Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Practicing the ASEAN Way in APEC creates a Niche for "Taiwan's New Southbound Policy"

                                                                                                                                       Mei-Ling Tsai

     The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a core organization in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). APEC promotes regional collaboration and economic integration (Chiou 2015). The ASEAN way of interacting amongst its members has been the natural mode of conducting APEC routine operations (Lee 2012). Currently ASEAN has significant influence as there is great interest across the global community to want to interact with ASEAN. The European Union has created better connection with ASEAN through their "capacity-building project" initiated in 2007. Later in 2013, China's "One Belt One Road initiative" offers strategic infrastructure to consolidate its collaboration with ASEAN. Meanwhile, the US government launched the "Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative" to strengthen leadership development and promote its networking with ASEAN. To actively engage ASEAN's, Taiwan initiated its "new southbound policy" in 2016. The policy reflects Taiwan's new outward-looking economic strategy through mutual exchanges of various fields. BUT Taiwan needs to be aware the ASEAN way, prepare for how best to engage with ASEAN members, and then successfully build strong, sustainable relationships.

What is the ASEAN Way?

     The ASEAN Way refers to a methodology or approach which solves issues with respect to the cultural norms within Southeast Asia. Since Southeast Asia is a sub-region of Asia, the cultural norms of Southeast Asia are partly influenced by Eastern Ethics. There are different morals and values between Western and Eastern societies (Tiles 2000). As shown in Table 1, Western Ethics is about finding an absolute truth or ideal, whereas Eastern Ethics are very much about the protocol or process, showing of respect and harmony when managing conflicts.

Table I. Comparison between Western and Eastern Ethics


Western Ethics

Eastern Ethics


Finding truth, outcome

Protocol, process, and respect


Greek philosophy

Religious teachings


Logic, cause and effect.

Respect towards family

Roots in

Athens, Rome and Judeo­Christianity

Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism and Taoism



Holistic and cultural

Conflict and Harmony

Good must triumph over Evil

Good and Bad, Light and Dark all exist in equilibrium.
Image Courtesy:,

     Moreover, Southeast Asian member states have learned a hard lesson from historical suffering. Harsh experiences during Colonial rule, the Cold War, and China's attempts to export communism have taught these states to cherish state-sovereignty and domestic stability. Therefore, the member- states highly concentrate on nation-building and regime stability. Maintaining cooperative non-interventionist ties with other states is key, when solving regional conflicts. Constructive engagement has commonly been used to encourage gradual changes without embarrassing another member country.

     Based on the six core norms (sovereign equality, non-resource to the use of force, peaceful settlement of conflict, non-interference, non-intervention, non-involvement of ASEAN organization to address unresolved bilateral conflicts between members, mutual respect and tolerance, and quiet diplomacy), State members in ASEAN constantly utilize consultation, compromise and consensus in informal decision-making processes to solve interstate or intrastate conflicts.

      It becomes clear that under the influence of Eastern ethics, the ASEAN Way is a consensus-based, non-confrontational approach to solve problems through personal communication that strengthens relationships. People avoid embarrassing other members in the effort to avoid further conflict. Involvement of more members in regional Integration and cooperation provides greater benefits to ASEAN.

How is the ASEAN Way applied in APEC?

     The creation of APEC in 1989 supported the establishment of an open multilateral trade regime in a WTO-consistent manner. More recently functional operations have shown distinct regional characteristics. Three main pillars of APEC's work are trade and investment liberalization, business facilitation, and economic and technical cooperation. Under these three pillars, APEC sets annual targets, and acting through a "process- orientated" forum and form consultative mediation service to solve disputes or conflicts. Each member economy executes a non-binding and informal action voluntarily. Basically, the operation process in APEC follows WHO's guidelines of multilateralism coupled with four major principles: "cooperative security", "open regionalism", "soft regionalism", and "flexible consensuses". Consensus-building and consultation in a respectful manner secures individual members' commitment to economic cooperation in the region. Even though APEC's decisions are consensus-based, the non-binding rules which are designed to build regional trust and confidence cannot be enforced upon individual members to implement in their own institution. Members' voluntary commitment to conduct activities and fulfill obligations relies on peer pressure to monitor the progress of individual commitments. To avoid confrontation, APEC encourages members to settle disputes through consultation.

     As mentioned previously, the ASEAN Way involves a consensus- based, non-confrontational approach to solve problems through personal and informal communication. Similarly, a consensus-based, non-confrontational approach has been used in APEC to respect all members and ensure their commitment. APEC provides consultation as an alternative approach to build regional trust.

What should Taiwan be aware when marching into ASEAN market?

     Hofstede in 2001 presented a positive correlation between cultural and regional traits. In general, collectivism exists in Eastern cultures and individualism exists in Western cultures. Gorodnichenko and Roland in 2010 reported the cultural impact on economically relevant behaviors. People from collectivistic cultures are specialized in coordination-centered work, prefer to solve conflicts through informal inside groups, show greater collective ability in action, and express better distinction between benevolent and bad rulers. However, those people show a weaker sense of freedom and equality.

     Although people in both Taiwan and ASEAN are immersed in a collectivistic culture, after the post-war period, the strong impact of both American and British cultures on decision-making of Taiwanese business executives in the late 20th century. Subsequently, Taiwan has become westernized. Continuous improvement of Taiwan’s performance in global business has strengthened Taiwanese confidence and changed its typical behavioral approach from collectivism to individualism. More recently, an aggressive media system and an adversarial political system have reinforced this attitudinal change to how Taiwanese deal with conflict management. Confrontational communications in various political events have been broadcasted through various forms of mass media. Intensive transmission of social media has accelerated this transformation of Taiwanese society from collectivism to individualism. Both the increase of national wealth and the diverse assortment of mass media accelerate the tilt of Taiwan’s culture toward an individualistic type. People in Taiwan manage conflicts and make decision now no longer the same as they did before.

     Dramatic changes of Taiwanese culture in the past decades create a cultural gap between Taiwan and ASEAN in the 21st century. When engaging in ASEAN markets nowadays, westernized Taiwan will encounter the eastern culture of ASEAN members. Various levels of cultural misunderstandings may be created with the increased interactions between Taiwan and ASEAN members. The question is whether we have sufficient cultural intelligence to manage the cultural diversity.

What can Taiwan learn from APEC when the New Southbound Policy takes off?

     Relatively speaking, Taiwan is still a homogenous society. Although more than 600,000 overseas workers from ASEAN’s countries work in Taiwan, their right to speak is very limited. People in Taiwan do not have many chances to interact with these overseas workers on an equal basis, except their traveling experiences in ASEAN’s countries. Since people in Taiwan have very limited training in intercultural communication or cultural intelligence, we must learn how to initiate intercultural communication development across regional settings.

     APEC is the premier Asia-Pacific economic forum. Because more collectivistic members than individualistic ones compose this organization, the ASEAN way with Eastern ethics has been embedded in the process of interactions among APEC members. This consensus-based, non-confrontational approach is used to facilitate respect among all members and ensure their commitment to the overall objectives and ideals of APEC. Informal consultation provides a personal approach to solve conflicts without embarrassing stakeholders. If the ASEAN Way is at the operational core of APEC, this process used in APEC effectively improves an interactive dialog in intercultural settings. That will be the best approach to practice intercultural communication.

     Now, is the time with the New Southbound Policy being implemented that many people in Taiwan should practice the ASEAN Way to appreciate the beauty of ASEAN’s cultures and build a decent partnership with ASEAN’s people.

(Dr. Mei-Ling Tsai is an Associate Professor at Department of Physiology, National Cheng Kung University)


The author thanks Paul R Saunders PhD in the Global Competency Project of National Cheng Kung University for his excellent suggests and assistance in preparing the article.


1. Chiou E (2015). The Year of Promising Economic Integration in the Asia-Pacific. Asia Pacific Perspectives 1, 4-7.

2. Lee C (2012). The ASEAN-Way and Multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific Region. Asia-Pacific Forum. 55, 1-23.

3. Gorodnichenko Y and Roland G (2010). "Culture, Institutions and the Wealth of Nations," NBER Working Papers 16368. National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

4. Hofstede G (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations across Nations. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

5. Tiles JE (2000). Moral Measures- an introduction to ethics West and East. 1st ed. Routledge Publications.


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