Much has been said in recent months about President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) “southbound policy,” part of her administration’s goal of reducing the nation’s reliance on China. Sometimes referred to as the “southbound policy 3.0” because of previous — and largely failed — attempts since the 1990s, the plan, or at least the little that we know about it, seems to be primarily focused on trade and economics, which suggests that this could be a mere continuation of past efforts to redirect capital and manufacturing toward ASEAN members. However, focusing on trade alone would be both a mistake and a missed opportunity.

In order to make meaningful contributions, the policy will have to be more than a slogan. It must be part of a strategy. Consequently, the new Southbound Policy Coordination Office that has been created at the Presidential Office will have to adopt a multifaceted approach to engagement with this vibrant part of the world.

Although President Tsai has appointed a senior figure — former minister of foreign affairs James Huang (黃志芳) — to head the office, the jury is still out on whether this was the right choice to ensure that the office will adopt the necessary holistic approach to the task. One concern is that Huang is known to be very close to the taishang community of foreign-based Taiwanese businesspeople; unless a clear mandate is established at the outset, there is a real chance that the office will turn into a mere shop that businesspeople seeking trade opportunities in the ASEAN region turn to for assistance.

To fulfill its mandate, the office, which due to budgetary restrictions is unlikely to come online before 2017, will have to be staffed with individuals who understand the need to look beyond enrichment and who realize that Taiwan’s “pivot” to South and Southeast Asia should occur on many non-monetizable levels. Key to this will be a strategic vision that does not regard the region merely in terms of trade but instead as an opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation.

Although some of those activities may not generate front-page newspaper headlines or billions of dollars in revenue, they can go a long way in helping Taiwan develop a network of relationships with like-minded institutions within the region, especially at the non-governmental (NGO) and government-organized non-governmental (GONGO) level. Various NGOs, such as the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), are highly motivated and eager to work with their counterparts in Taiwan. The same holds for organizations dealing with disease control, humanitarian assistance, gender equality, human security, education, good governance, development, human rights, freedom of the press and so on.

For this to happen, the Tsai administration will have to empower outfits in Taiwan, and at this critical juncture staff them with people who can rejuvenate GONGOs such as the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), which for all intents and purposes has been in hibernation since 2008. New faces, people will new ideas and connections, will have to take the helm at such organizations, which just like cabinet positions are much coveted by individuals who should instead be contemplating their retirement.

With its many successes in democratization and blessed with a vibrant civil society, Taiwan can be a source of inspiration for many countries in Southeast Asia. It can do much more to encourage the sharing of ideas through exchange programs and by positioning itself at the center of such activities. That, too, should be part of Tsai’s southbound policy. This would also have the benefit of not being government-to-government and therefore would be less likely to attract Beijing’s attention in a way that compels it to pressure governments to cease all contact with Taiwan.

The southbound policy must also be approached as an opportunity for capacity building, to learn from the region. However, before this happens, many Taiwanese will have to address the inherent condescension, and sometimes outright racism, toward people from this part of the world. For far too long Taiwan has regarded Southeast Asia as either a source of cheap labor or household help, or within the business community as a manufacturing destination where labor and environmental regulations are more permissive than in Taiwan (or in China, increasingly). In other words, perceptions of the region have been largely exploitative and opportunistic. This needs to end. One role for the office will therefore be to transform the narrative and to reconfigure the region in people’s imagination as a source of ideas, as something that can be learned from. Already in Taiwan there are thousands of people from South and Southeast Asia from whom young Taiwanese who are willing to explore opportunities abroad could learn very useful languages. The same holds for efforts at the municipal level, where a lot more could be done to tap into this rich asset that already exist here.

By now the complexity of the multifaceted strategy to the southbound policy proposed above makes it clear that the Coordination Office will have to be properly staffed and headed by individuals who are ready to work very hard. In and of itself, creating a new government-level office means nothing; far too often this constitutes little more than a tactic by politicians to give the impression that they are doing something.

Mr. Huang no doubt has a tough challenge on his plate. Let’s hope he’s the man for the job and that President Tsai gives him the latitude he needs to make this endeavor a transformative one, and not merely a conduit for the enrichment of the few.


J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and a Research Associate with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC).

Edited by Edward White