Thinking South


Indonesia is an emerging Asian power with which Taiwan is building closer ties on the back of more frequent exchanges between think tanks from both countries. (Photo by Li Dong-ming)

The New Southbound Policy is fostering expanded exchanges between think tanks from Taiwan and those in the 18 countries covered by the government initiative.

Last November in Taipei City, academics, government officials and lawmakers from Taiwan and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) took part in a forum organized by Taipei-headquartered Prospect Foundation, The Habibie Center and Indonesian Council on World Affairs—both based in Jakarta—under the auspices of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Launched in 2016, the Taiwan-ASEAN Dialogue serves as a platform for participants to discuss ideas and opinions on issues like economic cooperation, humanitarian assistance and talent cultivation. Its value in enabling broad and open exchanges between Taiwan and the regional grouping, which is the country’s second largest trading partner and export market, was highlighted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in her opening address at the one-day event.

In addition to thanking the organizers for their efforts in getting the initiative off the ground, Tsai pledged to promote greater collaboration between local and overseas think tanks so all parties can develop a deeper understanding of respective economic, social and political situations.


Supporters of the Mumbai Indians experience virtual reality cricket at a booth run by Taiwan Excellence, one of the Indian Premier League team’s official partners for the 2017 season, at the 33,000-capacity Wankhede Stadium. (Photo by Central News Agency)

Laying Foundations

Such a commitment reaffirms the readiness of the government to integrating public and private sector resources for developing comprehensive links with ASEAN nations, the president said. This is in line with the New Southbound Policy, which is essentially about connecting people and laying the foundations for lasting friendships, she added.

A central plank in the government’s national development strategy, the policy seeks to deepen Taiwan’s agricultural, business, cultural, education, trade and tourism links with the 10 ASEAN member states, six South Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand.

Prospect Foundation CEO Lai I-chung (賴怡忠‬) said by emphasizing people-to-people exchanges, the government is in lockstep with a growing chorus in Taiwan society for the country to reshape its identity and assume a bigger role in the family of Southeast Asian nations. “This is in keeping with the arrival of more and more migrants from the region.”

Taiwan has experienced significant growth in immigration from Southeast Asia during the past several decades. According to the Ministry of the Interior, over 150,000 of the nation’s more than half a million new immigrants hail from the region, while Ministry of Education statistics show around 123,000 elementary and junior high school students, or 6.2 percent of the total, have a parent from Southeast Asia.

New Approach

Although some label the policy as old wine in a new bottle, Lai said this is not the case. Instead of focusing on maximizing commercial benefits, “we’re learning to recognize and appreciate a wider spectrum of cultural diversity and social plurality while pursuing growth and prosperity we can share with our Asian friends and partners.”

A board member of Taipei-based Taiwan Thinktank, Lai appreciates that these kinds of interactions and substantial relationships are best cultivated and enhanced through regular contacts and talks. In a recent report on the policy by a research team set up in September last year by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), it was suggested this could take the form of an expanded version of the dialogue.

Comprising nine scholars and experts including Lai, the team is headed by Hsiao Hsin-huang (蕭新煌), a distinguished research fellow with the Institute of Sociology at Taipei-based Academia Sinica—the premier academic institution in the ROC. Hsiao is also a senior adviser to Tsai, who herself wears a second hat as chairperson of the DPP.

An option is to organize international forums on the New Southbound Policy so as to monitor and promote the development of related exchanges and collaborations between Taiwan and Asia, according to the report. “These could be scheduled annually and involve leading opinion shapers from the 18 countries covered by the policy,” Hsiao said. “What is needed is a research institute devoted exclusively to the New Southbound Policy so as to influence government policymaking and cultivate connections among similar institutes from abroad.”

Hsiao sees the local academic sector as potentially making a significant contribution to the foundation. “Although scholars lack the analytical expertise of think tank staffers, they can still provide valuable input upon which key recommendations can be made,” he said.


Workers at a garment factory owned by Taiwan investors Pagoda in Yangon (Photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

High Hopes

As chairman of the executive committee of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Taipei-headquartered National Chengchi University (NCCU), Hsiao has high hopes for the facility’s future involvement in this collaborative effort. “NCCU is well-suited to such an undertaking and is also home to Taiwan’s participatory representation in the Kuala Lumpur-headquartered Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific [CSCAP],” he said.

A leading forum on security issues in the region, CSCAP has 21 full members and one associate member. Although Taiwan’s involvement is on an individual basis, this does not impact its ability to conduct regional dialogues and build connections between local and foreign think tanks.

According to Hsiao, CSEAS has made impressive headway since opening last February in sharing academic resources, cultivating young talent and building international networks. In April, the center inked a memorandum of cooperation with its counterpart at National Chi Nan University in central Taiwan’s Nantou County. Under the agreement, the institutes plan a raft of projects, including the establishment of a consortium of similar research units around the country.

The two centers are not the only tertiary education-based organizations training their sights on Southeast Asia. In March 2015, Tamkang University in New Taipei City set up its ASEAN Studies Center, wasting no time in ensuring its staffers were part of a Jakarta-bound Tamkang delegation visiting the ASEAN Secretariat, The Habibie Center, University of Indonesia’s ASEAN study center and a number of local think tanks later the same year.

Deepening Engagement

Kristy Hsu (徐遵慈), a research fellow with Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER) in Taipei who heads the government-funded think tank’s Taiwan ASEAN Studies Center, said the country exercises widespread influence in member countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam through the involvement of Taiwan businesses in regional development over more than three decades. “This is common knowledge to foreign researchers and scholars specializing in ASEAN,” she said, adding that this explains why many of them are eager to engage in cooperation and information exchanges with CIER.

Taiwan enterprises also play a similar role in India’s information and communication technology industry, according to Hsu. In a 2011-2013 study by CIER and New Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations on the possibility of a Taiwan-India economic cooperation agreement, the industry was identified as one of six exhibiting a high degree of complementarity between the two nations. The other five are automobile and auto components, distribution and retail, food processing, human resources and skills development, and logistics.

Hsu, co-leader of the study, is firmly of the opinion that such reports are invaluable for public and private sector decision-makers, as well as underscore the need for Taiwan think tanks to develop core research competencies before reaching out to international counterparts. “In the past, South and Southeast Asia-related studies had largely been deficient in range and scale due to lack of stable funding,” she said, adding that this is extremely likely to change going forward with the advent of the New Southbound Policy.

Intellectual Realignment

Echoing Hsu’s sentiments, Lai said the time is ripe to capitalize on the increased attention and resources available for the region. “In many ways, this represents a long overdue realignment of major intellectual interest from the traditional areas of Europe, Japan, the U.S. and mainland China among emerging think tanks of the 1980s,” he added.

It comes as little surprise that developing policy forums and youth exchange platforms is among the government’s flagship projects aimed at strengthening collaboration with New Southbound Policy nations. In a recent interview with representatives of media outlets from South and Southeast Asia at the Office of the President in Taipei, Tsai told reporters she is pleased the local intelligentsia is warming to the policy.

Closer exchanges between Taiwan think tanks and those throughout the region can only lead to greater mutual understanding and more substantial relationships, she said.