Pacific efforts by opening satellite offices there.
In recent months the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has created some momentum in that direction. In coordination with partners in Taiwan, it has begun to identify INGOs that may be interested in having a presence in Taiwan. However, MOFA cannot make this happen on its own, as it does not have the ability to write or alter regulations. As such, there needs to be political will on the part of the Presidential Office, the Executive Yuan, and the Ministry of the Interior. In addition, there must be proper coordination with legislators who can propose bills and amendments and pass those in the Legislative Yuan, where the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a majority of seats. Moreover, on the “hardware,” or infrastructure side, those efforts will likely be of little avail unless the proposed site for an INGO center is located in the capital of Taipei. This is not elitist, but rather a practical matter: international organizations that deal with high politics, human rights, women’s rights, and other matters will want to be located in Taipei, where they can quickly reach officials or travel to other parts of the region. Making facilities available to them in Taichung is simply not attractive enough.
The Tsai administration now, at the outset of a second term, has the chance to make its INGO aspirations a reality. With every expectation that Beijing will continue, if not intensify, its efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally over the next four years, Taipei must continue to counteract those by asymmetrical means. While initiatives such as GCTF will continue, Taipei must now act on the INGO front and implement the necessary regulatory adjustments to make this aspiration a reality. The process of opening regional offices should no longer be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis as it is currently, but rather determined clearly and systematically. In addition to the benefits of creating further connections between Taiwan and the international community, the presence of a number of high-profile INGOs in Taiwan would create employment opportunities for local and foreign professionals that currently do not exist. In turn, this could have a trickle-down effect on the work environment in Taiwan, which currently undermines its ability to attract—and retain—foreign talent.
The main point: For almost four years now, the Tsai administration has talked about turning Taiwan into a regional hub for international NGOs. While the government has talked the talk, it hasn’t done nearly enough to turn this aspiration into a reality. President Tsai should use her second term to provide an attractive environment for international organizations by revamping its antiquated regulatory environment.