On October 11-12, politicians, community leaders, academics, and social entrepreneurs from across the Indo-Pacific region and the world gathered in Taipei for the 2018 Yushan Forum (玉山論壇) organized by the newly established Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (臺灣亞洲交流基金會). The Forum included eight panels focused on a wide range of issues from talent cultivation, industrial innovation, regional agriculture, medical and public health cooperation, civil society, think tanks, youth leaders and cultural institutions.
The 2018 Yushan Forum, which was attended by more than 1,000 participants over the course of two days, featured 51 representatives from 17 countries, including international leaders such as Nobel Peace Prize laureates Frederik Willem de Klerk and Kailash Satyarthi. Modeled in form after the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asia-Pacific Roundtable, and the Raisina Dialogue, the Yushan Forum, according to the conference organizer, is intended to become an international platform focused on enhancing social connectivity and progress and to help bolster Taiwan’s “New Southbound Policy.”
Under the banner of “Working Together for Regional Prosperity,” President Tsai Ing-wen highlighted in her opening keynote at the Forum that, “coupled with the growing demand for inclusive growth and sustainable development in the world, we need more cooperation between Indo-Pacific societies, to take collective actions and shape our future together.”
Touting the success of her administration’s “New Southbound Policy,” which aims to increase economic and people-to-people engagement with 18 countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, Tsai noted that over 41,000 students from New Southbound countries went to study in Taiwan in the first half of 2018 with the government aiming to attract 48,000 students in 2019. At the same time, the number of Taiwanese students studying in target countries increased by nearly 20 percent. Also, more than four million tourists from New Southbound countries went to Taiwan in the last two years. On the economic and trade front, the government and private firms signed a total of 69 MOUs and letters of intent for cooperation with the New Southbound countries. In 2017, bilateral trade between Taiwan and New Southbound countries grew by around 15 percent year-on-year. Taiwan investment in those countries also rose by 54 percent, while approved investment by partner countries into Taiwan also increased by around 15 percent.
While the Forum was mostly focused on economic and other practical areas of cooperation, speakers did not shy away from pointing out the importance of Taiwan’s democratic model. As former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, the Honorable Kasit Piromya, stated, Taiwan is “second to none” for its dual developments as a full-fledged democratic country and as an advanced, economically developed entity. He implored Taiwan to not be “shy” that it is an open and democratic society, while China is trying to convince its neighbors that it is better to have an authoritarian government for social and economic development. To be sure, the “China Model,” which attributes China’s economic growth to an exceptional model of social and economic development, is not simply an economic model but encompasses politics and the global balance of power—and at the center of it includes a powerful one-party state and a massive state sector.
The former Thai foreign minister was not the first to point out that China is promoting its system abroad. As journalist Richard Mcgregor also observed:
Increasingly, China is promoting its system as an alternative to Western democracy, something that was rare even five years ago. Mr. Xi now talks about the “China solution” for a world facing political and financial turmoil. In place of such uncertainties, which Beijing blames on the West, Mr. Xi lauds China’s “wisdom” of global governance. [… ]What Mr. Xi is really promoting is something else: the idea that authoritarian political systems are not only legitimate but can outperform Western democracies.
The rise of revisionist authoritarian states’ is leading to a competition of models in economic, social, and political developments in the world. China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, which was launched in 2013 with the stated aim to connect major Eurasian economies through infrastructure, trade, and investments worth an estimated $1 trillion over 10-15 years, is, as Nadège Rolland assesses, “to build a Sinocentric Eurasian order in which Beijing’s influence and power have significantly expanded, authoritarian regimes have been consolidated, and liberal norms have receded.” The New Southbound Policy and the Yushan Forum present a stark contrast to the PRC’s OBOR initiative, and the United States sees Taiwan as a partner in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. As noted at the Yushan Forum by US Ambassador Atul Keshap:
Ample opportunity exists for Taiwan-South Asian cooperation in the areas of entrepreneurship, public health and women’s empowerment. For example, Taiwan can collaborate with Bangladesh to expand into electronics manufacturing, or partner with Sri Lanka develop its Information Technology sector, or collaborate with India to develop high value/high trust supply chains. The US can be a partner in these efforts through the Global Cooperation and Training Framework and there are no doubt many more avenues for mutually beneficial cooperation. Such efforts will forge additional Indo-Pacific linkages, boost prosperity and trade, enhance security, and help the aspirational people of South Asia taste even more of the prosperity of the modern world. For this vision to become a reality, it is absolutely vital and essential that all of us strive to ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific for the next 70 years and beyond.
The competition in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world is between “models” of social, economic, and political developments. How emerging nations develop will help shape the narrative of the world’s future. As a forum for enhancing social connectivity within the region, the Yushan Forum has the potential to become the international platform to showcase the free and open model for social and economic development: a ‘Taiwan Model.’ The United States, Taiwan, and like-minded partners should use all tools to counter the authoritarian model and narrative for development. In the process, as President Tsai stated at the end of her speech: “Taiwan can help Asia, and Asia can help Taiwan.”
The main point: The Yushan Forum provides a good platform to showcase the ‘Taiwan Model’ that can complement the model given by other countries to provide an alternative to the China Model of development.
The article is published Global Taiwan Brief Vol. 3, Issue 21.