How Taiwan is Helping the World by Forging Resilient Cooperation with ASEAN

Written by Karl Chee-Leong Lee.

Image credit: DSC06863 by Natsume♪棗/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Organised by Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF), the recent Yushan Forum (October 18) in Taipei was the fourth of its kind since its inauguration in 2017. While the previous themes of the forums were on social and economic connectivity, regional prosperity as well as innovation of progress, this year it was resilience that took the theme of the distinguished forum. This is difficult to understand as the current COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly demonstrated how vulnerable countries and societies in the world are when responding to the unprecedented crisis individually or in a group. Without doubt, resilience has become an essential element every country should adopt, regardless of whether it is in the field of public health or economic development.

Furthermore, the Yushan Forum 2020 has invited policymakers, business figures and non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders to explore ways to build partnerships and collaborations in the post-COVID-19 world. At the same time, it suggests innovative approaches to mitigate current challenges at the global stage. As highlighted in the Roundtable Dialogue session, the forum’s central vision is to forge a resilient future together with Taiwan as a contributory member within international society.

The ASEAN Context

Being a central focus in the Tsai administration’s New Southbound Policy (NSP), ASEAN stands to be the best ‘testing’ ground to gauge how effective the implementation of incoming resilient cooperation is and how it can be realised soon. First and foremost, most ASEAN countries require resilience-building following the COVID-19 pandemic that impacted their public health and economic development. While Taiwan has been providing many forms of assistance to individual ASEAN countries during the COVID-19 era, they do not necessarily conform to resilience-building in their vision of cooperation. As such, targeted cooperation with a focus on the principle of resilience regarding ASEAN countries is worthwhile for Taiwan to consider and implement in the post-pandemic period.

Second, relevant challenges and consequences of resilient cooperation with ASEAN countries can provide a clue to Taiwan. Such an approach can create realistic expectations and way forward for such an undertaking. As a region which has deep relations with China in the areas of trade, investment, socio-culture and politics, Beijing’s shadow looms large in Southeast Asia. As such, Beijing will likely obstruct any formal cooperation between Taiwan and ASEAN countries. Still, these challenges will be less for other NSP countries such as India and Australia. These countries currently have challenging relations with China while also recalibrating their foreign and security policies concerning Beijing. That said, ASEAN’s centrality and openness have allowed the region to possess deep partnerships with the Quadrilateral powers (US, Japan, Australia and India) as well as Taiwan. This is despite the island-state not being formally recognised by the Southeast Asian bloc.

Three Recommendations

Altogether, there are three recommendations in which Taiwan can move ahead with its resilient cooperation vis-à-vis ASEAN countries. First, Taipei must define what kind of resilience goals it expects for all stakeholders to achieve in their international cooperation with ASEAN countries. Hence, there should be two goals that drive such endeavour: functionality and sustainability.

As far as functionality is concerned, any project and program must be able to be run in an ‘auto-pilot’ mode by the local stakeholders. In other words, Taiwan has to ensure relevant state, sub-state and non-state actors in ASEAN countries will be able to operate these projects or programs once their Taiwanese counterparts complete their necessary cooperative tasks. As for sustainability, these resilience projects and programs must be affordable in the long-term. Thus, instead of pursuing large projects and programs, the goal should be about running them with the least costs for a more extended period. This will be especially important considering the tighter fiscal space suffered by ASEAN countries and other relevant stakeholders after undergoing the economically-devastating COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, Taiwan can readily tap into its existing soft power in the ASEAN region and utilise related resources for resilience cooperation with each Southeast Asian country in a wide range of sectors. To date, Taiwan possesses crucial soft power in the forms of technology, educational reputation, and sustainable development. These are categories that related to the theme of resilience. In the area of technology, Taiwan’s ‘1 Country, 1 Center’ (1C1C) program of healthcare cooperation can be expanded beyond the existing five partner countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand) into the remaining five ASEAN countries. This will ensure that all ASEAN countries can gain the most advanced medicinal equipment, medicine, and data systems from Taiwan. These are resources to be implemented by hospitals in their epidemic responses and prevention. The same will be for the agricultural sector. Taiwan can share its agricultural machinery, materials, and other related technologies (smart agriculture, big data and drone usage) to grow crops and enhance food security in ASEAN countries. With food security becoming a global crisis during the COVID-19 period, a special program devoted to cooperation with NSP countries will be particularly useful for the two aforementioned purposes.

For the education and vocational training sector, there is potential for the NSP Talent Development Program to enhance people-to-people exchanges between Taiwan and ASEAN. Not only can the former boost its already high number of ASEAN students in its educational institutions, but it can also help the latter to train the necessary talents it needs for future industries in the post-COVID-19 world. With its reputation in vocational education and training, Taiwan can expand its Flagship Program for Industrial Talent Development into every ASEAN country. It can thus ensure all Southeast Asian talents can come to the island-state, not only for short-term education and training sessions in the automated manufacturing sector but also for cross-border e-commerce as well. Similarly, Taipei can consider expanding its vocational training centres in some ASEAN countries into every Southeast Asian country in the near future ⸺ provided this will cater the different demand of the Taiwanese investors in each ASEAN nation ⸺ and seek to establish new training centres for those Southeast Asian talents looking to engage in e-commerce either as service providers or as entrepreneurs.  

Then there is the sustainable development of the Taiwanese economy that formed the resilient part of the nation’s economy. In this sense, understanding the resilience capacity of Taiwanese small and medium enterprises (SMEs) – as well as micro banks – are beneficial for ASEAN countries, given the vulnerabilities of their economic actors during the pandemic period. To be sure, relevant Taiwanese agencies, banks and companies can readily share their experiences in weathering past external shocks. At the same time, they can provide employment and poverty alleviation for society. With its unique, sustainable development, along with its beneficial impact on the country, there are important lessons which ASEAN can draw from the Taiwanese experience.

Finally, Taiwan can participate in important infrastructure development projects through coordination with the Quad powers in the ASEAN region. As highlighted by the Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs, Chen Chern-Chyi during the Yushan Forum 2020, Taiwan is looking to cooperate with like-minded countries to a build secure and safe infrastructure, especially those related to networks and vital technologies. The recently signed Framework to Strengthen Infrastructure Finance and Market Building Cooperation between the US and Taiwan, therefore, provides a vehicle for Taipei to undertake infrastructure development in third countries under Washington’s watch of supporting quality infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific countries (including ASEAN).

Apart from circumventing China’s obstruction to its infrastructure cooperation with ASEAN countries, Taiwan’s participation in the Quad-driven infrastructure development agenda also strengthens its resilience cooperation outlook. Hence, with Taiwanese stakeholders’ involvement, they can provide less costly semiconductors and other components for the Quad-driven infrastructure projects in the ASEAN region ⸺ such as 5G networks and big data development ⸺ but without compromising their overall quality. In this context, Taiwan’s resilience cooperation with ASEAN takes an indirect route by providing semiconductors and other components vital to these regions’ infrastructure projects. Should Taiwan be able to coordinate separately with Japan, Australia, and India, it will gain even more opportunities as a participant of the Quad-driven infrastructure projects in ASEAN countries.

All in all, these are the three recommendations that can help Taiwan to focus and strategise its resilience cooperation with ASEAN in the post-COVID-19 world. Certainly, TAEF’s resilience vision has the potential to allow Taiwan to play its part in building resilience among ASEAN countries. This would be a resilience not limited to public health responses against COVID-19. Indeed, it could also help in mitigating the economic fallout from national lockdowns in response to the pandemic. With targeted cooperation centred on resilience-building, Taiwan can help ASEAN more than what it is doing now.

Karl Chee-Leong Lee, a Malaysian recipient of Taiwan Fellowship 2020, is currently a Visiting Fellow of Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), National Chengchi University (NCCU). His primary interests are China’s sub-national diplomacy in relations to ASEAN countries, comparative cases of sub-national diplomacy in the world (with a focus on the international participation of Malaysian states) and most recently, Taiwan’s soft power in Malaysia.

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