Taiwan–Myanmar Relations within the Framework of the New Southbound Policy

In: International Journal of Taiwan Studies
Kristina Kironska Senior Researcher, Project ‘Sinophone Borderlands: Interactions on the Edges’, Department of Asian Studies, Palacky University Olomouc, Olomouc, Czech Republic,

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This article combines the study of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy with a case study of Taiwan–Myanmar relations from a perspective of political relations, economic cooperation, and Taiwan’s (un)recognisability in Myanmar—i.e. Taiwan’s soft power in Myanmar. The first part of the paper introduces the policy and compares it with the previous ones, and sheds light on Taiwan’s motivation to engage with Myanmar. It considers the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, due to which investment relocation from China is expected to sharply increase. The second part of the paper provides an insight into the relationship between Taiwan and Myanmar after Myanmar’s state-led political transformation from military rule and economic liberalisation since approximately 2010. It explains the main aspects and determinants of the relationship between two countries that share a neighbouring potential hegemon which they both wish to balance against.

1 Introduction

This research1 delves into Taiwan2–Myanmar3 relations (from a Taiwan-centric perspective) within the framework of the New Southbound Policy (xin nan xiang zhengce), a multifaceted foreign policy focused on expanding Taiwan’s presence across the Indo-Pacific, put forward by the Democratic Progressive Party (dpp)4 President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016.

The paper provides a brief analysis of this policy, as well as a comparison of similar southbound policies by previous Taiwanese governments. The research on the New Southbound Policy is complemented with a case study on Taiwan–Myanmar relations.

The article suggests that President Tsai Ing-wen’s Southbound Policy will, more than the previous southbound policies, enhance Taiwan’s soft power and increase the island’s presence in Southeast Asia, but it will not succeed at counterbalancing the cross-Strait economic integration. While diversifying Taiwan’s economy remains crucial, the Tsai Ing-wen administration believes that cultivating interpersonal connections is also necessary for the effective integration of Taiwan into the region (Glaser, Kennedy, Mitchell & Funaiole, 2018).

At a moment when the United States has put forth its Indo-Pacific Strategy and South Korea its New Southern Policy, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy reinforces Taiwan’s narrative of an alternative Chinese model and emphasises equal partnership with other countries in a two-way sharing of resources. The policy emphasises the use of soft power and the so-called ‘warm power’ (further explained in Section 2.2) to persuade and co-opt others to pursue Taiwan’s interests in international relations.

Myanmar’s recent state-led transformation from military rule and economic liberalisation creates new opportunities for Taiwan. This paper asks: what is the main motivation for Taiwan to approach and engage with Myanmar? Moreover, what are the main aspects and determinants of a fruitful relationship between the two countries? The main argument is that, just like Taiwan, Myanmar also wants to balance against China, a potential hegemon in the region, and is looking for new partners. However, Myanmar is a country with many restrictions still in place and investing in Myanmar may not bring any immediate results in the short term.

To answer the proposed research question, a qualitative approach based on observation, document study, and interviews was chosen after careful consideration of the literature (Babbie, 2011; Flyvbjerg, 2001; Somekh & Lewin, 2004). The qualitative data for this research does not actively manipulate the phenomena under investigation. The approach to data collection and analysis is methodical but allows for greater flexibility than in quantitative research.5

There is a lack of previous research on the topic. Furthermore, government-issued brochures and leaflets on the New Southbound Policy and its progress, such as the 2018 Progress & Prospect: Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy brochure published by the Office of Trade Negotiations, Executive Yuan, and Bureau of Foreign Trade at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, do not provide much information on Taiwan’s cooperation with Myanmar. Instead, these materials focus mainly on prioritised countries, among which Myanmar clearly is not (Du Plessis, 2018).

It is thus through interviews that the researcher can best access participants’ interpretations of events. For this study, 30 non-Chinese Burmese people from the Yangon area were interviewed for the purpose of analysing the (un)recognisability of Taiwan/Taiwanese in Myanmar. These included Taiwanese businesspeople and people working for various companies that are currently living or have lived in Myanmar, several representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the roc (mofa), Taiwan External Trade Development Council (taitra), and Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (teco) in Myanmar, as well as other experts relevant to the field of study, such as Taiwanese journalists and researchers. Participants were handpicked on the assumption that they represent valuable cases for the study (purposive non-probability sampling), relying on the author’s personal connections to establish initial contact and then using the ‘snowball’ method to recruit more respondents. The interviews were all conducted in English as one-to-one discussions in a semi-structured way with open-ended questions. Each session typically took about one hour. Some critical information obtained during the interviews was verified by triangulation, a method using multiple perspectives to interpret a single set of data.

Securing interviews with relevant Taiwanese government stakeholders turned out to be very time-consuming and, ultimately, there were fewer interviews than had originally been planned.

2 Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy

The New Southbound Policy was introduced by the dpp in September 2015 during the presidential election campaign, at the party’s celebration of its 29th anniversary at a reception at the Far Eastern Hotel in Taipei, and later became the flagship programme of President Tsai Ing-wen. The policy originally envisioned directing Taiwanese investment into 18 countries6 in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, and was designed to go beyond economics, with trade and investment being only one component of a diverse and multifaceted partnership based on strong interpersonal, cultural, educational, and research linkages.

The policy was introduced at a time of slowing economic growth and rising wages in China, while investment opportunities in Southeast Asia were booming. Tsai Ing-wen, the dpp’s chairwoman and presidential candidate at the time, said: ‘asean and India are poised to become two of the world’s largest economic bodies. Strengthening our overall relations is a natural choice for Taiwan as we diversify our economic and trade ties’ (Tsai, 2015).

The policy is an outcome of an increasingly globalised world and a more intricate geopolitical and geo-economic environment. The rationale behind the policy is threefold: an expected rapid economic growth of South and Southeast Asia in the coming decades and China’s economic slowdown; Taiwan’s desire for greater and more diversified regional participation; and complicated cross-Strait relations with a deepening economic dependence on China. To date, more than 40 percent of Taiwanese exports and more than 70 percent of its investments pass through China (Chiang, 2019). Taiwan’s economic development has in recent years relied on China to a relatively large extent; China has for years been Taiwan’s largest trade partner (Albert, 2020). The New Southbound Policy’s aim is to gain a strong foothold in Southeast Asia’s fast-growing economies, diversifying Taiwan’s economic relations beyond China.

With the dpp in power, Taiwan abandoned the hedging strategy pursued under former President Ma Ying-jeou and moved towards increasingly more amicable relations with the United States. During President Ma’s presidency, Taiwan was a hedging partner of the United States, with security reliance on the US and economic dependence on China. President Tsai’s aim is to reorient Taiwan economically and enhance the regional connection with Southeast Asian states in areas of soft power, supply chains, regional markets, and people-to-people contact (Yan, 2016). The policy seeks to simultaneously promote Taiwan’s international participation in regional integration (through agricultural, cultural, educational, technological, and economic assets) while maintaining stable cross-Strait relations. Although it is expected that Taiwanese corporations choose alternative locales away from China to build manufacturing facilities, the New Southbound Policy should not be seen as a choice between moving southwards (South and Southeast Asia) and moving westwards (China).

Taiwanese governments have long expressed their willingness to be included in regional groupings. Despite being a major economic power in the Asia-Pacific region and an important trade partner in the world, Taiwan has been restricted from bilateral or multilateral economic cooperation, for example within the Association of Southeast Asian National (asean).7 Nevertheless, the New Southbound Policy treats asean as an extension of Taiwan’s domestic market. asean has been pushing for regional integration for almost five decades and the asean Community is now of strategic importance to Taiwan with its 600 million people, over US$6 trillion in gdp, and US$4.5 trillion in trade volume (A. H. Yang, 2016). Myanmar is a member of asean and with the reform process that started after 2010 (or even 2003, when taking into the account the Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy) is an interesting new market for Taiwan. Besides this, Taiwan has a substantial number of Southeast Asian communities, including the Burmese, living in the country.

It is now imperative for Taiwan to engage further with the asean Community and deepen ties with Southeast Asian societies. The New Southbound Policy may not be able to create a formal participation of Taiwan in these regions’ official economic arrangements but could link Taiwan to these regions and improve the country’s strategic position.

2.1 Looking Back at Previous Southbound Policies

Previous regimes in Taiwan have since the 1990s drafted strategies to approach Southeast Asian countries. The first wave of southwards-looking strategies started in 1993 with the Go South Policy (also called Southward Policy) introduced by President Lee Teng-hui of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, kmt).8 It aimed to position Southeast Asian states as a strategic alternative to the Chinese market and redirect Taiwan’s capital from China to Southeast Asia. This was to be achieved through investments from kmt-affiliated and state-run companies in Southeast Asia and foreign aid flows to targeted countries.

According to Alan H. Yang (2018), the Go South Policy was a hedging strategy. Taiwan was economically stronger than China at the time,9 and therefore China was unable to fully preclude Taiwan from economic interactions with asean members. Southeast Asia was, however, still subordinate to cross-Strait relations and Taiwan’s engagement in the region was politically limited by the One-China principle.

After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, during his second term as president, Lee Teng-hui mistook the crisis for an opportunity. Among other undertakings, the Lee administration created a holding company called the Southeast Asia Investment Company to conduct mergers and acquisitions in asean (Glaser et al., 2018). A few opportunistic companies took advantage of Southeast Asian firms in financial trouble, but all in all, the crisis largely deterred major investments (Glaser et al., 2018). Although the president urged Taiwanese businesses to invest in Southeast Asia, the crisis scared most of them away from Southeast Asia and to China, which had then just implemented the second stage of market reforms.

The second stage of the southwards-looking strategy began in 2002 when dpp President Chen Shui-bian attempted to reintroduce Lee Teng-hui’s Southbound Policy. This proved ineffective during a period of post-global financial crisis when China’s economy and domestic market were expanding rapidly. Taiwan’s investment in asean steadily grew throughout the 2000s, but in 2009 it sharply plummeted from US$10.4 billion down to US$2.04 billion (Taiwan ASEAN Studies Center, 2013). According to Kwei-bo Huang (2018), Chen Shui-bian’s policy was an obvious failure since Taiwanese investors continued to perceive China as a more attractive investment destination than the countries of Southeast Asia. It was during Chen’s presidency that high trade dependence on China emerged.

In 2008, kmt President Ma Ying-jeou introduced the ‘10 + 3+1’: not a policy per se but a framework that proposed to bring Taiwan to the ‘asean+3’ regime.10 During his presidency, however, moving south was not a priority; rather, he focused on cross-Strait relations (Matsuda, 2015).

The third stage started with the launch of the New Southbound Policy in 2016. When Tsai Ing-wen took office, cross-Strait relations had a mediocre outlook and China’s political and economic influence on Taiwan had increased. On the other hand, emerging markets in South and Southeast Asia enjoyed a higher gdp growth per annum than before, among them Myanmar with 6.5 percent (World Bank, 2016). Meanwhile the economic growth of China had slowed down.

Whereas prior initiatives focused almost exclusively on trade, President Tsai’s policy is designed as a people-focused strategy aimed at incorporating Taiwan into the economic and social structures of Southeast Asia in the absence of official diplomatic ties.

2.2 Implementation of the New Policy and Outcomes Thus Far

The core goals of the New Southbound Policy include updating economic agreements with target countries and encouraging small and medium enterprises to invest overseas. According to the guidelines for the New Southbound Policy from August 2016, the project seeks to enhance links between Taiwan and South and Southeast Asian countries in the areas of economic and trade relations, science and technology, and culture; to share resources, talent, and markets; and to establish mechanisms for wide-ranging negotiation and dialogue (Office of the President, ROC, 2016).

The above-mentioned guidelines were developed by the New Southbound Policy Office (headed by Director James Huang) and were followed by the implementation phase under the Office of Trade Negotiations (headed by Minister without Portfolio John Deng). The New Southbound Policy Work Plan provided specific directions and objectives for the 11 agencies and 12 ministries that are part of the strategy.11

The ministries are responsible for allocating funds (which they receive from the Executive Yuan) for the initiative. Thus far, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Education have dedicated the largest amounts. In 2017 the Executive Yuan budgeted a total of US$131 million for the New Southbound Policy implementation, while in 2018 the amount almost doubled, up to US$241 million (Glaser et al., 2018). In 2019 the amount was very similar, at US$232 million (Chen, 2019).

In 2017, the New Southbound Policy slightly shifted to focus on collaboration in innovative industries and cooperation in medicine, youth exchange, regional agricultural development, and talent cultivation. The Office of Trade Negotiations also outlined e-commerce, infrastructure, and tourism as three potential fields of cooperation (A. H. Yang, 2017). Recently, the strategy has been revised and instead of 18 New Southbound Policy countries, there is now a focus on six priority countries: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. In the case of Cambodia, one of the original 18 New Southbound Policy countries, there has even been a step back in the relationship and Taiwanese officials are not welcome in the country due to the increasingly close alignment to China in the last few years.12

The policy, as expected, has faced many challenges. China’s enormous power remains the biggest obstacle to increasing Taiwan’s engagement with its target countries. China is the number one trading partner for most of the countries in Southeast Asia, and should China decide that Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy is inimical to Beijing’s One-China principle, it could deter these countries from cooperating with Taiwan. Even without this huge elephant in the room, there are doubts about the sustainability of the New Southbound Policy due to funding issues and the lack of strong coordination between the agencies that are engaged (Huang, 2018). Moreover, the policy has faced constant criticism from the opposition. Looking into the future, it becomes very clear that the policy can only work if there are sufficient funds, good coordination, and favourable conditions in terms of cross-Strait relations and internal politics.

With that said, the New Southbound Policy has begun to translate rhetoric into reality. Taiwanese government statistics indicate increases in tourism, education, trade, and investment. In the period 2016–2018, the number of tourists from the 18 New Southbound Policy countries showed a 58 percent growth, from 913,248 visitors to about 1.4 million. Taiwan’s total trade volume with these countries climbed from US$96 billion to US$117.1 billion over the three-year period. In addition, a 66 percent increase was recorded in foreign investment flows from the New Southbound Policy countries to Taiwan, to US$391.54 million in 2018 (S. Hsu, 2019). From 2018 onwards, asean as a bloc became Taiwan’s second largest trading partner next to China, receiving a boost of about 14 percent for exports and about the same for imports (Manantan, 2019).

Moreover, there has also been progress in some specific priority areas, such as the One Country One Centre programme, which links six Taiwanese hospitals with six Asian countries—Indonesia, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. This programme leverages Taiwan’s medical expertise into soft power and seeks to expand bilateral cooperation, hold training sessions, bolster supply chains, and work on disease prevention and regulatory harmonisation (Du Plessis, 2018).

All in all, some changes can be seen both at home and abroad. Domestically, the New Southbound Policy has helped challenge certain perceptions about other countries, reinforce aspects of Taiwan’s multiculturalism, and better accommodate the needs of other racial and religious groups residing in the country (although there remain some major issues—such as the migrant workers’ brokerage system—that need to be solved as soon as possible). Internationally, the new policy has provided a platform to partner with other countries and align strategies, namely working alongside the United States to contribute to the wider Indo-Pacific region and reinforce a positive image of Taiwan within it (Parameswaran, 2019). However, with President Trump many aspects of the US–Taiwan relationship remain uncertain.

The New Southbound Policy attempts to reinforce Taiwan’s narrative of an alternative Chinese model, founded on values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. It emphasises the use of soft power to persuade and co-opt others to pursue Taiwan’s interests.

The concept of soft power has become an important element in Taiwan’s construction of foreign policy in recent decades, especially since the Ma Ying-jeou administration took power in 2008. According to Hsiao-chu Hsu, the government’s strategy has over the years shifted from mainly emphasising economic and democratic achievements to a wider focus on building a strong cultural and creative industry, broadening education and intellectual exchanges, and deepening social networks. Human rights are key to Taiwan’s promotion of political values (H. Hsu, 2019).

Moreover, Taiwanese politicians have articulated a new term for Taiwan’s new diplomatic rationale—‘warm power’—contrasted with China’s ‘sharp power’. China’s sharp power is used to influence other countries (for example, in generating favourable public opinion) by buying and influencing both governmental and non-governmental sectors of democratic countries, including politicians, businesspeople, media, academics and students, and so forth. According to Alan Yang’s co-prosperity sphere discourse, warm power views other countries as sustainable development partners, not subordinate targets for economic exploitation. Taiwan emphasises equal partnership in a long-term sharing of resources and experiences that goes both ways (A. H. Yang, 2018). By putting forward a vision of the region as an economic community built around people-to-people ties, the New Southbound Policy rallies international support for Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty, which should help prove its self-governing capacity (Manantan, 2019).

Strong people-to-people exchanges circumvent the lack of formal diplomatic relations and facilitate various interactions, be it government-to-government relations, academic exchanges, or cooperation in the fields of agriculture and aquaculture, technology, public health, industrial chains, and talent development. Within the Southbound Policy, Taiwan has been most successful in expanding cultural and educational exchanges to help promote a better understanding of South and Southeast Asian cultures, languages, and business practices among the people of Taiwan (Glaser et al., 2018). In 2017 asean surpassed China as the major source of foreign students in Taiwan, and in 2018 one quarter of all incoming tourists to Taiwan came from the New Southbound Policy target countries (Du Plessis, 2018).

As for foreign students, both sides of the Taiwan Strait compete in attracting those who wish to study Mandarin. Taiwanese universities do so by promoting ‘the study of simplified and traditional Chinese characters in a free and democratic society’ (Glaser et al., 2018: 52). Taiwan is trying to highlight other areas of study, but there are not enough English-taught courses offered by Taiwanese universities (Windham, 2018).

Taiwan also employs more than 600,000 migrant workers from target countries, among them many Burma-born ethnic Chinese that left their native country decades ago. There is even a ‘Burma Street’ (also called ‘Little Burma’) in Taipei with signboards written in both Burmese and Chinese.13 According to the Taiwan’s Myanmar Overseas Chinese Association, there were more than 40,000 ethnic Chinese who migrated from Burma/Myanmar to Taiwan and settled around that area, and the population continues to grow with the community’s Taiwan-born second generation (Paing, 2018).

Second-generation immigrants offer important interpersonal resources that could be used to foster partnerships with Southeast Asian countries, and work for Taiwan’s government in positions that require Southeast Asian foreign language expertise. In 2016 there were almost 200,000 children of immigrants registered in Taiwanese schools (Glaser et al., 2018: 40). Under the new policy, they are being empowered to develop not only technical but also language skills by introducing Southeast Asian languages to primary and secondary schools and offering university credits for Southeast Asian languages in degrees that would typically not acknowledge such courses. Additional Southeast Asian Studies degree programmes at universities are being established across Taiwan.

2.3 Impact of the US–China Trade War on the Policy

Against China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Taiwan is actively counteracting Beijing’s moves in the region with its own strengths and own regional vision. The region is also the focus of strategies from other states, namely the South Korean New Southern Policy and the American Indo-Pacific Strategy; the latter emerged mainly in opposition to Chinese hegemony (Auslin, 2018). Besides these, there is Japan, the top infrastructure investor in the region.14 Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy aims to strengthen Taiwan’s importance and find the country’s niche within the region.

The Belt and Road Initiative and the New Southbound Policy bear a few similarities: first, infrastructure projects (China focuses on massive projects, while Taiwan on functional ones, such as water or waste management); second, financing (China has a vast financing capability, while Taiwan has a much smaller one); and third, connectivity (China advocates three ‘togethers’ and five connectivities,15 while Taiwan focuses more on soft power).16 While the Belt and Road Initiative is more focused on improving regional infrastructure, Taiwan’s projects are more about people and soft power, supporting tourism, education, healthcare, technology, small and medium enterprises, and agriculture (although there are also some infrastructure projects: power plants, petrochemical plants, electronic toll collection systems, rail transport, and environmental engineering) (Office of Trade Negotiations, 2018). For example, under this policy the Ministry of Education sponsors Taiwanese universities to go to New Southbound Policy countries, such as the Tsing Hua University and its Taiwan Education Center, to teach both Mandarin and Chinese culture at Indian universities (National Tsing Hua University, undated).

With the ongoing trade war between the United States and China since 2018—characterised by tariff threats and on-and-off negotiations—investment relocation from China is expected to dramatically increase. A recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development analysis shows that US tariffs caused a 25 percent export loss, inflicting a US$35 billion blow to Chinese exports in the US market for tariffed goods in the first half of 2019 (the study does not consider the impact of Chinese tariffs on US imports). Although Chinese firms managed to maintain 75 percent of their exports to the US, about US$21 billion in Chinese export losses was diverted to other countries (Nicita, 2019). With such developments, Taiwanese companies have showed more interest in countries such as Myanmar.

Understandably, Myanmar has eyes on the US–China trade war and wants to attract investment that has been flowing out of China, mostly to Vietnam due to its cheap land and affordable labour. However, Vietnam is saturated with competition and real estate prices and labour costs are rising. This caused a spill-over to neighbouring Cambodia, which with time could reach Myanmar. It certainly has the potential to attract labour-intensive manufacturers and retailers due to anticipated growth in the consumer retail sector.

With the increasing trade tensions between China and the United States and Taiwan’s heavy involvement in the Chinese supply chain, it is time for a diversifying strategy. Taiwan External Trade Development Council (taitra), set up almost 50 years ago to facilitate trade and promote Taiwan brands through organising exhibitions, matchmaking sessions, and publicity campaigns, conducted a study in 2019 of Taiwanese businesses in China and their outlook regarding the US–China trade war. The findings present a complex image. First, some are not affected by the trade war because they only produce for the Chinese domestic market. Second, others have adopted a hedging strategy and run key facilities in China, while simultaneously opening new ones in countries like Vietnam or Indonesia; and third, one group actually benefits from the trade war because they export to the United States through their facilities outside of China.17

In any case, this situation speeds up the diversifying strategy for Taiwanese businesses and many look to Southeast Asian countries to set up their factories there, while some consider bringing their businesses back to Taiwan. It seems that while China loses other economies gain; Taiwan has so far gained US$4.2 billion in additional exports to the US in the first half of 2019 by selling more office machinery and communication equipment (Nicita, 2019).

As for suitable Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam seems so far the most convenient place due to its geographical proximity to Taiwan and the favourable conditions, with many industrial parks already in place (ten years ago Taiwan was the number one investor in Vietnam). Vietnam is becoming overcrowded and Taiwan’s government needs to establish new partnerships elsewhere and help Taiwanese companies find new locations in other New Southbound Policy countries.

As for Taiwanese businesses returning to Taiwan, in 2019 about 80 Taiwanese companies promised to return from China to Taiwan as part of their diversification strategy. All these companies are from the information and communication technology (ict) sector and due to heavy automation do not rely on labour; instead, what these companies want is land and good infrastructural provision of key resources like electricity and water.18

3 Taiwan–Myanmar Relations

Myanmar is strategically located on a tri-junction between South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. The country covers an area of 676,577 km2 and is home to 51.4 million people, including two million ethnic Chinese. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world with 32 percent of the population living below the national poverty line (Asian Development Bank, 2019).

A brief account of the political history of Burma/Myanmar will be helpful for understanding the interactions between the two countries in this case study. Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 and until 1962 was led by a civilian government. The military took power in a coup and ruled under different names until 2010. Decades of the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ during the Cold War turned a prosperous country into one of the poorest in the region. The country was deeply impoverished and with weak diplomatic links to the rest of the world. With the seven‐step roadmap toward democracy, a new constitution, and flawed elections, the junta’s rule officially ended. In 2011 a new quasi-civilian government was established, although the Tatmadaw (military) continues to be dominant in many areas. The country is heavily influenced by its traditions with a very hierarchical society.19 The statements of parents, teachers, and leaders are never questioned.20

Taiwan and Myanmar share the same large neighbour and important economic partner that poses a threat to each of them. Just like Taiwan, Myanmar wants to balance against China, the regional hegemon. For many years, China and Myanmar were strong allies—uneven but nevertheless reciprocal and mutually beneficial. Although the Tatmadaw never completely trusted any external major power, due to isolation and economic sanctions it moved closer to China to seek both military and economic assistance. Under Myanmar’s military dictatorship up until 2009, China had invested around US$10 billion in the country (Wai, 2017). In return, China gained access to Myanmar’s rich natural resources and moved closer to gaining passage to the Bay of Bengal. However, Myanmar’s military leaders were aware of the dangers of being too close to China and in the late 1990s adopted a new strategy by encouraging industrialised states to invest in the country. With the economic liberalisation of the country, Myanmar finally managed to diversify its cooperation links. Nevertheless, China remains the most important player in Myanmar’s economy and trade. Myanmar is also an important trade outlet for China’s landlocked inland provinces, and strategically Myanmar is important for China to achieve its long-term two-ocean objective (Sun & Payette, 2017) and reduce transportation time for trade carried by sea through the Strait of Malacca.21

3.1 Political Relations

In 1949 Burma switched recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (China), effectively ending official relations with Taiwan. After a hiatus of several decades, political and diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Myanmar rekindled, although they remain somewhat limited and lately somewhat sour, mostly due to China’s insistence on the One-China principle. The latest of such statements was issued during Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Myanmar in January 2020 (C. Yang, Pan & Maxon, 2020).22 After the announcement of the Southbound Policy in 2016, Cambodia was the first state to reiterate the One-China principle and Myanmar followed. Taiwan–Myanmar exchanges have been quiet. Nonetheless, since the introduction of the New Southbound Policy, Taiwan has stepped up medical cooperation, relaxed visa requirements, and increased trade promotion missions to the country.

Looking back, Taiwan has a long historical connection with Myanmar. A significant part of Taiwan’s population came to the island from Burma in the 1950s. Many of them still have relatives or connections in Myanmar and they could become the bridges for closer bilateral relations (Gau, 2017).

Although Myanmar is not among the six prioritised countries of the New Southbound Policy, recent economic and political reforms in Myanmar have presented several opportunities to Taiwan (Liberty Times, 2016). Myanmar’s gdp growth rate has neared 7 percent over the last decade, the country boasts low operating costs and a young workforce, and many import and export companies are benefiting from the recent opening up of the country (Asian Development Bank, 2019). Burmese sectors ripe for investment from Taiwan span from agricultural machinery, through food processing, to ict and medical care.

Business exchanges had been quite common after the introduction of the New Southbound Policy until the second half of 2017, when land prices began to rise and small Taiwanese companies stopped flooding Myanmar in search of new business opportunities.23 They are now looking at Myanmar again because of the US–China trade war (Vietnam is too expensive, Cambodia too crowded, and Myanmar is thus becoming an interesting emerging market). In response to intensified links between the two countries, taitra and the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund (Taiwan icdf) set up their branches in Myanmar.

taitra set up the Taiwan Trade Center Yangon Branch in 2013 to promote business-to-business exchanges, organise trade shows, and help with overall navigation of the Burmese market. However, in Myanmar, the centre’s ability to assist seems limited, as one of my Taiwanese interviewees in Myanmar remarked: ‘This is [a] country built on relationships; [with] no relationship, [there is] no work. So, they can’t really help the company to grow in local [terms]. But they have exposure—[they organise] expos and seminars, but [they are] just not big enough.’ Meanwhile Taiwan icdf, the Taiwan’s foreign ministry-funded international aid organisation, established its Myanmar Branch Office in 2014 to assist Myanmar’s government on rice cultivation and photovoltaic and solar energy introduction, among other areas.

Since Taiwan lacks formal diplomatic ties with the New Southbound Policy countries, it must use creativity to foster bilateral cooperation. Taiwan maintains contact with countries that are not its diplomatic allies via Taipei representative or economic and cultural offices.24 The one in Myanmar, called the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (teco) in Myanmar (replacing the Taiwan icdf Myanmar Branch Office), is the eighth Taiwanese quasi-embassy in asean (as of July 2020 there are five countries in Southeast Asia that do not have any Taiwanese representation, including Cambodia and Laos). It began operation in March 2016 to provide consular services in addition to promoting exchanges between the two sides in areas of trade and investment, agriculture and fisheries, labour, education, culture, and tourism. Before 2016, Myanmar affairs were handled by the teco in Bangkok, Thailand. This constitutes a considerable change from the time when Burma/Myanmar was considered a client state of China and links with Taiwan were very limited.

In general, the teco in Myanmar focuses on investment, trade, culture, and technology cooperation (agriculture, medical, green energy), while taitra is limited to matchmaking between the two countries. Of course, China is very sensitive to Taiwan’s presence in Myanmar.25

The Myanmar government also opened a reciprocal institution, the Myanmar Trade Office, operated by the country’s Ministry of Commerce, in Taipei in 2015. Taiwan added Myanmar to the list of countries with streamlined visa application procedures and many Burmese can now apply online with no visa charge. As a result, the number of visitors from Myanmar to Taiwan has increased by more than 50 percent, from around 5,600 to 8,700 (Gau, 2017).

Prior to this arrangement, applicants had to travel to Bangkok in Thailand to apply for a Taiwanese visa and go through an interview. The interviews were meant to prevent situations in which people arrive in Taiwan and ‘disappear’ (stay there illegally). Back in 2013, Kristy Hsu, currently the director of the Department of Taiwan asean Studies at Chung-Hwa Institution for Economic Research, managed to negotiate a package visa and bring the first big Burmese delegation—50 businesspeople (a mix of locals and ethnic Chinese), including two congressmen—to Taiwan directly, without having to fly to Bangkok for an interview first.26 Before 2015, when obtaining a visa to Taiwan was difficult, the Taiwanese government allocated each country a certain amount of ‘easy’ visas per year (granted as a group visa) for overseas Chinese, including 800 for Myanmar, attending the national day—Double Tenth (i.e. 10 October)—celebration.

China Airlines, Taiwan’s national carrier, now offers five to seven weekly flights from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport to Yangon International Airport, with over 30,000 Taiwanese making the trip to Myanmar every year.27 In addition, the Ministry of Education provides scholarships to citizens of Myanmar to study in Taiwan. It is expected that with the New Southbound Policy framework such links will only deepen.

3.2 Economic Cooperation

Taiwan has since the late 1950s invested in Southeast Asian countries more than US$80 billion and facilitated the setup of labour-intensive industries such as food, plastic, and textile product manufacturing, but Myanmar was for many reasons mostly left out from this endeavour (A. H. Yang & Hsiao, 2016). Nonetheless, a few Taiwanese businesspeople ventured into Burma/Myanmar more than 20 years ago and invested in agriculture, fishery, and real estate. Since Myanmar adopted a more open economic policy in 2011, bilateral relations have gradually improved, especially in trade and investment. As of 2020 there are even two Taiwanese chambers of commerce officially registered in Myanmar.

Before 2015 there was a direct ban on trade and investment coming from Taiwan. Myanmar imposed such a ban only on two countries, Taiwan and North Korea.28 Taiwanese companies sent submissions to the Myanmar Investment Commission (mic), but they were always rejected. After many years of efforts from the Taiwanese side, the Burmese government lifted the ban (although there was never a ban in the form of an official document). Thus, in the past Taiwanese companies typically teamed up with Japanese firms to enter the Burmese market, due to China’s strong influence in the country and the good image the Japanese enjoy in Myanmar, or other asean countries (since Myanmar is also an asean country); exported to Singapore and from there to Myanmar (which then appears in the statistics as Singaporean imports); or partnered up directly with local Burmese companies.29

Now the mic receives Taiwanese submissions, but for tax reasons Taiwanese businesspeople still prefer to register holding companies elsewhere, such as Samoa, Singapore, or even China, and enter the Burmese market from there. Again, such investment does not appear in the official foreign direct investment growth statistics. The typical practice is to establish the headquarters in Taiwan and a holding company in a tax haven, mostly for tax and legal reasons. Registering companies in asean is also a common practice, since as such the company benefits from asean protection. For example, as a Singaporean or Thai company it is much easier to go to Myanmar; in case of a dispute there is a settlement mechanism within asean. Sometimes Taiwanese companies prefer to enter Myanmar as a Chinese company, since Myanmar and China are friendly towards each other.

Taiwanese businesspeople group asean into three groups, and Myanmar together with Cambodia and Laos fall into the third group of the least developed countries. These countries are used for the production of textile, footwear, and bicycle parts (mainly Myanmar and Cambodia, to a lesser extent Laos). Myanmar serves the EU market and, after 2016, the US market, while Cambodia mainly serves the EU market.30 Large electronic companies such as Foxlink have chosen to go to Myanmar rather than Cambodia since its population and thus its labour force is too small (J. Tsai, 2018).

Altogether, more than 250 Taiwanese enterprises (including 34 listed on the Taiwan Stock Exchange) have invested in Myanmar across such industries as agriculture, banking, electronics, footwear, and textiles (Her, 2019). According to the former teco head of mission in Myanmar, Chang Chin-yu, this figure is an underestimate because it does not include the Burmese people who studied in Taiwan and the joint ventures between Taiwanese and locals.31 Often, ethnic Chinese who studied in Taiwan and go back to Myanmar become agents or distributors for large Taiwanese companies operating in Myanmar or start an export-import business on their own.32 Although investors need to be aware of many challenges, namely poor infrastructure and a lack of skilled workers, incentives and relaxed regulations (such as expedited customs clearance, tariff exemptions, and tax holidays for the first five years) can be the tipping point for many.

In 2016 several Taiwanese banks applied for licenses to operate in Myanmar and E. Sun Commercial Bank has received approval to open a branch office, while 11 other banks have established representative offices to gather market intelligence. Many Taiwanese investors have expressed their desire to establish a Taiwan industrial park with better terms and conditions to attract companies that can form a cluster to reduce production costs. In 2019 a Taiwanese investor, Golden Myanmar Investment Co., signed a memorandum of understanding with the Yangon Region Government on the establishment of such a park, the Yangon Htantabin Technology Park. The goal is to attract about 300 overseas manufacturers from the electronics, footwear, garment, textile, and toy sectors (Her, 2019). The proposed project is a major milestone for Taiwanese investment in Myanmar. It will allow companies to deepen collaboration and share experiences and resources.

In terms of numbers, with stronger bilateral relations between Taiwan and Myanmar, bilateral trade volume has slowly increased (see Table 1). Bilateral trade volume steadily increased between 2010 and 2014, up to US$328.6 million, then sharply decreased due to the weak global economy. Since then, the trade volume has continued growing, in 2018 reaching US$342.7 million. While these figures may not be a direct outcome of the new policy, they are showing a positive trend and that is a good sign. The New Southbound Policy aims to create long-term partnerships that benefit the region today and tomorrow.


Exports have more than doubled, from US$107.3 million in 2010 to US$271.4 million in 2018, with its rank moving from 67th to 50th largest trade partner (see Table 2). Taiwan’s major exports to Myanmar consist of woven synthetic fabrics, feathers, iron, non-alloy steel products, and so forth. Between the years 2010 (before Myanmar’s transition) and 2018 (after the introduction of the New Southbound Policy), imports have remained more or less static, totalling just US$63.5 million in 2010 and only slightly more in 2018 (see Table 2), making up 0.025 percent of Taiwan’s gdp. However, in 2013 and 2014 Taiwan’s imports from Myanmar rose to almost double this figure, at US$103.6 million, before decreasing again. Taiwan’s major imports from Myanmar consist mostly of wood, oil seeds and oleaginous fruits, refined copper, and copper alloys (First Bilateral Trade Division, 2020).


Taiwan’s cumulative investment in Myanmar between 1952 and 2018 amounted to US$182 million, mainly in the sectors of financial services, insurance, textiles, accommodation, food service, and real estate. In 2019 Myanmar ranks as Taiwan’s 64th largest trading partner.

While trade figures are a useful quantitative indicator, Taiwan’s soft power lies at the heart of the New Southbound Policy. Soft power is a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence. It is indispensable to foreign policy toolkits, especially for a small polity such as Taiwan. Capitalising on its soft power features, Taiwan tries to shape its external environment in pursuit of its diplomatic influence. Soft power, and in Taiwan’s case also ‘warm power’, is used to persuade and co-opt other countries to engage in Taiwan’s interests in the region.

3.3 Taiwan’s (Un)recognisability in Myanmar

It has been argued that President Tsai Ing-wen’s Southbound Policy will enhance Taiwan’s soft power. However, the prospects for Taiwan’s ability to shape the preferences of the Burmese people through appeal and attraction thus far look quite bleak.

According to American political scientist Joseph S. Nye, soft power is the ability of ‘getting others to want the outcomes that you want’ (1991: 5). It is contrasted with the coercive nature of hard power, which has historically been the predominant realist measure of national power. The currency of soft power is very different and we can speak of culture, political values, and foreign policies here. Soft power resources are the assets that produce attraction, which then often leads to acquiescence.

In Myanmar teco has to be very low profile and promote Taiwan smartly, mostly using Taiwanese films, dramas, soap operas, or pop music (it is not uncommon to hear on the radio Taiwanese songs remade with Burmese lyrics), otherwise it could backfire. For example, in Cambodia, Taiwanese people residing there used to celebrate the National Day of the Republic of China on 10 October in a hotel ball room with the national flag; after 2016, the Cambodian government (under Chinese influence) does no longer allow such celebrations.33

In Myanmar, ordinary people have a problem differentiating between Taiwan/Taiwanese and China/Chinese, while in business the difference between Taiwan and China is much better known and also, what matters the most, is the price and quality.

Over 30 non-Chinese Burmese of all sexes and ages, living in the Yangon area, were interviewed for the purpose of better understanding the (un)recognisability of the ‘Made in Taiwan’ brand in Myanmar. The interviews were guided by open-ended questions about elements of Taiwan’s soft power.

Many of the interviewees did not have any single association with Taiwan; others wrongly identified some Chinese brands as Taiwanese; and a few mentioned foods, drinks, electronics, cosmetics, movies, singers, and medical care in association with Taiwan. On the other hand, interviewees who had previous experience with Taiwan spoke very highly of the island and of what it had to offer.

The most often mentioned reference to Taiwan was hot pot (in Yangon there is a famous Taiwanese-run restaurant chain called Shabu) and bubble milk tea. Although the fame of bubble milk tea is not a direct outcome of the New Southbound Policy, the drink is now part of Taiwan’s food diplomacy and the slogan, ‘Taiwan Bubble Tea, Bubble Up Your Life’, has been used to bolster the drink’s identification as a Taiwanese product. In Yangon, there are several shops that serve this drink, for example BoBoBaBa and Chatime.

Along with foods and drinks, fruits, namely papaya, watermelon (most watermelon in Myanmar is known as ‘Taiwan Watermelon’), and tomatoes were often mentioned. Regarding fruits, one interviewee also mentioned the Known-You Seed Company, a 1968-founded Taiwanese seed cultivation and distribution business that started offering its products in Myanmar in 1994. Today, the company runs several seed production facilities and demonstration farms and training centres. About 90 percent of watermelon seeds in Myanmar come from the firm. Fruits with the ‘Taiwan’ label have a reputation for quality and sell for higher prices (Her, 2019).

Many interviewees mentioned cosmetics and electronics. Brands such as htc, asus, and acer are quite popular among the people of Myanmar. The most well-known name from Taiwan is htc since former ceo Peter Chou was born in Mandalay.

In the cultural arena, people are very much aware that Teresa Teng, whose popularity was at its peak throughout the 1970s and 1980s, was from Taiwan. Among more recent Taiwanese musical imports known to the Burmese is the boy band F4, formed after the huge success of the television drama Meteor Garden. Taiwanese dramas and movies also seem quite well known, with mentions of, for example, Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu san, dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 2003). People also mentioned Midi Z., a Myanmar-born movie director who currently resides in Taichung.

For ethnic Chinese, especially in upper Myanmar, education is what Taiwan is best known for. Another area is medical care; again, people who speak Mandarin and have prior connections with Taiwan know it is a good place to seek high quality medical care. Many interviewees asserted that people who differentiate between Taiwanese and Chinese products live mostly in bigger cities, such as Yangon, Mandalay, and Taunggyi, and prefer ‘Made in Taiwan’ to ‘Made in China’, especially in terms of quality.

After speaking to many interviewees, the author came to realise that while associating imported products is one thing, differentiating people is another. People are quite confused about the different Tayoks.34 In Burmese, Chinese people are referred to as Tayok while the state-run press frequently refers to China as pauk hpaw, meaning sibling. Only the younger generation, mostly students, and people with higher education and a general knowledge of world affairs recognise the difference between Taiwanese, Hongkongers, and Mainland Chinese (although these may share the same ancestral roots and have a certain version of Chinese identity). People in the Shan states usually know the difference too: many of them have Chinese ancestors, speak different dialects of Chinese, and have long had the culture of importing goods from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as other countries. According to one respondent, most Burmese people think that ‘everybody who has narrow eyes, fair skin, and speaks Chinese is considered Chinese’, while another said: ‘Most Burmese people know only that black is Indian and white is Chinese.’ When academic Chao Chung-chi conducted research in Karen State, he was considered a Chinese spy, since he explained to the locals that he came from Taiwan, but when he showed them his passport, it read Republic of China.35

One respondent delved into the past and described his previous lack of understanding as follows:

I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in Rangoon. I went to university there and was pretty well read, but to be honest, I didn’t know how to distinguish Mainland Chinese cultural exposure from Taiwanese. I listened to Teresa Teng, read the Burmese translation of martial arts epics by Jin Yong, but at the time I viewed them merely as part of the broader Chinese culture. It was only after immigrating to the US that I realised they were Taiwanese.36

There are many people that consider Taiwan a part of China and the name Chinese Taipei, often heard in Myanmar, reinforces this perception.

One of the stakeholders in Taiwan’s endeavour in Myanmar is the above-described taitra, which every year brings several Taiwanese companies and potential investors to two expos in Myanmar—one in the field of automation and the other in the field of computers—as well as organising other activities, but according to one of the Burmese interviewees this is not enough: ‘There’s an occasional trade fair but it makes little impact on the public consciousness.’

Since soft power is based on its endurance and sustainability, not all hope is lost, but Taiwan has to work harder to build its international image and come up with a strategy of how to differentiate itself from China, especially in a country like Myanmar.

China’s image in Myanmar is severely damaged and may impact Taiwan’s endeavours in Myanmar. Burmese people generally feel that China exploited Burma/Myanmar during its hard times, through purchasing Burmese natural resources at cheap prices, supporting the military, and ignoring democracy, human rights, and good governance (MacGregor, 2014). Today’s Chinese projects in Myanmar are also under attack, mostly for not creating enough jobs for local workforces. Even as the Burmese government welcomes Chinese investments, civil society pushes back against Chinese economic dominance because of imported Chinese labour, poor environmental standards, and debt accumulation.

This said, it seems Taiwanese living in Myanmar are not being discriminated against or treated badly for being mistaken for Tayok from China. ‘After we mention where we come from, people recognise the difference’, said one of my Taiwanese interviewees who went for a six-month internship to Yangon in 2017. Another Taiwanese interviewee, currently running a business branch providing ict-related services in Myanmar, said:

In the beginning, I used to claim we are from Taiwan. I won’t say that any more unless I am asked. [It] just creates more problems sometimes. [Although in our field, we do] not have competitors from China (only from other countries), the main equipment is provided by Huawei or zte. A lot of Chinese—if you say you are Taiwanese—they are not happy.

The last statement touches on an issue that is outside the scope of this paper; nevertheless, it illustrates quite well some of the obstacles that Taiwanese businesspeople encounter when doing business abroad.

The opportunity for Taiwan lies in the fact that China’s economic might is not doing much for its popularity in Myanmar, and after two decades of intensifying friendship with China, Myanmar is now tilting elsewhere to reduce its dependence. However, Myanmar’s relations with China directly affect Myanmar–Taiwan relations, and fundamental difficulties that could destabilise Myanmar–China relations remain. To succeed in Myanmar, Taiwan must sharply distinguish itself from China, best done by using its soft power to shape the preferences of the Burmese population through appeal and attraction. Taiwan cannot afford to be seen as continuing a trend of Chinese economic domination in Southeast Asia and should avoid at all costs being seen as anachronistic or even arrogant.37

4 Conclusion

Since President Lee Teng-hui in the early 1990s, each Taiwanese leader has stressed the importance of South and Southeast Asia, with an emphasis upon the latter. In 1994 Lee urged Taiwanese businesspeople to invest in Southeast Asia, but the Asian financial crisis marred this plan. In 2002 President Chen Shui-bian attempted to reintroduce the southbound policy, but the Taiwanese continued investing in China, a more attractive investment destination. During the years of Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency moving south was not a priority at all. Then in 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen introduced the New Southbound Policy, an effort to expand Taiwan’s presence across the Indo-Pacific by not focusing exclusively on trade and investment, as had been done in the previous initiatives, but by also including a people-focused strategy aimed at incorporating Taiwan into the economic and social structures of Southeast Asia and beyond. The new policy’s aim is to gain a strong foothold in Southeast Asia’s fast-growing economies along with Australia and New Zealand, and with that, reduce Taiwan’s economic overdependence on China.

China is projected to be the world’s largest economy by 2050, with India second and Indonesia fourth (Ball, 2019). The New Southbound Policy is a logical response to the changing global economic situation and the region’s geopolitical future. Taiwan is building ties with South and Southeast Asia through its own channels (A. H. Yang & Chiang, 2018).

All this said, Taiwan can build good relations with the asean countries only if China does not interfere. If political relations with China worsen, the new policy will surely not bear any fruit. The recent waning cross-Strait ties have triggered China’s preventive countermeasures and left some New Southbound Policy target countries nervous. That is why the policy needs to be planned and implemented under a clever economic strategic framework that takes into consideration not only China and the United States but also other regional players, such as Japan. If implemented effectively, the New Southbound Policy will still take years to produce tangible results.

Myanmar is not among the six target countries of the New Southbound Policy. Nonetheless, Taiwanese businesspeople have been exploring market opportunities in the newly opening country. Myanmar’s military generals recently opened the country up along the Chinese model of capitalism without democratisation, and the media have promoted the country as one of the last remaining lucrative virgin economic markets. Myanmar has rich resources, including oil and gas, and has an abundance of young labour on hand (although skilled labour is scarce).

Despite the so-called Myanmar Golden Promise, the overall situation in Myanmar is not stable, with many human rights abuses and restrictions in place (Kironska, 2016). The country has been closed to the outside world for decades and its infrastructure and regulatory regime still need time to be developed. Patience is therefore required for Myanmar to come to its full potential. Taiwan’s efforts to expand and invest in the country and create social ties therein may not bring expected results in the short term.

Furthermore, China remains at the top of the statistics of Taiwan’s trade relations and changing that is a difficult task for any government. As of 2018, the biggest trading partners were China (including Hong Kong), the United States, Japan, and Korea, followed by mostly New Southbound Policy countries, with the exception of Germany, the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia (First Bilateral Trade Division, 2020).

Besides trade, Taiwan can also capitalise on its soft power features and shape its external environment to sustain its diplomatic influence. The New Southbound Policy is seen by many as President Tsai Ing-wen’s soft power alternative. In the case of Myanmar, a lot of work lies ahead. Although teco in Myanmar is promoting Taiwan, Burmese people in general do not distinguish between Taiwanese and Chinese products and services, let alone people. However, in business circles, the difference is much better known. What plays in favour of Taiwan’s soft power is that foreign visitors who get a taste of the lifestyle in Taiwan end up loving the country.

As has been demonstrated, the New Southbound Policy, helped by the US–China trade war, provides many opportunities to Taiwan, but it is not without its challenges and limitations. Taiwan should maintain attention to this policy, keep explaining its nature and purpose to outside and inside actors, and actively promote its heritage and unique status as the world’s first culturally Chinese democracy.


I gratefully acknowledge the funding received towards my research by the Taiwan Fellowship from the mofa of Taiwan, which enabled my stay in Taipei in 2019. My thanks also go to the Department of Social and Public Affairs, University of Taipei, for hosting me as a visiting scholar and to the International Affairs Department for supporting me during my stay. In addition, this work was supported from European Regional Development Fund—Project ‘Sinophone Borderlands: Interaction at the Edges’, CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000791.

Notes on Contributor

Kristina Kironska is a socially engaged academic, with experience in election observation, research, and activism. She studied international relations in Slovakia, Portugal, and Taiwan; and conducted doctoral research in Myanmar. She is involved with Amnesty International and the Central European Institute of Asian Studies. Until January 2020, she lectured at the University of Taipei and organised monthly human rights talks. Currently, she is conducting research within the ‘Sinophone Borderlands’ project at the Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic.


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Preliminary research results were presented at the 7th Young Scholars Workshop at the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation’s European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan in Tübingen (30 June–6 July 2019) on ‘China’s New Sharp Power: Consequences for Taiwan and Europe’.


The author refers throughout the paper to the Republic of China (roc) as ‘Taiwan’ and the People’s Republic of China (prc) as ‘China’. The use of the adjective ‘Taiwanese’, especially when referring to people, should be understood in a territorial sense (from the territory of the roc/Taiwan) rather than a statement of identity.


The author uses the country names ‘Myanmar’ to refer to the current situation, ‘Burma’ to refer to the pre-1989 era, and ‘Burmese’ as an adjective to refer to the people (inclusive of all ethnic groups) and the official language (although some other authors may also use ‘Myanmar’ or even ‘Myanmarese’ as an adjective).


dpp is a pro-Taiwan independence party founded in 1986 as the Tangwai movement (meaning ‘outside kmt’). The party won the presidency in 2000, ending more than half a century of Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, kmt) rule.


Relevant data to this study was collected through the study of primary (government documents, interviews) and secondary sources (books, articles) analysed by the analytico-synthetic and logical-historical document-analysis method. The analytico-synthetic method is composed of two components: analysis, a method that unfolds the problem, loosens or separates things that are bound together; and synthesis (the opposite of analysis), a method that places together things that are apart. The logical-historical document-analysis method is applied to allow a logical and timely flow of ideas. To compare the various attempts of Taiwan to diversify its trade relations in the past decades, the historical comparative method has been applied.


The 18 countries under the New Southbound Policy: Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Australia, and New Zealand.


Taiwan does however participate, although in a very restrained way, in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Trade Organization.


The kmt was founded shortly after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and ruled China until 1949, when it lost to the rival Communist Party and fled to Taiwan, where it continued to govern in an authoritarian manner until the 1990s.


Taiwan’s gdp per capita in 1990 was US$8,178, while China’s was very much lower at US$349. See for details.


The asean+3 includes the asean countries and China, Japan, and South Korea. The 1 in the so-called 10 + 3+1 refers to Taiwan, although former President Ma Ying-jeou had originally proposed a 10 + 4 framework (asean plus China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea).


Involved agencies: Central Bank, Council of Agriculture, Council of Indigenous Peoples and its subsidiaries, Environmental Protection Administration, Financial Supervisory Commission, Hakka Affairs Council and its subsidiaries, National Development Council and its subsidiaries, Office of Trade Negotiations, Overseas Community Affairs Council, Public Construction Commission, and Tourism Bureau (under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications). Involved ministries: Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Science and Technology, and Ministry of Transportation and Communications.


My interview with Kristy Hsu, the director of the Department of Taiwan asean Studies at Chung-Hwa Institution for Economic Research, Taipei, September 2019.


The ‘Burma Street’ (Huaxin Street in Zhonghe District, New Taipei City) has its origins in the Chinese Civil War, when kmt troops fighting the Communists were forced to flee across the border to neighbouring Burma. After the civil war, many troops were trapped in Burma until they were repatriated to Taiwan. In the decades that followed, thousands more moved to Taiwan.


Japan’s outstanding projects in Southeast Asia are valued at US$367 billion, while China’s projects are valued at US$255 billion (Jamrisko, 2019).


The Belt and Road Initiative advocates for three ‘togethers’—planning together, building together, and sharing together—for five connectivities in policy, infrastructure, trade, finance, and people-to-people exchange.


K. Hsu, interview.


My interview with Liu Shih-chung, taitra’s vice chairman, Taipei, June 2019.


Liu Shih-chung, interview.


Examples, such as younger people washing the feet of older people to pay respect (for instance, when a student returns from boarding school to see his/her grandparents) or wives bowing to their soldier husbands when they leave the house, illustrate the structural framework of relationships that the author compares to parent-child, teacher-student, or leader-follower relationships.


My interview with Chang Chin-yu, mofa’s deputy of the Asia-Pacific Department and former teco head of mission in Myanmar, Taipei, September 2019.


The two-ocean strategy’s aim is to avoid the Malacca Strait in the event of a conflict. Since nearly 80 percent of China’s trade is carried out by sea through the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, and the Suez Canal, China developed port facilities around the Indian Ocean (the string of pearls strategy) to secure its own trade and energy supplies along the sea lanes dominated by the US navy. These so-called pearls include ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Pakistan.


K. Hsu, interview.


K. Hsu, interview.


As of 2020, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies: Eswatini (1968), Holy See (1942), Marshall Islands (1998), Nauru (1980–2002, 2005), Palau (1999), Tuvalu (1979), Belize (1989), Haiti (1956), Saint Kitts and Nevis (1983), Saint Lucia (1984–1997, 2007), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (1981), Guatemala (1933), Honduras (1941), Nicaragua (1962–1985, 1990), and Paraguay (1957).


My interview with Chao Chung-chi, assistant professor of the Department of Southeast Asian Study at National Chi Nan University, Taipei, September 2019.


K. Hsu, interview.


Return flight prices range between US$400 and US$650, with cheaper flights offered by Malindo Air and Malaysia Airlines with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur and Viet Jet with a stopover in Hanoi.


K. Hsu, interview.


K. Hsu, interview.


K. Hsu, interview.


Chang Chin-yu, interview.


K. Hsu, interview.


K. Hsu, interview.


The word Tayok is derived from the word Tarok, a corruption of the word Turk by which Burmese referred to Mongol invaders from China in the thirteenth century.


Chao Chung-chi, interview.


In fact, Jin Yong was not Taiwanese; he was born in Zhejiang Province and later moved to Hong Kong.


For centuries, Chinese merchants and businesspeople have dominated the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam; and their descendants do so to this day.

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