Why Is the Revitalisation of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy So Pressing?

Written by Huynh Tam Sang

Image Credit: 9.18 總統接見「106年(回曆1438年)回教朝覲團」 by 總統府/Flickr, License: CC BY 2.0

Adopted by President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, the New Southbound Policy (NSP) has helped fortify Taiwan’s international standing and promoted the spirit of “Taiwan helps Asia, and Asia helps Taiwan.” In recent years, the NSP has facilitated Taiwan’s participation in the Indo-Pacific society. At the same time, they ensure that Taiwan could get on board with other regional and middle powers, like China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia, which have been forging their ties with Southeast Asian countries. 

In 2020, the “Taiwan to South Association” was established and became the first southbound organisation initiated by a private sector. The association aspired to support the NSP and promote economic and trade cooperation, talent exchange, and capital with the eighteenth NSP countries. After five years of implementing the NSP, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in April 2021 that the policy helped Taiwan extend its strategic outreach, generating mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation for Taiwan and its Southern partners. 

No matter how aspiring and ambitious the strategy may seem, Tsai’s government is falling short of comprehensive communication between policymakers and policy observers. Recently, there has been condemnation from the Chinese Nationalist Party over the Democratic Progressive Party’s failure to make the NSP work in line with Taiwan’s overall foreign policy. It goes without saying that the NSP is mostly discernible among scholars and policy watchers. International analysts even find it hard to access the NSP thoroughly.

First, many fail to recognise the reciprocal relationship between Taiwan and its New Southbound partners. People are likely to shift their attention to economic and trade activities, considering these linkages as essential ties to diversify Taiwan’s economic reliance on China. However, people-to-people interactions—I.e., investment, culture, education, and political ties—stay at the central picture of Taiwan’s NSP, making the NSP much more of a comprehensive strategy than merely a strategy oriented towards trade and investment ties with Indo-Pacific countries. The oversight of noticing the scope of the NSP can undermine the nucleus of the policy.

With the NSP, the Tsai’s government promoting mutual assistance between Taiwan and Asian countries, making “sharing and helping” the strategic nature of the self-ruled island’s connections with Asian partners. Indeed, the NSP has five flagship programs, consisting of economic and trade cooperation, resource sharing, regional links, talent exchange and cultivation, and young leaders’ engagement. This five-dimensional strategy focuses on nudging Taiwan towards countries in Southeast Asia to safeguard Taiwan’s status in these countries. 

Having embraced “people-oriented, two-way communication, and resource sharing” as its core goal, the Tsai administration encouraged students’ internships at Taiwanese companies located in Southern countries to enhance their understanding of these nations’ cultural and business environment. Thus, these students would serve the bridging role between Taiwan and their visited countries after their homeland return. Furthermore, after their graduation, they are incentivised to engage further with Southeast Asian markets. 

Second, the NSP has been mistaken when considered as a grand design solely employed to navigate the cross-Strait relations. By framing this strategy as the vehicle for helping Taiwan manage its relations with China, observers tend to neglect the island nation’s independent and strategic posture. It is the nature of the NSP that aimed to align Taiwan’s role in Asia and expand its economic and political footprint in NSP countries. Failing to recognise Taiwan’s strategy of fostering its engagement with Asian countries can undermine Taipei’s broader scope of navigating its manoeuvring space. However, many people are likely to evaluate Taiwan’s NSP by leaning on its economic relationship with the mainland. This misunderstanding may be due to the lack of thoroughness and clarity of the policy statements provided by the central government over the past few years.

Too much attention on the economic aspect of Taiwan’s NSP may be due to the overreliance of Taiwan’s trade on the Chinese market, with China and Hong Kong representing 40.1 per cent of Taiwan’s overall trade in 2020. In addition, Taiwan’s economic diversification of commercial relationships has been forced, and ASEAN is now Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner after China, with a total trading turnover of $890 billion last year. However, this trading volume is still modest when compared with that of Taiwan and China. And the cross-Strait economic interdependence is likely to continue given Taiwan’s geographical and cultural proximity with China and the intertwined ties of the two economies. Thus, despite Taiwan’s efforts to internationalise its society and business, the gravitational pull of China’s economic weight and hard power still holds.

Two deep misunderstandings about the NSP could impede the Tsai government’s efforts to leverage the policy amid the Sino-US strategic competition and a new surge of Covid-19 in the island nation. Thus, five years on from the implementation of the NSP, it’s high time the Tsai administration came up with a comprehensive clarification on the NSP’s premise and the scope of its implementation. 

Most of the current literature on the NSP are traditional-Chinese. To widen the audience of this grand scheme, the Taiwanese government should encourage the engagement of NSP scholars, who could promote their research on the NSP and have their works published, both in their mother language and English. This task seems to be a must since, let’s take the case of Vietnam as an example, most Vietnamese people have little knowledge of the NSP. Moreover, Vietnamese civilians sometimes find it is demanding to tell the political and cultural differences between Taiwan and China. Hence, Tsai’s NSP successes can hardly be sustainable if the lack of awareness about the opportunities of the NSP among professionals and civilians in NSP countries continues to be a lingering challenge.

Taiwan’s National Development Council has formulated the “2030 Bilingual Country Project” to make Taiwan a bilingual nation by 2030 and to enhance Taiwan’s international competitiveness. This language project can gain new momentum if the NSP inheres in this process. Furthermore, Taiwanese scholars can promote the NSP by publishing specific dimensions of the policy, e.g., successes, challenges, and policy recommendations to enhance the NSP, on international platforms and media. In realising this ambition, the Taiwanese government should make a concerted effort towards this goal by expending more political will and capital to incentivise scholars and analysts to work enthusiastically on this long-term scheme. 

Huynh Tam Sang is a lecturer of the faculty of international relations and research fellow of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City. He is also a junior fellow at Taipei-based Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

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