Setting an Example: Taiwan’s Role in Southeast Asia

    Posted on: 2016-06-19

Setting an Example: Taiwan’s Role in Southeast Asia

Taiwan has a lot of soft-power and it can set an example in southeast Asia through its new Southbound policy and other policies. It requires that Taiwan can take an engaging and mutually beneficial approach and embrace this opportunity. Also, Taiwan needs to be better known in Southeast Asia and to forge connections with ordinary citizens throughout the region in order to succeed. Therefore, Taiwan needs far better public diplomacy policies than we have seen so far. Taiwan can set an example in East Asia but there is a lot of work to do.

By Dr Michael Danielsen, Chairman of Taiwan Corner

Talk given at the European Parliament Conference to Discuss Minority Rights and Regional Cooperation in South East Asia organized by UNPO


When I was asked to give this talk about Taiwan setting an example in Southeast Asia and its role, I first asked myself what does it mean to “set an example”.

When you say that someone is setting an example, you are basically saying that one behaves in a way that should be or will be imitated.

This common definition is, of course, no surprise to any of you. It is common knowledge! But by stating it again, we remind ourselves what we are talking about then we speak of Taiwan’s example.

So the question is: “Does Taiwan behave in a way that should or will be imitated?” I will reveal my final assessment at our conclusion.

Taiwan reproduces itself, and its own understanding of its place in the world, through foreign policy actions and in the conduct of business projects abroad – just as other countries do. This is similar to a long-term relationship in which it is hard to hide your true values. Just think of your own marriages and other personal relationships.

So then, what role does Taiwan have, both currently and ideally? What are the important areas for Taiwan to be involved in?

Playing a role through the new “Southbound policy”

In the years to come it will be interesting to see how Taiwan reproduces itself through the southbound policy recently announced by Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ing-wen and her DPP government.

For a start, a Southbound Policy Coordination Office has been established at the Presidential Office, to be headed by former foreign minister James Huang of the DPP. In addition, a dedicated think-tank has been established.

The policy’s stated aims are “to promote economic, human resources, education, tourism and agricultural exchanges” to boost what it calls multilateral relations with Southeast Asian nations.

In it is outset the policy appears driven by trade ambition and an attempt to mitigate and diminish Taiwan’s economic overdependence on China.

However, James Huang has used the words “a new partnership”. This is key because it opens for an opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation.

James Huang said the new policy sees “people at its core”. What this mean is not clear to me except for cooperation in education.

The actual policy substance of this people to people element or, indeed the role of civil society is to my knowledge still being worked out.

Actual Policies

Panel about Taiwan at the UNPO conference.

Panel about Taiwan at the UNPO conference.

Let me to try to be a bit more concrete on how Taiwan can set an example.

I will not go into details with the commercial side of the policy. But I note that if Taiwan pursues its trade interests only it will still reproduce its values such as reliability, transparency and high standards through business projects. It should however be very careful not to reproduce its current poor labour standards.

Far more importantly, I believe that Taiwan has potential to set an example in education. This can bring people together in East Asia and Taiwan.

Education is an important means of promoting people to people contact. Student exchanges can generate lifelong attachments between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The National Taiwan University System (NTU System) is considering opening branches in Southeast Asia and allowing Southeast Asian students to have a degree from Taiwan or having an education in Taiwan.

If Taiwan wants to make a real difference compared to other countries, I feel we need to look at what is not yet mentioned, at least to my knowledge, in the southbound policy.

Taiwan can make huge difference by supporting civil society in the various Southeast Asian countries by having dialogue with civil society groups in concerning political and environmental issues, and minority rights.

The Sunflower Movement protests in Taiwan in 2014 is a concrete example showing how Taiwan was able to handle civil society protests in a largely peaceful and orderly way. Most recently, the DPP government has dropped charges against 126 people who occupied a main administrative building on the basis that is was a political matter rather than a criminal one. This is positive signal on how democracies should behave when political disagreements are deep.

Political NGOs in the civil society can work together in Southeast Asia. I understand, for instance, that the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) would like to work with Taiwanese groups.

The point is that this will create a network of people that can benefit both Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Taiwan can be a centre for civil society development.

Civil society can be a vehicle for breaking barriers and rigid forms of cooperation between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries.

Engaging directly with civil society groups and movements can be politically sensitive in some parts of Southeast Asia. Here cultural exchanges may be the better starting point.

Transitional justice in Taiwan may be an issue that can inspire other Southeast Asian nations. How does a former opposition handle the legacy issues remaining from an authoritarian past? This is very current, as recently the opposition in Taiwan gained a majority in parliament for first time in the nation’s history. As an example, the process of dealing with the KMT’s illegal assets is now being treated in Taiwan. It is my expectation that it will go relatively smoothly and be based on constructive negotiation rather than mere force of state power.

Reform of the legal and judicial systems are other big challenges for Taiwan that can inspire other nations. Following, for instance, severe criticism from international experts in 2013 Taiwan will go through some much needed reforms. There is also a need make a full implementation of UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights including ensuring the democratic rights of foreigners on short stays in Taiwan. Taiwan should avoid banning innocent Europeans from entering Taiwan as happened, for example, to a German citizen in March 2013.


Democracy is under pressure around the world and in East Asia. Taiwan can be a nation that can set an example showing the benefit of a free society, simply by the way Taiwan behaves at home.

I feel assured that Taiwan over the coming years will show how to turn around the negative developments in press freedom that have happened over the past 8 years under the former KMT government.

The recent Freedom House report showed that journalists feel pressure to self-censor and media companies are wary of upsetting China. The delay in the proposed law against media monopolization and mere discussion of designated areas for the press during demonstrations show a worrying development.

Reporter Without Border Press Freedom Ranking - 2004 - 2016

Reporter Without Border Press Freedom Ranking – 2004 – 2016

Reporters without Borders have reached similar conclusions. If we look at the figure here it shows that Taiwan’s recent rankings in the freedom index from Reporters have not been impressive.

The Rights of women is one issue on which Taiwan can set an example and on which Taiwan has made great progress. As are also the rights of minorities such as LGBT people. It is not unlikely that Taiwan over the next two years will have same-sex legal marriages or legal partnerships. This will send a signal of hope for the future to such minorities in Southeast Asia . Taiwan may be able to beat Thailand or Vietnam in being the first country in Asia to make this step. By connecting LGBT civil society groups Taiwan can play a progressive role in Southeast Asia.

Taiwan is not perfect. Unfortunately, the DPP government does not want to abandon the cruelty of capital punishment, despite its own policy platform and its full majority in the parliament. I feel assured that the EU to will put pressure on the DPP government, as it did on the former KMT government.

Influence through Self-Denial

Settings examples and playing a role can be seen as problematic if it is not promoted and implemented in spirit of cooperation and in a spirit of what is needed in times of globalization. The pressure from globalization tends to lead us to a focus recognition of ourselves and local identity.

That made me think about an idea in the book “The Son of East Asia” written by the Taiwanese intellectual Tsai Pei-Huo, and published in 1934.

According to Tsai, Taiwan could work to be East Asian through self-denial by having a focus on asserting no differences between them and us. What Tsai Pei-Huo tried to say is that all countries can be sons of East Asia without a hierarchy between them. It could be a way of avoiding conflict by becoming a family of East Asia. At his times he, of course, focused on peace between Japan and China.

Discussion'Taiwan is obviously no threat to Southeast Asia and can therefore show that it can embrace all East Asia through self-denial and engagement with mutual benefits. East Asia needs cultural understanding, development of democracy, stronger institutions and a stronger civil society. This can at the same time increase the awareness of East Asia also in EU by becoming even more visible.

China will not like such an approach creating a stronger Southeast Asia because it will put pressure on its own dominating position. Beijing will see it as anti-Chinese endeavour.  But such developments could be beneficial for the rest of Southeast Asia. And there is no reason that China should have its way in everything.


Taiwan has a lot of soft-power and it can set an example and can take an engaging and mutually beneficial approach if it embraces this opportunity.

Taiwan needs to be better known in Southeast Asia and to forge connections with ordinary citizens throughout the region in order to succeed. Therefore, Taiwan needs far better public diplomacy policies than we have seen so far.

So yes, Taiwan can set an example in East Asia but there is a lot of work to do.