‘Bringing Back Transnational Relations’: Non-State Actors in Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy

By Ratih Kabinawa

Drawing from Risse-Kappen’s seminal book and his framework of domestic and international structures, this article explains Taiwan’s long-standing engagement with non-state actors in promoting its foreign policy objectives in Southeast Asia via a case study of the New Southbound Policy (NSP). After enjoying some success in maintaining semi-official contacts with Southeast Asian countries during the cross-Strait relation détente, the election of Tsai Ing-wen compelled Taiwan to bring transnational relations back into its foreign policy. In 2016, Taiwan’s newly elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, introduced a foreign policy flagship that stressed the essential role of people-to-people diplomacy in promoting Taiwan’s foreign policy objectives in Southeast Asia. The policy aims to nurture and cultivate interest from societal networks consisting of businesspeople, students and alumni, migrant workers, and epistemic communities.

Considering the distinct characteristics and pattern of relationships between the state and non-state actors, how and why has the Taiwanese government incorporated non-state actors in its foreign policy? In a paper that I wrote for the 18th Annual Conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS) 2021, I argued that changes in Taiwan’s domestic and international structures influenced the state’s strategic decision to incorporate non-state actors in its foreign policy. The shift in domestic structures was marked by promoting democracy and building a distinct Taiwanese identity. Meanwhile, the changing of international structures refers to adopting the one-China policy in the 1970s that paved the way to international isolation.

The engagement of non-state actors in Taiwan’s foreign policy began as early as the ROC settlement in Taiwan in 1949, and the practice continues until today. However, during Chiang’s administration, non-state actors’ participation was limited to the overseas Chinese. Taiwan’s authoritarian government structure impeded further access and involvement of non-state actors into the state’s political system, resulting in weak civil societies compared to the state’s power. The Chiang administration utilised the overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia to support the ROC’s diplomatic battle against the PRC and raise nationalist support for the ROC and anti-Communist sentiment among the overseas Chinese.

The appointment of Lee Teng-hui as the ROC president in 1988 by the National Assembly marked the transition in Taiwan’s domestic structures from state-dominated to society-dominated. President Lee immediately began national reforms to transform Taiwan into a democracy and took a careful approach in promoting ROC-Taiwan’s new identity as a separate entity from China. By advocating democracy and Taiwan’s identity, Taipei aimed to reduce its ties with the Mainland. It opened new opportunities for non-state actors to participate in Taiwan’s transnationalism in Southeast Asia. First, the Taiwanese government encouraged Taiwanese businesspeople to invest in Southeast Asia via Taiwan’s Southward or Go South Policy. Second, Taipei imported migrant workers from Southeast Asia in 1991 to diversify the composition of foreign labours in Taiwan. This structural transformation continued to facilitate the practice of transnationalism in Taiwan’s foreign policy after 2000.

In the ‘consolidation era’ (2000 – present), political parties and presidents have their own approach to dealing with Taiwan’s domestic and international structures. Their differences eventually influence the initiatives taken by the government in utilising non-state actors. The KMT had more opportunities to conduct semi-official contacts with Southeast Asian governments generated by the party’s accommodative policy towards Beijing. The state, therefore, utilised non-state actors to complement this limited state-to-state diplomacy. Meanwhile, the DPP administration took pro-active engagement and utilised non-state actors by developing various new policy initiatives. This pattern was particularly pertinent during Tsai’s period where Taiwan actively promotes democracy and Taiwanese national identity in its foreign policy platform. Under Tsai, Beijing also stepped up its aggressive approach against Taiwan and left Taipei with little room to manoeuvre via official channels or contacts with regional governments in Southeast Asia. Under these conditions, the used of non-state actors to promote foreign policy became pronounced.

From 2016, Tsai used Taiwan’s prestige as a democracy to invite people from the NSP target countries, including from Southeast Asia, to come to Taiwan to study or work. For example, Taipei listed one of its comparative advantages in its education promotion plan as having a “modern, free, democratic society whose people are hardworking, fun-loving, and friendly”. These values level up Taiwan status among its global education competitors, including Beijing. It also differentiates Taiwan from Beijing by advocating the narrative that there is a democratic country adjacent to China where people also speak Mandarin but offer a democratic, friendly environment for students to study and enjoy free speech without fear of persecution or censorship. This promotional strategy is in line with Tsai Ing-wen’s inaugural remarks that depicted Taiwanese democracy as a way of life.

Besides promoting democracy, the NSP has also been used to support the realisation of Taiwan as a multicultural society. Taiwan has designed various new policy programs under the NSP to increase the number of Southeast Asians living, working, and studying in Taiwan. The aim is to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on China because workers, students, and businesspeople from China present a threat to Taiwan’s national security by helping Beijing impose its unification policy. Although people from the Mainland cost less and have fewer cultural barriers than Southeast Asians, the Taiwanese government took a conscious decision to invest in Southeast Asians, offering many benefits to students, workers, and businesspeople and allowing them to settle.

To further support the implementation of the NSP and enhance Taiwan’s understanding of Southeast Asia, the Taiwanese government also engaged with various think tanks, creating cross-border networks of society between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF), for example, was established in 2018 to support research and policy development on Southeast Asian and South Asian affairs. TAEF is actively involved in promoting ties among non-state actors’ networks, including think tanks, NGOs, and young leaders between Taiwan and the NSP target countries. Another think tank to work on promoting the NSP is NextGen Foundation. This think tank supports Taiwan’s inclusiveness in the region via the NSP and runs dialogues and research programs that help improve Taiwan’s understanding of the NSP target countries. Taiwan also increased the number of centres of Southeast Asian Studies in its universities to enhance the learning of Southeast Asian languages and cultures.

In addition to the changing of Taiwan’s domestic and international structures, democratisation in the Southeast Asia region has led to the growth of vibrant civil society in the various regional countries, which opens more window for Taiwan’s transnational diplomacy and activism to flourish. Therefore, Taiwan-Southeast Asia transnational relations help Taiwan promote democracy and its national identity in the region, improve Taiwan’s visibility in Southeast Asia, and generate solidarity with its Southeast Asian counterparts. Achieving these foreign policy objectives is essential for Taiwan’s international survival as a nation-state.


This article originally published in taiwaninsight.org, 22 April 2021

Ratih Kabinawa