Bo-jiun Jing


Over the past three decades, Taiwan has seen continued and expanded engagement with Southeast Asia. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, under LEE Teng-hui’s presidency, the Republic of China (hereafter, R.O.C. or Taiwan) started to pursue a set of “Go South” policy initiatives to deepen its ties with the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), aimed at securing the island’s political and economic interests in the region.

This monograph attempts to analyze Taiwan-ASEAN relations from a variety of perspectives: political development, economic cooperation, and cultural engagement, as well as the related dynamics with mainland China. The main argument contends that, on the political and economic fronts, there are two major determinants in calculating the effectiveness of Taiwan’s engagement with Southeast Asian countries. The first factor is Taiwan’s economic influence vis-à-vis mainland China. In the early 1990s, the significant Taiwanese investment and trade presence in Southeast Asia provided leverage and opportunities that Taiwan needed to enhance political ties with ASEAN countries. However, after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, Taiwan’s relative economic prowess in Southeast Asia steadily declined while mainland China started to actively bolster its trade and investment ties with the region.

The second factor is the overall status of cross-Taiwan Strait relations (hereafter, cross-Strait relations). Cross-Strait peace and stability arguably create more space for Taiwan to engage Southeast Asian countries. When the Taiwan Strait was relatively stable during the first half of President Lee’s tenure between 1988 and 1994, Taiwan augmented political relations with Southeast Asian countries. When President MA Ying-jeou promoted cross-Strait peace between 2008 and 2016, Taiwan also made remarkable strides in improving relations with ASEAN countries and strengthening people-to-people connectivity with the region. In contrast, Taiwan encountered more obstacles to “Go South” when cross-Strait relations deteriorated from 1995 to 2000 under Lee’s presidency and from 2000 to 2008 under CHEN Shui-bian’s.

On the cultural and people-to-people fronts, this monograph argues that Taiwan holds copious amounts of soft power assets through its academic exchanges and developmental assistance programs. Consequently, Taiwan can wield greater soft power in Southeast Asia if it continues to mobilize these resources and expand existing initiatives. Measures, such as further strengthening higher education and tourism ties with ASEAN countries and proactively offering technical assistance and humanitarian aid to the region, can help Taiwan increase its image abroad and in turn promote the island’s interests in Southeast Asia.