How Taiwan Could Capitalize on its New Southbound Policy

By Truston Yu (Picture: Wikimedia)

20 May 2020 marked the inauguration ceremony of Taiwan’s reelected President Tsai Ing-wen, signaling a continuation of her New Southbound Policy (NSP), which engages eighteen countries, including the ten ASEAN member states. This article looks into the Southeast Asia section of the NSP, exploring the narratives and actions Tsai may take if her administration is determined to deepen ties with this region.

Tsai was first elected in 2016, succeeding Ma Ying-jeou, who served two terms as president. Within months after her election, she rolled out the New Southern Policy to deepen ties with South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. Spanning across eighteen countries from India all the way to New Zealand, the NSP coincides with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. It is however, a comprehensive policy directive – ranging from trade and technology to cultural exchanges and talent development. Notably, there are four strategic links: Soft power links, Supply chain links, Linking regional markets, People-to-people links.

Certain challenges are facing Taiwan today. To begin with, Taiwan is rather late in the game compared to its Northeast Asian neighbors. Japan has long played a significant role in modernizing Southeast Asia; China has been stepping up its Belt and Road Initiative which started in 2013; even South Korea has firmly established its presence in mainland Southeast Asia long before President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy in 2017.

Even more fundamentally, Taiwan is not a widely recognized country, and Beijing has been rather aggressive in depriving Taipei of diplomatic recognition. Cambodia and Laos, which have been China’s closest partners in Southeast Asia, would likely pose an obstacle towards ASEAN engagement with Taiwan. Therefore, unlike Hong Kong, a unified policy within ASEAN for engaging Taiwan would be immensely difficult.

An often overlooked issue would be Taiwan’s stake in the South China Sea conflict. As a party to the dispute without official diplomatic relations with the others, Taiwan’s involvement adds to the complexity of the issue. The U-shaped line drawn on the South China Sea, otherwise known as the nine-dash line, actually began as the eleven-dash line proposed by Nationalist China before Chiang Kai-shek’s government moved to Taipei. Communist China simply inherited these claims, making slight modifications with regard to the Gulf of Tonkin.

Beijing naturally overshadows Taipei in the South China Sea dispute. Still, if the Nationalist faction were to prevail and retain control over China up till this day, they would be the one at odds with the ASEAN member states.

If Taipei is to demonstrate amity towards the ASEAN member states and willingness to participate in a rules-based international order, it would be wise for them to renounce the claims of its predecessor regime: it was already ruled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration to be inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Philippines v. China).

Despite the above obstacles, there are certain advantages that are unique to Taiwan. In the context of the South China Sea, Taiwan has set an example for the world with its conservation efforts on Dongsha Island. While the militarization of the South China Sea has often been associated with environmental destruction, the Dongsha Atoll houses a well-equipped scientific center that welcomes researchers and provides them with amenities for fieldwork. This has been dubbed by regional analysts as “coral diplomacy”.

Taiwan is one of the Four Asian Tigers, and many developing countries see their growth as a model to emulate; The cutting-edge semiconductor industry is one of Taiwan’s most unique advantages. This year, Taiwan has come under attention for their incredible performance in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. “Taiwan can help, Taiwan is helping” is the narrative they are currently presenting. In the second wave of mask diplomacy, over a million masks were donated to NSP countries.

Perhaps the unique advantage for Taiwan in engaging Southeast Asia would be the intricate links between the two places. They share a lot of historical connections, leading to two potential narratives in the present day: the Austronesian connection and the Chinese connection.

For Southeast Asian archaeologists, the biggest significance of Taiwan would probably be the “Out of Taiwan” model. A group of scholars believes that the Austronesian populations migrated South from Taiwan. Indeed, in terms of geographical distance, the Island of Taiwan is only some 700 kilometers from Luzon of the Philippines, even shorter than that between Jakarta and Indonesia’s new capital city.

Taiwan is home to sixteen officially recognized indigenous groups, which are ethnically akin to the populations in the Malay Archipelago. On one hand, archaeologists studying Southeast Asia would be amazed by the similarities between these populations; On the other hand, Bruneians, Indonesians, Malaysians, and Filipinos may be intrigued by the culture of the Taiwanese indigenous.

Southeast Asia is home to one of the most significant foreign Chinese populations, many of which are of Hokkien descent, closely related to the Taiwanese Chinese community in terms of language and culture. Some of the older generations of Chinese Southeast Asians still have ties with the Kuomintang or affiliated entities in Taiwan. Because of these connections, Taiwan is an incredibly familiar destination for the “Nanyang Chinese”. This connection extends to the present through popular culture: The 2001 Taiwanese TV series Meteor Garden gained massive popularity in Southeast Asia, while several famous Southeast Asian artists such as Namewee from Malaysia and JJ Lin from Singapore have been based in Taiwan. On this note, it is worth considering how pop culture from Taiwan constitutes a facet of soft power, albeit not as powerful as the Korean Wave – again, this is an aspect which Taiwan could capitalize on in the context of the NSP. The above examples show how the Chinese connection serves as a bridge between Taiwan and its neighbors to the south.

Indeed, the modern definition of “Southeast Asia”, primarily determined by ASEAN membership, is a somewhat arbitrary construct. The interpretation of “Southeast Asia as connectivity” looks at this region not only from a geographical aspect but the spheres of influence and trade with Taiwan, South India, and Southern China as well. Philip Bowring’s “Nusantaria” is an embodiment of this paradigm, stretching from Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) all the way to Formosa (Taiwan today). Under this framework, Taiwan can be seen as a part of Southeast Asia.

To further build up soft power in Southeast Asia, it is in Taiwan’s interest to show their willingness to abide by a rules-based international order. Regardless of the specific steps taken by Tsai, Taiwan is already headed towards greater interactions with Southeast Asia. However, they may even take it a step further to advance new narratives of Austronesian and Chinese connections. Not only would they bring Taiwan closer to Southeast Asia, but this also puts Taiwan within Southeast Asia itself. For Taiwan, the positive impacts are manifold – in addition to economic gains and greater security through building relations with multiple countries, it also consolidates their contribution towards the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and Southeast Asia’s external relations. They could be reached at their e-mail:

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