On May 20, 2016, as Tsai Ing-wen addressed the world for the first time as Taiwan’s president, she outlined an international policy vision clearly intended to drive the country away from its reliance on China and toward the rest of the world. Taiwan, she said in her inauguration speech, was ready to pursue its New Southbound Policy – her signature plan for engagement with South and Southeast Asian states – and share its expertise and democratic values with an international community that, by and large, only recognizes Beijing.
“Taiwan will be an indispensable partner for the international community,” Tsai said.
Tsai, who is seeking a second term as president in Saturday’s elections, knew this would always be a hard sell. Only 22 countries had diplomatic relations with Taipei at the time; today, that number has dwindled to 15. Beijing has campaigned to poach Taipei’s allies and to pressure international organizations and corporations to exclude Taiwan, from the World Health Assembly to Marriott and American Airlines. The United Nations, which does not recognize Taiwan, has stopped allowing Republic of China passport holders into its New York headquarters.
The Chinese government is no fan of Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which does not recognize the so-called “1992 consensus” — considered by Beijing to be indispensable for cross-strait exchanges but by Tsai to be a gateway to “one country, two systems.” To Beijing, Tsai’s refusal to acknowledge the “consensus” is a tacit rejection of the idea of “one China,” and it has responded by limiting Taiwan’s international space and severing the official cross-strait communications that had thrived under Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou.
Taiwan, however, has shaken off the Chinese pressure and bolstered its international presence. Tsai’s New Southbound Policy received a boost from the U.S.-China trade war; the president often touts its successes on the campaign trail. And Taiwan has gathered global support, especially from the United States, for its attempts to keep a hostile Beijing at bay and preserve its sovereignty.
On the international stage, Taiwan presents itself as a more humane, democratic alternative to the deep pockets of China – as a foreign investor, a cultural partner, or an ally. But its foreign policy remains littered with human rights concerns that, as Tsai heads toward a probable victory over Kuomintang (KMT) challenger Han Kuo-yu, remain far from being solved.
Striking a “Difficult Balance”
In September 2017, one year after Tsai’s inauguration, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) inked a memorandum of understanding with Australian diplomats allowing the transfer of refugees in the offshore detention camps of Nauru in need of urgent medical care to hospitals in Taiwan.
The deal, first reported by the Sydney Morning Herald in June 2018, sparked consternation in both Australia and Taiwan, which has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. Subsequent reports by The Guardian and BuzzFeed revealed that refugees sent to Taiwan for treatment did not receive adequate follow-up care upon returning to Nauru. Taiwan was likely “very eager” to boost its international legitimacy by signing an MOU with Australia, Lowy Institute Pacific Islands Program director Jonathan Pryke told BuzzFeed. Other nations, Pryke said, would have balked at Australia’s proposal.
“We told MOFA several times it’s not a good step to [give] this kind of assistance,” said Chiu E-ling, then the secretary general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights. “It seems like they don’t care about our criticism.”
The deal with Australia illustrates the challenges Tsai has faced in expanding Taiwan’s global presence while the world does not recognize it. As Taiwan has turned away from China, it has turned toward states that are often only willing to deal with Taipei when it happens to be convenient – such as Australia, which would have struggled to find a UN member state to provide medical care to refugees in the camps of Nauru.
Taiwan has thus had to strike a “difficult balance” while cooperating with potential rights violators, said Jeremy Huai-che Chiang, a research associate at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation. The government, he said, must make judgment calls “according to what Taiwan believes and what Taiwan needs to enable ties with other countries.”
When Taiwan needs to maintain its formal diplomatic ties, it often needs cash. In May 2018, MOFA announced it would assist Haiti in securing a $150 million infrastructure loan from Taiwanese banks. A year later, in May 2019, Taiwan agreed to extend a $100 million loan to Nicaragua and its embattled president, Daniel Ortega.
Both states are among Taipei’s 15 remaining formal allies. Both, however, are also serial rights violators. Haiti has failed to protect its LGBTQ community and its press freedom under the government of President Jovenel Moise, who received a July state visit from Tsai during her “Journey of Freedom, Democracy and Sustainability.” Nicaragua, meanwhile, inked its Taiwan loan agreement shortly after unarmed anti-Ortega protestors were met with a brutal state crackdown that some estimate has taken over 500 lives. One month prior to the loan deal, then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton labeled Nicaragua a member of the Latin American “troika of tyranny.”
Nicaragua has not yet received its loan. The deal is still alive, but Taiwan has not found a domestic bank willing to transfer the funds due to fears of U.S. sanctions, said Antonio C. Hsiang, professor and director at the Center for Latin American Economy and Trade Studies at Chihlee University of Technology.
“Tsai has spoken of creating an ‘Alliance of Democratic Values’ to stand in opposition to an increasingly overbearing China,” Hsiang said, referring to a term the president has used during diplomatic visits. In the process, he said, Tsai has “rewarded” rights violators like Nicaragua, Haiti, and eSwatini, an absolute monarchy and one of the world’s least free states. King Mswati III rules all branches of national government, and critics of the king are subject to imprisonment. In 2018, the king received an honorary degree from a Taipei university, where Tsai thanked eSwatini “for speaking up for Taiwan and always being by our side.”
It has been suggested that Taiwan, under Tsai and the DPP, might not be fully committed to fighting to keep its allies. After all, they are vestiges of a Republic of China (ROC) framework the party would eventually like to replace with a “Republic of Taiwan.” This would drop the longstanding ROC claim over what is now China (and several bordering territories) and lead to a future declaration of Taiwan independence. Beijing has warned that any such move could trigger a use of force against Taiwan.
But Taiwan’s formal allies are not the only rights violators within its international network.
New Southbound Policy: Success Speckled With Rights Concerns
Tsai’s signature New Southbound Policy, which has seen Taiwan deepen ties with other Asian states, has also been perceived as a way to build more sustainable ties and nod toward a future where Taiwan can survive without being dependent on Beijing.
The New Southbound Policy has won praise for assisting Taiwanese businesses in China in returning to Taiwan – where they can benefit from government incentives – or relocating to Southeast Asian states. The initiative, announced in 2016, was also blessed by timing: The ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute has motivated Taiwanese companies to leave China and avoid high export tariffs.
“The trade war has had a very visible effect,” Chiang said. “But New Southbound Policy-related initiatives have also played an important role in encouraging and enabling that divesting.”
The policy, which was called a purely economic plan by its first director, has also seen Taiwan engage with target countries in a number of cultural, education, and health exchanges. The policy has “assisted the public to discuss more about Southeast and South Asia, enabling and supporting related civil society and business initiatives along the way,” Chiang said.
But the New Southbound Policy was missing something crucial when it was implemented: a human rights component. Local and global rights advocates raised immediate alarm bells over the omission. Still, Taiwan has never outwardly prioritized human rights in its engagements with its new partners, many of whom have their own problematic rights records.
In 2018, Taiwan arrested Ricardo Parojinog, a city councilor wanted for drug crimes in the Philippines, on immigration fraud charges. The previous year, his older brother and 15 others were killed in a police raid that authorities called an anti-drug operation but opposing politicians said had worrying “implications on democracy.” Taiwan, over the objections of rights advocates, deported Parojinog to the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has urged police to kill drug suspects without due process.
Angelito Banayo, the Philippines’ top representative in Taipei, thanked Taiwan days later for deporting Parojinog. In the same interview with Taiwan’s state-run Central News Agency, Banayo lauded the New Southbound Policy for creating trade opportunities between the Philippines and Taiwan.
This year, students in Taiwan on New Southbound Policy work-study exchanges alleged on multiple occasions they had fallen victim to scams and been forced to worked long hours in factory jobs. In one instance, a personnel agency threatened to terminate their scholarships and charge a $1,000 penalty should they display a “bad attitude.”
“A lot of improvement is still needed,” Chiang said, and as students continue to come to Taiwan, “the government and other related entities should strive to make their experiences positive, or at least free from exploitation.” Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has said it is working to end the work-study scams.
Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan continue to face rights abuses while working as caregivers, fishermen, and factory workers amid concerns the government has not mobilized multiple departments to address the problems, instead assigning them to small agencies at the subdepartment level that are often tasked with representing both labor and industry interests.
The New Southbound Policy has increased the social recognition of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan, Chiang said, a trend especially prominent among the younger generation and university students.
It has also “created a much needed strategic framework for Taiwan’s foreign policy to transform,” he said, eschewing a laser focus on cross-strait exchanges and creating a “more balanced imagining of the country’s external outreach.”
Taiwan’s foreign policy “needs to be back on the offensive,” Chiang said. “I think the New Southbound Policy and Tsai’s diplomacy with like-minded countries have really galvanized people.”
Tsai is hoping to enter a second presidential term with a strong mandate to continue her engagement with neighboring countries and driving Taiwan’s foreign policy and trade away from the cross-strait paradigm. It represents a golden chance for Taiwan to commit to an ethics-based foreign policy with a strong human rights component in trade and other exchanges, along with the domestic implementation of international rights standards. Tsai, should she win re-election, will have considerable room for improvement.