How Taiwan Wins the Hearts of Southeast Asian States

Written by Ratih Kabinawa and Jie Chen.

Image credit: 總統出席「人民直選總統暨臺灣民主發展二十周年」研討會 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

President Lee Teng-hui transformed ROC Taiwan’s foreign policy from a rigid “man and bandits don’t co-exist” mindset, a dictum which defined the Chiangs’ era, to one focusing on pragmatic diplomacy. This stance emphasised flexible ways to promote Taiwan’s international standing as its own legitimate sovereign state. President Lee used Taiwan’s achievement as a new democracy with impressive economic and technological prowess to win fresh international sympathy and support. In that light, he initiated a Southbound Policy towards Southeast Asia in the mid-1990s, which was carried on by President Chen Shui-bian in a piecemeal fashion and largely lost its steam during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, which was preoccupied heavily with developing comprehensive relations with Beijing. However, President Tsai Ing-wen resurrected the Southbound Policy in full swing under new geopolitical-economic and cross-strait circumstances. Prospects are promising.

Amidst COVID-19’s health diplomacy competition between China and Taiwan, some Southeast Asian states have sided with Taiwan and praised its success in controlling the development of the virus. One of the top ministers in Indonesia’s cabinet, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, who serves as Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, stated Indonesia should learn from Taiwan’s model in containing the virus. Earlier in May, Malaysia’s Director-General of Health released a similar statement commending Taiwan’s self-discipline in following social distancing. Why, in recent years, have some influential political figures from Southeast Asia put aside their hesitation to express their support for Taiwan publicly? Furthermore, what has this development meant for Taiwan?

Winning the heart of Southeast Asian states is not an easy task, especially for Taiwan. During the Cold War period, the Philippines and Thailand severed their official diplomatic relations with Taiwan in the mid-1970s, following the United States-China rapprochement. Malaysia also cut off its official ties with Taiwan at the consular level when recognising China at the same time. Singapore and the New Order government of Indonesia never opened up formal relations with Taiwan despite the absence of a formal relationship with China, and both established diplomatic relationship with Beijing in 1990-91.

This was personally disappointing to President Lee Teng-hui since he visited Singapore in 1989. He was the first-ever ROC presidential visit to a country which had no full official relationship with Taipei. The pragmatic Lee accepted the less-than-official title “president from Taiwan” given by Lee Kwan Yew, the then Prime Minister of Singapore. However, any hope that Singapore would open full official relations with Taipei quickly evaporated since Lee Kwan Yew’s gesture was no more than a reflection of his lingering personal affection to the authoritarian ROC.

After the Cold War ended, all countries in Southeast Asia adhered firmly to a one-China policy, and some of these states entered into a strategic partnership with Beijing. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) accepted China as a major dialogue partner, further side-lining Taiwan in regional affairs. With its dwindling status and regional isolation, Taiwan was desperately continuing to use unconventional means – including informal diplomacy – to preserve its survival as a sovereign state.

Southbound Policy under President Lee Teng-hui did, however, bear promising results. The most remarkable achievement was the expansion and enhancement of Taiwan’s representative offices or de-facto embassies in Southeast Asia. President Lee was even invited to visit the Philippines and Indonesia in 1994, though in an informal capacity, with the two states keenly interested in attracting Taiwan’s investment and trade. Nevertheless, apart from these achievements, Taiwan failed to gain sympathy from regional leaders when it was bullied by China, particularly during a series of missile tests initiated by Beijing in 1995 and 1996.

Instead of taking a hard stand against Beijing, ASEAN states accused Taiwan of provoking the mainland due to Taiwan’s claim for independence. Some of these Southeast Asian leaders criticised Lee for aggravating tension in the Taiwan Strait by advocating a separate statehood for the island. Further, unlike other middle-power countries formally allied to the US such as Australia that publicly supported or chose to stand with Taiwan, Southeast Asian governments remained calm and quiet towards the contest over the Taiwan Strait.

Taipei has rejuvenated its Go-South policy under the current president Tsai Ing-wen, with transformation in the broader geopolitical movement, namely the US and some of its allies getting tougher on China. Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP) has gained momentum in cultivating interest from Southeast Asian states.

The more accommodating approach of the Trump administration towards Taiwan—as manifested in numerous legislations from the US Congress, along with statements from the White House to beef up diplomatic and security cooperation between Washington and Taipei—has given states in Southeast Asia geopolitical cover for their own pro-active actions to Taiwan. The welcome Tsai received on her visit to New York in 2019, gave a signal to other countries to further strengthen their relations with Taiwan. The warming of the US-Taiwan collaboration, grounded in the Taiwan Relations Act, has opened the door for Southeast Asian nations to improve relations with Taipei.

Taiwan’s exemplary approach in dealing with COVID-19, and offering medical equipment such as high-quality facial masks to regional and Western states, also contributes to increasing Taipei’s international profile. US officials are now firmly supportive of Taiwan, strongly praising Taiwan’s response on COVID-19 and urging the world to pay attention to Taiwan’s quest for diplomatic status. Indeed, the US administration has openly called for the international community to respect Taiwan’s legitimate right to participate in a range of multilateral forums and organisations such as the World Health Organization. Taiwan’s health diplomacy has also generated support from many European states and Taiwan’s NSP target countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and India. It also gives confidence to regional ASEAN states in taking similar action towards Taiwan.

Thus, Tsai’s New Southbound Policy has a more favourable geopolitical-economic environment than Lee Teng-hui’s that ensures Taiwan receives approval and forms solidarity with countries in Southeast Asia. More and more Western economies are decoupling from China in some crucial production chains. Since the US trade war against China in 2018, Taiwanese investors are increasingly leaving China for places like Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, unlike previous decades, where China’s military fortification in the South China Sea essentially ignored the concerns of regional claimant states has meant that Southeast Asia states now have less incentive to toe Beijing’s line in dealing with Taiwan.

Some Southeast Asian states have proven to be capable of acting more daringly on specific aspects of Taiwan’s ties even more so than the US. One example is that while the world remembers Lee Teng-hui’s historic visit to his alma mater Cornell University in 1995, which triggered China’s missile tests, the Philippine President Fidel Ramos and Indonesian President Suharto warmly received Lee in Subic Bay and Bali respectively a year earlier. When that happened, the Philippines and Indonesia became the only countries which maintained full diplomatic relations with Beijing and yet invited Taiwan’s president to visit. It cannot be ruled out that under the current favourable geopolitical-economic environment, a major politico-diplomatic breakthrough in Taiwan-Southeast Asia relations may occur in the next couple of years. Lee Teng-hui’s legacy lives on.

Lee Teng-hui, known for his pragmatic diplomacy and widely remembered for his historic contribution to Taiwan’s democratisation, passed away on 30 July 2020. This article is part of a special issue of President Lee’s memorial.

Ratih Kabinawa is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia. Her main academic interest is in transnational politics and Taiwan’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia. She tweets @RatihKabinawa

Jie Chen is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia. His main academic interest is in China-Taiwan relations. His email is jie.chen@uwa.edu.au.

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