Written by Josie-Marie Perkuhn.

Taiwan’s new foreign policy agenda, simply put, is to build sustainable relations. Yet, Taiwan’s foreign policy role is facing a new normal.

Since the election of Donald Trump, questionable signals have come from the US government on the issue of free trade and traditional security alliances. Likewise after Brexit, the Taiwan Friendship Group within the European Parliament will be reduced significantly owing to the departure of the United Kingdom’s MEPs, further reducing Taiwan’s space internationally.

As witnessed in the case of Panama last year, Beijing’s economic power and leverage is being used to place increasing strain on Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic relations. Amid rising tensions in Southeast Asia and with concerns over a potential conflict in the South China Sea, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (新南向政策 Xin Nanxiang zhengce, NSP) is already under threat.

The prize for Taiwan, if successful, is substantial. Closer economic ties between Taipei and the 18 countries of Southeast Asia, including India, Australia and New Zealand, is ambitious and from the perspective of Taipei, given China’s growing economic power, desperately needed. Sustainable relations with the above listed nations would safeguard Taiwan’s economic autonomy and prosperity and may even add a new dimension to Taiwan’s domestic identity debate. That is why President Tsai terms the new relations “substantive cooperation” (實質合作 shizhi hezuo.

In early 2016, when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power, president Tsai Ing-wen moved quickly to launch the NSP. The notion of a ‘southbound’ outlook is nothing new, as several academics in Taiwan have argued. What is new, vis-à-vis Taipei’s diplomacy, is the move to go beyond economic ties and foster cultural exchanges and people-to-people relations with Taiwan’s neighbours.

The governmental webpage on the New Southbound Policy states:

The NSP “has been adopted in order to identify a new direction and a new driving force for a new stage of Taiwan’s economic development, to redefine Taiwan’s important role in Asia’s development, and to create future value.”

Besides expanding existing economic ties to different sectors of the economy, the NSP is also seeking to enhance educational cooperation (人才交流 rencai jiaoliu) in terms of science and technology and seeks to provide public goods (資源共享 ziyuan gongxiao) among the various trading states. As previous stated, the trait underlying the NSP is to reroute Taiwan’s trade away from mainland China and diversify regional ties in order to strengthen Taiwan’s autonomous role in the Asia-Pacific.

President Tsai’s vision of ‘substantive cooperation’ goes beyond adaption strategies, related to changes in the international environment. Foreign policy role changes either indicate a strategy of adaptation or reveal shifts in the role holder’s conceptions. In this manner, the NSP is a substantial role changer for Taiwan.

Based on this understanding, the argument goes as follows: The New Southbound Policy affects Taiwan’s self-conception in order to provide a more beneficial role towards the countries of interest. Thus, the NSP provokes in turn a long-term change to the self-conception, which leads to more sustainable relations with the addressed partners. In consequence, alterations within Taiwan’s identity will eventually show. Beneficial, yet venturous: Why is that?

Identity-wise, Taiwan is increasingly flirting with nations to its south. In turn, this means Taiwan’s identity is moving away from East Asia and the mainland. Indeed, if the NSP is successful, deep and long-term relations will create an overlapping identity with regard to Southeast Asia. After a period in practice, the new turn to sustainable relations within Southeast Asia will inflict Taiwan’s identity conception in return.

The aspired goal for Taiwan is not too dissimilar to a European identity, with a shared consensus among the member states of the NSP. The question is, whether these shifts guarantee the sustainability needed for Taiwan’s diplomatic relations. Would a shared, yet newly created, identity among members of the alliance prevent another Panama?

Among the NSP partners, Taiwan is one of the most competitive and innovative countries, currently ranked at 15th in position by the World Economic Forum (WEF)

Innovation functions as a driver for the NSP cooperation, which supports Taiwan’s function as an economic role model. Innovation beyond economic incentives hwoever provides attractiveness for countries to support Taiwan and build sustainable relations with one another. However, the innovative for-runner position is basically derived from Taiwan’s long-term ties along with the Western world it identifies with and the beneficial position Taiwan holds within East Asia. In contrast to v-blog propaganda, historically speaking, Taiwan’s is deeply entangled rather with East Asia than South East Asia. Thus, it is highly questionable if identity-wise the conception of an innovative role model finds followers among the NSP partners.

This new twist in Taiwan’s identity might challenges cross-strait relations and domestic politics alike.

The effect of Tsai’s foreign policy role for Taiwan is already being felt. The NSP creates an Asian identity away from “Chinese-ness.” Which sounds like a plan for the long-term goal to strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic status in the world, it might bring a lot of unintended trouble to Tsai’s leadership. Why is that? Chinese culture roots much deeper in Taiwan’s present culture. It goes far beyond party borders. Besides any economic gain, over the past decades the people to people exchange with mainland China increased steadily. Since the restrictions in 1982 were first lifted and finally loosened in 2008, especially private relations increased.

While numbers of business travellers kept steady, mainly tourists travelled south for Taiwan. This indicates how deep-rooted social relations remained. The cross-strait relations are going way back in history, far beyond the day-to-day quarrel of politics. The very unique condition of the cross-straits relations has become significant for Taiwan’s present collective identity in the process of self-identification. Domestically speaking, the governmental attempt to detach this part of Taiwan will provoke disturbance within the bureaucratic body and affect the diplomatic conduct in correspondence with the new foreign policy role.

Closer diplomatic relations for Taiwan under the New Southbound Policy, however informal, will also pose challenges beyond the traditional concerns regarding cross-straits relations.

Ever since Xi came into power in November 2012, he has sought greater control over policy making tools, including foreign policy. Left of the step-by-step policy (taoguang yanghui 陶光養晦) is Xi’s march for centralized power: The impersonation of Mao Zedong accumulates power step-by-step. In the future, this might severely effect cross-strait relations. Given the prospect that Taiwan not just economic-wise but identity-wise emancipates: What will Beijing do, if Taiwan ever further drift from the mainland? At this moment, Taiwan’s government is well advised to keep a low profile in diplomatic relations and build bonds for the future under this radar while being very cautious and self-aware about the reverse-effects of induced identity changes.

As of now, the key regional players are consumed by the tumult in the international environment. The danger of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula involving the United States, China and Japan has created a beneficial window for the NSP to develop under the strategic radar. This and other tension overshadow cross-strait relations and impacts more widely Asia’s security infrastructure.

The most challenging unintended side effect of the New Southbound Policy affects Taiwan’s role as mediator. While in the crossfire, Taipei holds the unique middleman position in mitigating East and Western interests concerning Asian security infrastructure. Yet again, this role grounds rather on Taiwan’s Chinese identity traits.

Given the changing international environment in Asia, especially regarding Sino-American relations, time is crucial for Taipei. Most recently, Taiwan’s government confirmed the cooperation with longstanding partners and positions itself alongside with them.

For example, Premier Lai promoted on March 3rd 2018 Taiwan’s participation in diplomatic exchange platforms and reaffirmed Taiwan’s foreign policy role as mediator in East Asia. This is a role, President Tsai strongly emphasized at the Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue, held by the Ketagalan Forum on August 8th 2017. While lots of attention and funds are being shifted towards new partners under the NSP and this trend might come with an even higher price of identity loss.

Taiwan is in need for sustainable relations, yet, if the social and economic incentives given under the NSP will speed up the process or create unintended side effects is to be revealed in the future.

Josie-Marie Perkuhn is a PhD Candidate of Heidelberg University. She studied Political Science and Chinese Studies in Heidelberg, Shanghai and Chengdu. Her recent research on the PRC and International Relations brought her 2014/2015 to Tsinghua University, Beijing, and as Taiwan Fellow 2017 to the National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taipei. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.



  1. Taiwan’s existence depends on its relations with China and with the United States. Unfortunately, China behaves overbearing towards Taiwan and the United States are unreliable. So it is quite reasonable for Taiwan’s government to look out for opportunities to develop close relations with other nations.

    However, those other chosen nations would have to be major powers to lessen Taiwan’s dependence on the United States for protection and would have to offer large economic opportunities to lessen its dependence on trade with China. Does the New Southbound Policy satisfy these requirements? Partially, at best.

    None of the South-East Asian states would want to strain its relations with China just for the sake of good relations with Taiwan. Taiwan simply is too small a partner compared to large and powerful China.

    Might the New Southbound Policy extricate Taiwan from its extensive integration into the Chinese cultural and social sphere while integrating it into South-East Asian culture? There are substantial Chinese minorities in most of South-East Asian nations. Therefore, a cultural and social reorientation might not pose much of a stretch for the Taiwanese.

    However, as long as Taiwan cannot get out of its precarious position in relation to China, I cannot imagine that there is much of a role for it as a mediator on the international stage. Who would respect Taiwanese advice while Taiwan itself is muddleheaded about its own place in the world?

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