Taiwan's relationship with Southeast Asia is moving towards a new dynamic. It is no longer confined to trade, investment or the long-standing one-China policy. Now, it is all about people-to-people relations, as more Southeast Asians are coming to the island to work, study and settle down. They are collectively known locally as sin tai-ker or new Taiwan's guests.
Last week, Taiwan and Indonesia -- Asean's largest member -- signed a memorandum of understanding on the rights of migrant workers. Indonesian Minister of Manpower Hanif Dhakiri was in Taipei for the occasion. One of Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's foreign policy objectives is to protect the rights of Indonesians who work aboard. The MOU was more comprehensive in promoting workers' rights than a previous one signed in 2011, including wage increases, freedom to switch employers, and improved health insurance and financial transactions.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
According to Ministry of Labour statistics, as of October, 703,162 workers from the region are working and living in Taiwan's major cities, including Taoyuan, Taichung and New Taipei. Taoyuan city alone hosts over 150,000 workers, and is considered a hub for migrant workers.
Indeed, Indonesia's 265,959 workers rank first among Asean members, so their wellbeing is pivotal to the health of Indonesia-Taiwan relations. More than officials would like to admit, they are also strong supporters of the current government under President Jokowi. As the April 2019 presidential election approaches, Jakarta wants to make sure that Indonesian overseas workers will not be marginalised. In addition, Taiwan also wants to showcase the ties with Indonesia as a prime example of its people-centered foreign policy, officially known as the "New Southbound Policy", which has been in place for two years.
As of October, Vietnam ranked second in Taiwan, with 221,569 workers, while the Philippines was third with 154,415. Meanwhile, Thailand had only 61,218 visiting workers, despite being the first Asean country to send workers to Taiwan when its labour market officially opened in the early 90s. Until the mid-2000s, Thai workers dominated the island's regional workforce, mainly in construction and manufacturing. The number has dwindled from over 120,000 workers in 2003 to half that today. Truth be told, the island's tallest building, Taipei 101, was built by more than 400 Thai workers, whose names are honoured on a plaque at its main entrance.
About 190,000 Indonesians work as caregivers or domestic helpers in Taiwan, comprising 76% of all migrant workers. With proper language and skills training, more Indonesian workers are taking up these job opportunities. Filipinos and Vietnamese also work in this sector. Anchan Songphut, labour attaché at the Thai Representative Office, said that only 500 Thais work as caregivers in Taiwan. "There are lots of opportunities for Thais," he said. Discussions are under way between Thai and Taiwanese officials on ways to improve the skills and knowledge of Thai workers so they can enter the Taiwan labour market with better skills.
Today, the island's ties with Southeast Asian migrant workers and the myriad of challenges they pose are no longer frowned upon. The government here is trying to change the negative attitude of local people toward migrant workers by emphasising their hard work and contribution to the island's economic development. As part of the New Southbound Policy, Taiwan wants to build a strong foundation for long-term development with the region. Several non-governmental organisations have been set up to help migrant workers in the cities of Taichung, Khaoshiung and New Taipei.
Stanley Tsu-An Tseng, Assistant Negotiator, Office of Trade Negotiations, Executive Yuan, also said apart from the increase number of workers, the number of students from Southeast Asia is also increasing. He said that Taiwan wants to help the region to development talent in high technological areas.
Of late, the number of Southeast Asian students at universities in Taiwan has increased. Ten years ago, there were only a few thousand students from the region. In 2017, there were 38,000 students, up from 28,000 last year, according to Taiwan's Ministry of Education. By next year, Taiwan hopes to attract more Asean students with a target of 58,000. Malaysia comprises the largest student population in Taiwan followed by Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.
Authorities here reaffirmed that Taiwan's new diplomacy does not aim to compete with China or try to score political points. "We understand the constraints our friends in Southeast Asia have. We accept that. We would like to show our sincerity," said Ambassador Baushuan Ger, director-general of the Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Besides trade, economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, the new diplomacy includes resource sharing and promotion of institutional links in South and Southeast Asia.
Alan Hao Yang, executive director of the Taiwan and Asia Exchange Foundation, emphasised that the New Southbound Policy identifies Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and India as priorities out of the 18 countries in South and Southeast Asia together with Australia and New Zealand. Taiwan's new cooperative approach, he pointed out, is aimed at promoting cooperation and identifying common interests in prioritised countries.
For instance in Thailand, Mr Hao Yang said that Taiwan recently launched the One Country, One Centre on health with the wellknown Changchun Christian Hospital setting up a centre in Thailand with networks of Taiwan's hospitals. The Thai centre, he added, will provide medical training for Thais, hosting exchanges and establishing a culturally sensitive healthcare environment. Such cooperation will help to assess local medical regulations and market opportunities.
At this juncture, the New Southbound Policy is a work in progress. Officials and local experts hope it will provide new impetus for the island's efforts to promote tourism, education, health care, technology, small and medium enterprises, and agriculture with the region.