Taiwan government teams up with NGOs on Southbound Policy
Taiwan on Aug. 8 launched the TAEF which President Tsai Ing-wen expected will spearhead efforts to forge relationships between Taiwan and the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, six South Asian countries, New Zealand, and Australia on all fronts under the policy.
Along with the establishment of the national think tank was the formation of the Asia Engagement Consortium (AEC), an interdisciplinary alliance of think tanks and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have long been devoted to helping the people in the 18 countries and to connecting Taiwan with the region.
In a recent interview with CNA, Hsiao said that the TAEF's mission is to further develop or expand the role of Taiwanese NGOs and other private-sector organizations in the work of integrating Taiwan into the region through interpersonal connections.
The AEC is initiated with the aim of pulling together private-sector forces to foster "comprehensive" interactions between Taiwan and the target countries and to contribute to "inclusive" prosperity in the region, in line with the New Southbound Policy, he said.
To begin with, the TAEF has identified five aspects of private-sector exchanges -- cultivating young Asian leaders, civil society connectivity, think tank collaboration, cultural exchange, and regional resilience, Hsiao said.
The five initiatives will complement the four flagship programs undertaken by the government -- innovative industries, talent cultivation, agriculture, as well as medicine and health -- to realize the goals of the policy, he added.
To consolidate the energy of private sector forces into promoting such exchanges is not a means to any hidden agenda, but "an end in itself," Hsiao said.
Through these exchanges, Taiwan can share its experiences in strengthening such shared values as human rights, democracy, pluralism, gender equality with New Southbound countries, make more friends and increase its visibility, he said.
The AEC currently has six member organizations. They are the Prospect Foundation, Taiwan Alliance in International Development (Taiwan AID), Center for Southeast Asian Studies at National Chengchi University, Taiwan ASEAN Studies Center at Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER), Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), and National Culture and Arts Foundation.
Down the road, Hsiao said, the TAEF will further enlarge the AEC with more member organizations, such as the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and the Center for Vietnamese Studies at National Cheng Kung University.
In the interview, Hsiao displayed a map that shows the 110 projects operated by the members of the Taiwan AID in 16 of the 18 New Southbound countries, with the exception of Singapore and Bhutan. "Taiwan's NGOs have engaged extensively in the development of the region over the years."
Their presence has been a positive force for good, but they often got lost in the shuffle of the government's policy agenda toward the region, which during the previous administrations, had primarily focused on trade and investment without envisaging the NGOs as playing a synergistic role in growing Taiwan's stature, Hsiao said.
As the government's think tank and as a mechanism to enable private sector organizations to play a greater advocacy role in advancing the New Southbound Policy, the TAEF will help move the causes the NGOs have been promoting up the government's policy agenda, he said.
As an example, Hsiao said that the TAEF and the Taiwan Association of Third Sector Research will co-host a one-day roundtable seminar on Oct. 20 to discuss issues such as brokerage system, wages, and human rights violations facing migrant workers in Taiwan. "We hope to provide the government with advice on improving the workers' rights."
"Charity begins at home," Hsiao said. "We have to make sure that migrant workers and foreign spouses (from Southeast Asian countries) receive decent treatment in Taiwan. That should be part of the New Southbound Policy, not separate from it."
In another area of concern that has an effect on Taiwan's overall image in the region, Hsaio talked about the behavior of Taiwan-invested enterprises.
If corporate behavior of Taiwanese investments in the region is a major factor that influences local people's perceptions of Taiwan, they might have "mixed feelings" about Taiwan, said Hsiao, a renowned pioneer in East and Southeast Asian studies.
They might welcome the job opportunities created by the investments but they might not like the businesses that much because they might have been left with an impression that the companies were there solely to take away profits, Hsiao said.
In partnership with the CIER, the TAEF will conduct a research project aimed at making policy recommendations for the government on how Taiwan-invested businesses can hold themselves to high standards for their operations in terms of pollution control and labor protection, to be "a good business neighbor" in the region, he said.
The long list of the TAEF's initiatives includes an artist exchange program between Taiwan and Vietnam, an idea to expand the TAITRA's expos to showcase Taiwan's products to include the work of Taiwan's civil society, and a journalist program.
Despite the limited budget of NT$37 million (US$1.2 million) for the TAEF's annual operation, together with the AEC partners, Hsiao believed that they will "rebrand Taiwan" because "the vibrant civil society is one of Taiwan's greatest strengths."