Taipei: New Southbound Policy not to counter Beijing’s OBOR

TAIWAN'S New Southbound Policy, which was launched last September to enhance ties and exchanges with 18 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia, is not a direct response to China’s One Road One Belt (OBOR) initiative, says Mainland Affairs Council First Deputy Minister Lin Cheng-yi. In an interview with several journalists from the region last week in Taipei, Lin broached some difficult subjects. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Is the New Southbound Policy Taiwan’s response to China’s One Belt one Road initiative?

Lin: It is not a point-to-point or direct response. We have the (old) Southbound Policy in the 1990s under (then) president Lee Teng-hui. At that time there was no such initiative as One Belt One Road. Our direction (forward) is to have market diversification; Mainland China is only one of our most important markets and investment opportunities. It (the New Southbound Policy) is not a competition with the One Belt one Road initiative.

Q: A recent Taiwanese delegation – including three MPs – to India drew strong reaction from Beijing, which said India should honour its One China policy. What is your take on the matter?

The cross-strait relations – our relationship with Mainland China – and the New Southbound Policy are equally important for Taiwan, and we are not competing with the PRC (People’s Republic of China) regarding our outgoing investment. In (terms of) the scale of the GDP, Taiwan simply cannot compete with Mainland China but we can offer another dimension of story of Taiwan’s economic development and also Taiwan’s contribution to the region.

Regarding our MPs’ trip to India, it was covered by the Indian press and (received a) response from the Global Times in Beijing. For the PRC, they received Taiwanese investments since the 1990s. They have benefited from such investments. Other countries in the region (should) also have the opportunity to receive Taiwanese investments.

For India, the volume of Taiwanese investments is very low: it simply cannot be compared (with the amounts received by) Vietnam, Malaysia or Indonesia. Beijing will try to block our New Southbound Policy only because it would like to see Taiwan investments continue to go to Mainland China and not diversified. So they do see our New Southbound Policy as a competition to their One Belt One Road policy.

Q: Taiwan may see China as a friend it needs to expand its investments but the way Beijing responded when President Tsai Ing-wen transited the United States during her January visit to allies in Latin American and how it responded to every moves made by the Taiwanese government gives the impression that the relationship between the two countries is less than friendly. Some media reports in Indonesia painted a picture of Taiwan wanting to break away from Mainland China and that everything Taiwan does is wrong and China is right. What do you say about that?

We don’t regard in simple definition whether Mainland China is a friend or an enemy of Taiwan. Put it this way, it is a mixture (of both). They used to be our No. 1 enemy. If we look back, they threatened Taiwan with missiles and invaded the island of Quemoy. In the past we had military confrontations. But since the 1990s our investors and business people went to China for investment and they continue to invest there. So it a complex picture: (PRC) is our investment opportunities, our No. 1 trading partner but also a potential military threat.

Regarding Taiwan’s connection with Southeast Asia (countries) and Taiwan’s international participation, Taiwan was not able to join the Interpol meeting in Bali last year. (Beijing was believed to be behind Interpol’s rejection of Taiwan’s application to attend the meeting). In certain way, Beijing regards Taiwan as an integral part of the PRC and in that sense we continue to insist that the freedom of choice (for Taiwanese) is very important.

We are not talking about having a plebiscite or referendum, we are not taking that kind of approach but we need to take into consideration the freedom of choice of the people of this island. We are not taking the independent approach, trying to be separated from PRC, (as) it is not a practical approach.

Q: Late last year, China began to speed up its militarisation of the South China Sea, do you think that in the near future Taiwan will take a more proactive role as well. Whose side is Taiwan going be on (in disputes involving China and other claimants) if the tensions continue to escalate?

The freedom of navigation (for fishermen in contested waters) is very important. We don’t take a position to have very strong law enforcement activities in all waters surrounding islands, reefs and banks that belong to the Republic of China, or Taiwan, in the South China Sea.

So we would like to see all the countries concerned follow the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and respect the peaceful settlement of issues, and Taiwan should be included in the dialogue processes regarding South China Sea (territorial disputes).

We are more than happy to have not only bilateral talks with, for examples, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia (on overlapping claims) regarding the South China Sea, but also insist that Taiwan should not be excluded from any dialogue (over such disputes).

Q: Right now Taiwan is not included in such dialogues?

Right now we (Taiwan) are not included in such dialogues. Beijing treats Taiwan as a small brother, a junior partner. Beijing argued that if Taiwan can join the team or the Chinese delegation (to such dialogues), then Taiwan can be included, but (that) is not the choice of the government here.

Q: Following the telephone conversation between President Tsai and US President Donald Trump, the latter spoke about the One China policy being a little conditional. What is your take?

As long as there is peaceful settlement of disputes between Taiwan and Mainland China, the US will honour the One China policy and might consider reducing its arms sale to Taiwan. (But for) As long as Taiwan is under security threat from outside, as long as there is tension or crisis, the US’s approach to the One China policy will be different. So in that sense, Donald Trump is the exception, but Donald Trump tried to add another condition: not only non-use of force but also the fair trade practice between PRC and the US.

The peaceful settlement of disputes is very important, not only between Taiwan and China but also between Beijing and Washington DC regarding US’s One China policy. We have two different versions of One China policy or One China principle: for Beijing, it is a principle but for the US, it is a policy, and its own version of policy which can only be defined by the US itself and not any other country including Taiwan and Mainland China. But non-use of force, peaceful settlement and negotiations are the key components or elements. We support that kind of pre-conditions: non-use of force and dialogues.

With the change of government in Taiwan, Beijing reduced the number of tourists to Taiwan. It used to be 10,000 a day, that number has been reduced to 4,000 a day. So it is economic pressure, it’s a sanction on the new government here. The number of Mainland China students registering in our universities has also decreased even though we are (keeping a) very low profile, and we want to have a friendly relationship with Mainland China.”

Q: What do you read of Washington’s decision to post US Marines at the new premises of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)?

The US government has the right to make security arrangement to safeguard its property – the new institution (AIT) building in Taipei. We don’t have a defence treaty with the US. And US does not have troops stationed on the island but each year, it sent its military advisers – who are not in uniform – to Taiwan to observe our military drills. So in that sense, it (decision is) not only for the security of its property but also for the long-term commitment to Taiwan, as under its Taiwan Relations Act the US needs to provide Taiwan with defensive arms and weapons. So in that sense, it is not troop deployment, but for the (AIT) building’s security.

Q: In the last one year, Beijing has tried to make things a little bit more difficult for Taiwan. How do you foresee the relations between both sides in the next two years? What do you think is Beijing’s strategic objectives because if it squeezes too hard, the Taiwanese will be angrier? Already, many of the young people here are not very happy or are identifying more strongly with the Taiwanese identity. What do you think China is doing?

It is very important for the new government to have a clear picture, to have the strategic viewpoint from the beginning. Our president, in her inaugural speech, has made it clear that we will handle the cross-strait relations, cross-strait affairs in accordance with the constitution of the Republic of China, which means we are not taking a provocative approach in dealing with the cross-strait relations.

We wish the anti-corruption campaign in the PRC would succeed. We would like see a clean government in the PRC. We would like to see fairer treatment of its own people. We would like to see Beijing honours its commitment to the people in Hong Kong when they choose their chief executive in the coming months. And we would like to encourage Beijing to honour the cross-strait agreements even though they were not signed between the Tsai Ing-wen government and the PRC. They were signed by the former government or the KMT (Kuomintang).

We are not provoking but we are watching very closely in particular the (upcoming China’s) 19th party congress. And we are watching closely regarding the new key persons in charge of Taiwan affairs (in Mainland China). For example, they have a new director for Taiwan Studies Institute (which is under the Social Science Academy in Beijing) and a new chairman for the Studies Association of Taiwan. We believe the Taiwan Affairs Office of Beijing and the Hong Kong Affairs Office of Beijing will see (key) personnel replacement in the coming months.

Q: Will the new personnel be more unfriendly towards Taiwan?

We would like to see personnel who are more open-minded regarding the cross-strait relations. When you mention the One Belt One Road initiative, it is an initiative. The Beijing government needs to have new thinking towards Taiwan.

Q: What kind of new thinking?

Moderation.

Q: Do you think they will do that. So far in the last one year they have shown that they are more prepared to take a tough line on Taiwan?

But I can give you an example that they also adopt the principle of moderation. For example, when the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning made its way through the Taiwan Strait recently, it kept its course closer to Fujian, China, than to the median line.

We welcome that kind of moderation but it takes two to tango.

Q: This is like you try to not cross the line but the other side is overstepping the line?

But they are going to encounter a lot of international opinion pressure. The sympathies will be on our side, not on their side.