Home Asian News Time to Take Taiwan Studies Beyond America – The Diplomat

Time to Take Taiwan Studies Beyond America – The Diplomat


Having long been relegated to the fringes of sinological research, Taiwan studies is finally establishing itself as an independent, interdisciplinary field of studies. This development has important domestic implications for Taiwan, as it creates a space for more holistic and critical definitions of Taiwanese identity, inclusive of the multifarious experiences of Indigenous Austronesians, Hoklos, Hakkas, the so-called Mainlanders, and more recent migrants from Southeast Asia. Equally important are the international implications. The rise of Taiwan studies positively contributes to the nation’s soft power projection and helps shape discourse on Taiwan globally, as the relevance of Taiwan studies is arguably directly proportional to the relevance of Taiwan itself.

The recent decision of Taiwan’s executive bodies to expand funding for Taiwan studies at top U.S. institutions, namely Harvard University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin, was welcomed with great enthusiasm on both sides of the Pacific. Following the above logic, this zeal should hardly be surprising.

Nevertheless, an important question remains unanswered. Why is similar vigor not shown toward the countries under the New Southbound Policy?

Since 2016, Taiwan’s government has actively promoted the diversification of its international relations by implementing the New Southbound Policy. Deemed the flagship foreign policy initiative of the Tsai administration, the New Southbound Policy seeks to expand Taiwan’s outreach in the Indo-Pacific and limit the nation’s vulnerability to volatilities in the infamous Taipei-Beijing-Washington triangle. Yet, while the New Southbound Policy has bolstered Taiwan’s economic relations with its Asian and Oceanian partners, cultural and people-to-people exchanges still lag behind. Consequently, why does the government continue to prioritize the development of Taiwan studies in Western countries, instead of using the burgeoning field to buttress its flagship policy for regional engagement?

Higher education has been regarded as a pivotal source of soft power for countries around the world. “I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here,” argued Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state. Given Taiwan’s limited international space, cultural and educational outreach is particularly important in building Taiwan-friendly domestic coalitions in its partner countries. The expansion of Taiwan studies should thus be the catalyst for broadening Taiwan’s international footprint instead of deepening it in a single target country, the United States.

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Admittedly, the 18 New Southbound Policy countries are heterogeneous. A common criticism of the policy is the perceived infeasibility of crafting an effective uniform strategy for engaging countries whose sheer size is as different as that of India and Bhutan, and whose economies are as dissimilar as those of Laos and Australia. Yet, we argue that it is precisely this heterogeneity that renders the New Southbound Policy a strong foundation for expanding and internationalizing the field of Taiwan studies. The cases of India, Indonesia, and Australia illustrate this dynamic particularly clearly.

India: A Launchpad for Taiwan Studies in Asia

The narrative and discourse on East Asia in India is primarily centered on China. This makes sense as India’s primary security concern emanates from China. Even India’s Ministry of External Affairs’ first in-house think tank, the Center of Contemporary China Studies (CCCS) is China-focused. However, in the process, Taiwan has largely been ignored and the prospects of launching a Taiwan studies program have not yet really been explored. There are multiple factors for the absence of Taiwan in the discourse on East Asia at Indian top universities. A lack of awareness about Taiwan; a lack of interest in Taiwan studies; scholars and professionals giving preference to China over Taiwan for Mandarin language learning, higher studies, and working opportunities; and  also the fear of getting on China’s radar all help dissuade Indian scholars focusing on China to expand their area of studies to Taiwan. Taiwan is gaining traction in India, but the literature on Taiwan is largely limited to a number of op-eds peddling the narrative of using Taiwan as a “card.”

Several U.S. think-tanks, such as Carnegie India and the Ananta Aspen Centre, have established offices in India, and European countries operate cultural centers such as the Goethe-Institut or Alliance Française; that has helped attract students and professionals to their respective countries. Facilitated by the Foundation for International Cooperation in Higher Education in Taiwan and with Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) as a nodal institution, a few educational institutions in India host Taiwan education centers with a focus on Mandarin language learning. NTHU is probably the only institute with an Indian studies center in Taiwan. Apart from NTHU, National Chung Hsing University also has a Center for Studies on South Asia and the Middle East.

Now that India is a key focus country under the New Southbound Policy, it is crucial that Taiwan invests in launching a comprehensive Taiwan studies program focusing on language, culture, politics, and governance. Given the New Southbound Policy is people-centric, looking at India as a potential Taiwan studies program hub in Asia will yield long-term benefits for Taiwan and unlock its ambitions of engaging India holistically.

Indonesia: Testing Ground for the De-Sinicization of Taiwan Studies

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous nation, is also positioned as an attractive destination for promoting Taiwan studies within the Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia maintains numerous people-centric ties with Taiwan. First, there is a considerable volume of labor migration from Indonesia to Taiwan. Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor counted 260,147 Indonesian laborers as of the end of February 2021, which amount to over 36 percent of the total migrant workforce in the country. The Indonesian community has marked its footprint on Taiwan’s cultural fabric and became an active participant in the nation’s civil society. Secondly, the large size of the overseas Chinese community in Indonesia, whose many members exhibit strong pro-Taipei sentiments, also serves as a potential source of demand for Taiwan studies programs.

Following the fall of Suharto’s New Order in 1998, a new sociopolitical atmosphere in Indonesia brought about a revival of Chinese identity. During the 32 years of Suharto’s rule, Chinese Indonesians were subject to harsh racial discrimination, and many members of the Chinese community sought to flee the country. Since 1998, Indonesia has experienced a period of “re-sinicization,” marked by a rise of Chinese social organizations and political parties, and increased demand for language training. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that Chinese Indonesians are far from being a homogenous group. The four main communities include Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, and Cantonese – each of them with a distinct language, economy, and culture.

This diversity ought to be viewed as a window of opportunity for the expansion of Taiwan studies in Indonesia. The rise of a distinct concept of “Taiwaneseness” involves a critical interrogation of the role of distinct communities in the identity-building process; this is also reflected in the increasingly diversified representation within Taiwan studies. Chinese studies programs facilitated by Beijing largely focus on teaching Mandarin, and perpetuate the Han-centric narrative of homogeneity. In contrast, the promotion of Taiwan studies in a country like Indonesia would allow for the concurrent support for Hokkien and Hakka, languages which might be further endangered in light of Taiwan’s 2030 Bilingual Country Plan.

Previously, Taiwan has successfully sought to engage countries in Southeast Asia by capitalizing on diasporic ties. Sister city relations between Taoyuan and Singkawang in West Kalimantan serve as a case in point; Taoyuan’s Yangmei District is a hotspot of Hakka culture, as is Singkawang, with over 70 percent of its population being of Chinese descent. The government of Taiwan has an obligation to promote Hakka culture and language on the basis of the 2010 Hakka Basic Act. The idea of turning Taiwan into a “global hub of Hakka studies” has become a part of the mainstream academic and political discourse, and should thus be included under the umbrella of promotion of Taiwan studies. Indonesia presents itself as an ideal testing ground for this kind of diversification of the field.

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Australia: Complementarity With Existing Initiatives

The overwhelming dominance of English as a lingua franca in academia can hardly be contested. Consequently, the status of English as Australia’s national and de facto common language presents itself as a major argument in favor of expanding Taiwan studies in the country. Publishing and teaching in English translates into prestige and visibility of the field. Given that Australia is also the second most popular study abroad destination for Taiwanese students, the foundation for expanding Taiwan studies in this New Southbound Policy partner country appears sound.

Nevertheless, the comparative advantage of Australia goes beyond merely the language; the complementarity of the Taiwanese government’s quest to promote Taiwan studies and Australia’s initiatives to lift local knowledge of the Indo-Pacific should not go unnoticed. In particular, the New Colombo Plan merits closer examination. As a flagship internationalization initiative of the Australian government, the plan funds short- and longer-term study, internships, mentorships, practicums, and research, and encourages bilateral exchanges with over 40 countries and regions in the Indo-Pacific. In 2020, the New Colombo Plan managed to bring 364 students to Taiwan. This ought to be viewed as insurance for the sustainability of Taiwan studies in Australia, as students and scholars in the field would not rely exclusively on funding and opportunities from the Taiwanese side.

A major democracy and developed economy, Australia is a key player in the Indo-Pacific. Maintaining strong ties with its regional neighbors remains key to sustaining the cultural, economic, and strategic well-being of Australia, and this state of affairs has led to the expansion of the country’s Asia knowledge. This positive momentum for Asian studies in Australia coincides with the newly re-discovered interest in Taiwan, especially in the context of market diversification and international cooperation in the face of Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance. In order to fully capitalize on this dynamic, it is important to create an intellectual base for engagement between Taipei and Canberra.

The Way Forward

Admittedly, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has previously sought to expand its Taiwan Studies Project to Southeast Asia, with short-term grants provided to institutions including the Naresuan University Thailand, the National Economics University in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the University of Malaya. Nevertheless, except in the latter case, the grants have since expired, once again creating a void in the field of Taiwan Studies in these countries.

Gunter Schubert, the founder and director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at University of Tübingen, argued that when it comes to the proliferation of Taiwan studies, “Spending deep is more important than spending broad.” Indeed, it would be futile to deny the importance of responsible resource management and supporting institutions that have demonstrated a long-term commitment to and a proven track record in developing the Taiwan studies field. Each of the aforementioned U.S.-based institutions – Harvard, UCLA, and UT-Austin – has made meaningful contributions to advancing the discourse on Taiwan, so the extension of support by MOE and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) reads as a sound decision to invest resources where the multiplier effect is the largest.

At the same time, Taiwanese authorities ought to critically engage with the idea that strengthening Taiwan studies among new audiences may, in fact, yield higher returns on investment than expanding the existing, long-established programs. Advancing the field across the Indo-Pacific has the potential to foster new Taiwan-friendly domestic coalitions in countries where lack of awareness has translated into lack of support for the globally-isolated nation.

Policy is never created in a vacuum, nor can it operate in one. The soft power projection efforts rooted in the global proliferation of Taiwan studies should be viewed as complementary to the New Southbound Policy, the flagship policy initiative whose primary aim is to diversify Taiwan’s foreign relations. This diversification should be viewed as a welcome move, as it will reduce the nation’s susceptibility to geopolitical volatility. At the same time, it is a massively ambitious endeavor, which requires high levels of horizontal inter-departmental coordination within the executive. The “spending deep” mindset in soft power deployment should also include the commitment to an overarching strategic framework – which, in the case of Taiwan, means upgrading and diversifying relations with regional partners. Yet, even while Taiwan professes a commitment to diversifying its foreign relations, the nation’s soft power projection initiatives are excessively concentrated in the West. This contradiction effectively diminishes the potential dividends of both policies.

The United States is Taiwan’s most important ally, and this state of affairs will likely prevail in the foreseeable future. Cultivating the next generation of Taiwan hands around Washington is highly beneficial for Taiwan – and understandable. Taiwan’s overemphasis on cultivating Taiwan studies in the West might also stem from the perception that when the West speaks, the rest of the world listens. At the same time, Taiwan ought to comprehend the risk of putting all its eggs in one basket. It is reaching saturation now, and with the emergence of the notion of the Indo-Pacific, if Taiwan does not find a way to further solidify the New Southbound Policy countries and engage people, it will be a missed opportunity.

Understandably, lack of reciprocity from the New Southbound Policy countries at different levels might act as a hindrance for Taiwan, but there is a need for Taiwan to diversify its partnerships and further bolster the very able New Southbound Policy.

By announcing the New Southbound Policy, Taiwan has laid the foundation for the diversification of its foreign relations. To fully capitalize on that, executive agencies need to coordinate their outbound activities and pursue a consistent strategy of engaging its partners across the Indo-Pacific. Diversification will serve as the bedrock of stability.

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