Tsai Ing-wen South Asia focus ‘driven by ideology’ says former premier

Island needs to focus on international economic ties instead of pursuing one market for the sake of others, Chang San-cheng tells forum in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 April, 2017, 9:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 April, 2017, 11:19pm

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen’s initiative to expand ties with Southeast Asia was wrongly driven by an ideological mindset even though it is well-intentioned for market expansion, according to former Taiwanese premier Chang San-cheng said in Hong Kong.

Since assuming office in May 2016, Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party have advocated a New Southbound Policy to reduce economic reliance on mainland China by expanding investment and strengthening ties with Southeast Asian countries. This is a reboot of a similar short-lived strategy used by Taiwan in the 1990s that lacked appeal after the mainland’s economic boom and the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

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Chang, a non-partisan politician who was the last premier during the Ma Ying-jeou administration, said on Friday that Tsai’s new southern plan had so far merely been an idea and suggested that she should embrace a global view for the island’s economy.

“No one will oppose the idea of reducing economic dependence, but it has to come slowly and needs to be done in a carefully planned way,” said Chang, one of the most senior former Taiwanese officials to visit Hong Kong since Tsai took office.

“Going south ought to be considered, but the mindset behind it should not be going after one market in order to get away from another. We should look at all markets. That’s more healthy.”

He added that the worst thing about being a political leader was inflicting one’s own ideology on the public.

“In Taiwan, it’s unification versus independence,” Chang told a forum on Taiwanese innovation. “A politician should improve the economy and not let ordinary people be dragged into a quarrel over ideology.”

Wang Hsing-ching, a political commentator who uses the pen name Nanfang Shuo, said Tsai’s new southern initiative had arrived too late and she would find it difficult to compete with Beijing, who has cultivated strong ties in the region via trade and infrastructure projects with those countries for decades.

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“Whatever direction you are going, you need to build up strong ties with them. And Taiwanese have historically held a biased view against those from Southeast Asia,” Wang said.

Tsai’s New Southbound Policy consists of 18 countries that include 16 in Southeast Asia as well as Australia and New Zealand.

In 2016, trade with all of those countries accounted for 18.8 per cent of Taiwan’s overseas trade. During the first three moths of this year, Taiwan’s investment and lending to the region rose more than 300 per cent year-on-year, which saw Indonesia receive the bulk of the NT$1.43 billion (US$47 million), government figures show.

More than 40 per cent of Taiwan’s exports, which comprised about two-thirds of the island’s economic output, went to the mainland and Hong Kong, while more than half of Taiwan’s 724,000 expatriates live and work on the mainland.

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Chang said the past southern policy was mainly to take advantage of cheap labour and land to set up factories. Now that emerging economies like Thailand and Malaysia had improved, Taiwan needed to find ways to sell Taiwan-made products to their consumers.

Meanwhile, Tien Hung-mao, head of Taiwan’s semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) on Saturday hinted that Tsai Ing-wen would unveil a new policy on cross-strait relations on the first-year anniversary of her presidency next month, the Central News Agency reported.