How is Taiwan leading an alternative development approach in Asia-Pacific?

Published on 29 March 2019

Mainland China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its implications for progress against the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs) often dominate discussions about development in the Asia-Pacific region.  Indeed it was the focus of a high-level event co-hosted by IDS and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) last week at Wilton Park. However, other approaches to development are emerging in the region. Of particular interest is Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP), the response of a small island with a well-developed high-tech sector, robust economy, diverse culture, but disputed political status to global development trends and complex political dynamics. But what is unique to the Taiwanese approach to development and how does it compare to the policies of its bigger and more powerful neighbour Mainland China?

08.14 「同慶之旅」總統出席台灣-巴拉圭科技大學揭牌儀式,於致詞時表示,相當高興的是剛下飛機第一站,就來主持「臺巴科技大學」數學及英文先修班的開課儀式,見證臺巴在教育領域的合作成果‘, 總統府. CC-BY 2.0

What makes Taiwan look South?

Determined to lessen dependence on Mainland China, diversify its economic ties and boost Taiwan’s regional integration, the newly-elected president Tsai Ing-Wen announced NSP as the main foreign policy direction under her administration in September 2016. It was directed at Taiwan’s development cooperation with 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region including the ASEAN countries and India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Australia and New Zealand.

Taiwan has a number of reasons for its particular interest in turning towards its southern neighbours. The first is Taiwan’s unique geographic location: positioned at the crossroads between Northeast and Southeast Asia, Taiwan is true to its catchy tourism slogan of “The Heart of Asia” as a destination to visit and live in. Secondly, unlike any of its neighbours, Taiwan’s socio-cultural fabric consists of 22 million Han Chinese, about 550,000 Taiwanese aboriginals, 680,000 migrant workers (mainly from Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia; see here for a summary about recent migrant labour protests in Taiwan), and around 150 000 foreign spouses from Southeast Asian countries. These demographic changes are influencing a new Taiwanese identity and how Taiwanese perceive themselves and their relationship with Southeast Asia. Lastly, the complex relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and disputed political status of Taiwan led to its aspirations for a distinctive national identity and recognisable regional and international image.

NSP and China’s Belt and Road Initiative – similarities and differences

As the PRC and Taiwan are each pursuing their political agendas on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait, in a way, they are doing so for similar political motives: promotion of national interests, boosting regional integration and tailoring their own national images. Taiwan also uses the NSP to strengthen its de facto sovereignty and diplomatic legitimacy. However, Taiwan’s NSP is rather different from BRI not only in the areas and projects prioritised but also in the way in which projects are being implemented.

Weighing up its strengths and weaknesses, Taiwan chose to avoid large-scale infrastructure projects and substantial capital inflows into NSP partner countries – elements characteristic of the BRI and quite hard (if necessary at all) to outcompete. Instead, Taiwan opted for playing a “soft policy” card and using a “warm power” approach, with people-to-people diplomacy and grassroots economic and cultural ties the cornerstone of NSP. Inclusiveness, openness and cooperation are used as the words to officially characterise the spirit of Taiwan’s new foreign policy.

What projects are taking place under NSP?

Agriculture, public health, technology and industry, disaster relief, education, small and medium enterprises (SME) engagement, and tourism are key focuses of NSP. Specific projects within these areas are diverse including training to farmers, pest management, epidemic prevention, talent development through scholarship programmes and academic youth exchanges, small-scale public infrastructure projects, foreign direct investments (FDIs), and simplification of visa regimes. The NSP also builds on already established religious ties formed through disaster-relief efforts by the Buddhist Tsu-Chi Foundation and aims to create Muslim-friendly travel environments.

With the variety of projects under NSP and engagement of all ministries in its implementation, Taiwanese government is trying to ensure that Taiwan gets to share its best practices in various spheres and promote a human-oriented approach to development where education, culture and SMEs are being put at the forefront of the policy.

NSP talent development projects: potentials and limitations

In the overall spirit of NSP it is not surprising that talent development is central, which potentially offers new opportunities to Taiwanese universities to recruit students from South and Southeast Asian countries. Taiwan provides good quality education at an affordable cost (as compared to Western countries), well-equipped labs and classrooms, safe campus and city environments, studying Chinese language and culture in a country where English is also a widely spoken language, overall political stability, and values of a liberal democratic system and cosmopolitan society. Empowered with such a marketing kit, several Taiwan universities have already engaged in NSP by establishing contacts, visiting academic institutions in NSP partner countries, and promoting the image of Taiwan as a study hub.

Where next for Taiwanese development?

This initial stage of implementation has also revealed some notable barriers and challenges that NSP needs to address further. These include:

– some nations have strong diplomatic ties with the PRC and are therefore cautious about any liaison with Taiwan (Laos being one example) and getting in the crosshairs of cross-Strait relations;

– intra-regional trends which include the erosion of democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia, presenting a tricky balance for actors engaging with Southeast Asia, including Taiwan;

– talent development programmes provided by Taiwan Ministry of Education and Taiwan universities only offer a limited number of scholarships, which struggle to compete in their number and amount of financial aid with those offered by the PRC;

– poor general knowledge about Taiwan, which is either associated with being a part of the PRC or mistaken for Thailand (probably due to similarity in pronunciation);

– language barrier where most countries view Taiwan as a purely Chinese speaking country, while studying in an English speaking environment is of a major priority for most South and Southeast Asian students.

All in all, Taiwan’s NSP is certainly an interesting development phenomenon unfolding in the Asia-Pacific region, the gains and impacts of which may be seen with time. However, its slogan “The Heart of Asia” encapsulates aptly not just the geographic location, but its human-oriented approach to development and international cooperation.


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