by | Jun 29, 2022 | Business and Innovation
This article first appeared in The NTNU ITSC Email Newsletter, Vol. 1, Issue 3. Powered by Ketagalan Media, the NTNU ITSC Email Newsletter brings you the latest news in Taiwan Studies worldwide, guest essays, and upcoming events. To subscribe, click here.
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Under the New Southbound Policy (NSP), a key plank in Taiwan’s national development strategy launched in 2016, the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration has sought to strengthen Taiwan’s engagement with both traditional and promising partner nations. To do so, the Taiwanese government has embraced soft power as an effective foreign policy tool to enhance Taiwan’s beneficial ties with countries targeted by the initiative.
Study programs (via both academic and mandarin courses), humanitarian support, development assistance, and tourism promotion are among notable policies adopted to enhance the image of Taiwan in the region. With a special emphasis on “people-oriented, two-way exchanges, and resource sharing”, the NSP aimed to establish sustainable exchanges and expand Taiwan’s foothold in New Southbound countries, especially those in Southeast Asia.
Liberal values and economic advantages
As Beijing’s intimidation in Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, has grown, businesses and people in the region have switched their interest from China to Taiwan, which has many cultural similarities with China and has emerged as a strategic hub for next-generation technology and a leader in the global supply chain. Taiwan’s unique identity, with multilateralism—characterized by a cultural blend of “Chinese, Austronesian, Japanese and Western influences”, and liberal democratic values, has attracted Southeast Asian businesses and people. This positive trend is further buttressed by the fact that Taiwanese new immigrants from Southeast Asian countries have sought to embed their identity in the Taiwanese society while viewing themselves as the natural bridge between Taiwan and their homelands. In the post-2014 Sunflower Movement, Southeast Asian countries have become more sympathetic with Taiwan as most of them have long grappled with maneuvering under the shadow of the giant neighbor, China.
Taiwan’s advantages, such as the cultural landscape, safe and healthy working environment, and convenient public transport, have been highly valued by Southeast Asian visitors. Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a total of 2.42 million citizens of Southeast Asia visited Taiwan in 2018, approaching the number of arrivals from China, according to the National Immigration Agency. As pointed out by the Ministry of the Interior, this surge of visitors from Southeast Asia is due to “a host of measures enacted under the NSP such as the easing of visa regulations,” and the streamlining of the visa application process.
Southeast Asia would potentially continue to hold strategic value as an economic hub and political gravity in the Indo-Pacific, where great- and middle-powers like the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and India have been targeting. The economic potential and human resources possessed by Southeast Asian countries have enhanced the strategic advantage of the region. As many Taiwanese firms have long been deeply involved in Southeast Asian countries, Taiwan has pragmatic interests in deepening ties with these countries. When facing continuous pressure from Beijing’s authorities, Taiwan has sought to foster its linkages with Southeast Asian countries to reduce its economic reliance on China.
Soft power and education
To foster its soft power in Southeast Asia, the Tsai government needs an upgrade of the NSP, with which Taiwanese enterprises, students, and civilians should be encouraged to have a better understanding of the cultural landscape, business environment, and languages of targeted Southeast Asian nations. Each country in the 655-million region has its unique characteristics, with its own languages, customs, and business habits, which cannot (and should not) be generalized. For years, this has been a great challenge for those seeking to have a comprehensive understanding of Southeast Asia. Should Taiwan be serious about enhancing its soft power in Southeast Asia, Taiwan needs innovative and creative approaches to fully understand the dynamics of cultural and societal characteristics of its neighboring countries.
As for educational cooperation, the number of Taiwanese students choosing to pursue educational and career opportunities in Southeast Asian countries is quite low. Hence, the Taiwanese government should navigate this shortcoming by incentivizing academic exchanges between students, researchers, and scholars from both sides, especially those from Taiwanese educational institutions. As students coming to Taiwan through the NSP’s education programs are mainly from Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, “countries that are home to substantial ethnic Chinese populations and with which Taiwan already maintains deep ties,” Taiwan should engage students from other potential countries, such as Thailand and the Philippines.
Since the initiation of the NSP, educational ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries have grown rapidly. Before 2016, Taiwan had cultivated cross-exchange educational programs and coordinated projects with Southeast Asian universities, but those projects were far from being integrated into a broader foreign-policy framework. To solve this issue, the NSP laid out common goals and platforms aimed at forging closer linkages between educational universities and institutions in Taiwan and those from Southeast Asia.
For instance, after the launch of the NSP, Cheng Shiu University(CSU, 正修科技大學)has encouraged more Southeast Asian students to pursue their studies at the university and signed MOUs with educational institutions in ten ASEAN states. Since 2017, CSU has kept up the momentum by sending Taiwanese students to Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia for internship jobs. After their graduation, some students decided to stay and work in these countries, thus serving as a bridge between Taiwan and local companies.
Pop culture, cuisine, products, social networking
Additionally, the Tsai administration should link popular culture, beautiful landscape, historical values, local cuisine, and product brands of Taiwan with its businesses to enhance the overall image of the nation. Economic benefits are important for any nation; however, sustainable values should be prioritized and be based on comprehensive engagement and clear-cut orientation for sustainable cooperation. As Beijing’s image declines due to its coercive diplomacy, Taiwan should utilize this chance to explore diplomatic innovation to promote its image and reputation in neighboring countries. Taiwan needs to have more effective dialogues with businesses, NGOs, and local communities, potentially by jointly organizing cultural festivals to introduce Taiwanese multilateral society, its transnational pop culture, and Mandopop, to audiences in ASEAN nations.
In order to deepen Taiwan’s visibility in Southeast Asia, Taiwan should also make good use of online media and social networking to promote its image and values to not only the governments and the local industries but also the citizens in those countries. Scholars have pointed out that Taiwan’s soft power in Southeast Asia is not very well-known when compared with cultural exports from Japan and South Korea. Additionally, the NSP is not popular in Southeast Asia as ASEAN governments have refrained from raising Taiwan’s flagship policy publicly for fear of upsetting China. Hence, Taiwan should look into the strategies of Japan and South Korea as good references—that is, embracing the linkages among the Taiwanese governments, the Taiwanese enterprises, and Taiwan’s pop culture to promote Taiwan’s brands, commodities, cultural advantages, and national image.
Southeast Asia is of strategic importance for Taiwan as investments in the region and people-to-people ties with ASEAN nations help Taiwan lessen China’s influence on the island. In general, Taiwan’s investment in ASEAN member states has been promising. Nevertheless, trade should not serve as the sole pragmatic leverage. Instead, the nurturing of reciprocal cooperation on the basis of soft power engagement should be a “strategic card” embraced to forge Taiwan’s cooperation with ASEAN nations. The Tsai administration has done a good job of enhancing trade ties with Southeast Asian countries. And the time is ripe for a new thrust toward Taiwan’s soft power projection in the region.
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