Rediscovering an Old Relationship
Taiwan and Southeast Asia's Long, Shared History

by Ja Ian Chong
January 11, 2018

Ja Ian Chong (National University of Singapore) describes Southeast Asia and Taiwan as jointly embedded in a thick web of relations that provides ready-made groundwork for the further development of ties. This brief is part of the series “Re-examining Critical Links between Taiwan and Southeast Asia: The New Southbound Policy in the Tsai Era.”

Contemporary impressions of Taiwan’s relations with Southeast Asia tend to focus on flows of labor, capital, tourism, and marriage. Countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand carry the impression that they are the origins of cheap, sometimes easily exploitable, migrant labor for employers in Taiwan. Many people in Taiwan also see the former two countries as sources of brides for lower-income men.[1] These same countries, along with Cambodia and, to a lesser degree, Malaysia, are locations where Taiwanese capital is invested in factories for low-cost labor, proximity to Taiwan and China, and the relative absence of political contentiousness for being Taiwanese. With the advent of cheap air travel, Taiwan and Southeast Asia also offer the middle class in these areas options for quick holiday getaways. These interactions and the condescension toward Southeast Asia that sometimes accompany them belie the rich history of interactions that Taiwan and Southeast Asia share.

Taiwan’s own history is deeply intertwined and often runs in parallel with that of Southeast Asia. The island’s location off the Asian mainland and astride sea lanes between Northeast and Southeast Asia means that it has long been part of the networks of migration, commerce, cultural interaction, and conflict traversing the area. In many respects, these types of sub-state, social exchanges continue to characterize linkages between Southeast Asia and Taiwan today. Scratch the surface, and these connections are evident in business, popular culture, religious practices, family ties, and even the languages spoken in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Outreach efforts between Taiwan and Southeast Asia, such as Taipei’s New Southbound Policy, are natural extensions of these long-standing relationships and can serve to further consolidate existing societal and other bonds that reach across the South China Sea. Even if official ties are subject to the usual political constraints, due to either direct pressure from Beijing or preemptive efforts to avoid provoking China, substantive possibilities for fostering Taiwan’s relations with Southeast Asia remain.

Common Pasts

Southeast Asia–Taiwan ties predate the now familiar notion of sovereign nation states and their territorial boundaries, going back to the history of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples. The Formosan languages that Taiwan’s aborigines speak are part of the Austronesian language family, which also includes languages spoken from the modern-day Philippines through Malaysia and Indonesia, such as Tagalog and Malay.[2] Linguistic historians and historians generally attribute this spread of languages and cultures to migration across maritime Southeast Asia, parts of coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and Taiwan. This movement of peoples was possible through the maritime routes linking Taiwan to various parts of Southeast Asia, starting with Luzon in the contemporary Philippines, just across the Bashi Channel from southern Taiwan. Such networks of exchange manifest themselves in different forms historically, but nonetheless embed Taiwan in a network of interactions with Southeast Asia that casual observers overlook.

Migrations to Taiwan from Fujian and Guangdong extended the island’s ties not just across the Taiwan Strait but to Southeast Asia as well. Many settlers on Taiwan from the seventeenth century on came from Minnan-speaking areas like Quanzhou, Zhangzhou, Amoy, and Quemoy, just as these regions were originally home to emigrants from Luzon, Penang, Malacca, Batavia, and Singapore.[3] Such migration patterns meant that family networks spread across these areas. The movement of people brought with it shared linguistic, religious, and cultural practices, with temple networks linking Taiwan, various parts of Southeast Asia, and Fujian, that are still active today. Minnan—which is the immediate linguistic family to which Taiwanese belongs—remains a main lingua franca for ethnic Chinese settler communities in Southeast Asia.[4] Given the long history of contact with the Malay world, Minnan, including Taiwanese, contains many Malay loanwords while Malay and Indonesian similarly borrow vocabulary from Minnan.[5]

Commerce and Conquest

Straddling communication links between Southeast and Northeast Asia enabled Taiwan to become a fulcrum of maritime might in the seventeenth century. Using Taiwan and the Pescadores (Penghu) as bases, privateer-pirates like Iquan (Zheng Zhilong) and his son Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) became highly influential in seaborne trade from Sumatra and Java through Luzon, Macau, Fujian, Guangdong, and Kyushu.[6] Wealth that accrued from such activities allowed the Zhengs to build a navy and encourage immigration to Taiwan from Fujian and Guangdong, steps that established the foundations for their political authority on the island and its surrounding areas. Iquan first challenged Ming authority along the Fujian and Guangdong coasts in the early seventeenth century, while Koxinga expelled Dutch and Spanish garrisons from Taiwan by the mid-seventeenth century and later took on the mantle of resistance to the invading Manchu Qing empire. The regime that Koxinga established on Taiwan held out against vastly superior Qing forces until the late seventeenth century, when the Qing finally defeated the Zheng regime and incorporated Taiwan.

Motivating the earlier Dutch and Spanish efforts to establish settlements on and occupy parts of Taiwan during the early seventeenth century was the island’s strategic location and resources.[7] The European colonial presence on Taiwan sought to build on and further develop Taiwan’s maritime links with both Southeast and Northeast Asia. Taiwan was just north of Spain’s colonial holdings in the Philippines and closer to trading ports in Fujian, Guangdong, and Kyushu. For the Dutch, Taiwan promised a means to leapfrog their Spanish rivals to access these same ports and markets, given that the main Dutch colonial holding at the time was in Java, much farther south. The Spanish and Dutch presence on Taiwan saw attempts to control and trade with aboriginal tribes, as well as the encouragement of migration from Fujian and the Pescadores, which started the displacement of aboriginal peoples on Taiwan.

Colonialism and Conflict

Taiwan and Southeast Asia too are bound by the webs of conflict and conquest that characterized much of the twentieth century in Asia. Japan, of course, colonized Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, and brought most of Southeast Asia into its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere as it invaded the region in 1942. Some argue that Taiwan’s colonization persisted as the Kuomintang (KMT) took control of the island from Japan under the terms of the Cairo Declaration as the then Chinese government and continued at least until the political liberalization of the 1980s. In this respect, Taiwan and its population share the experience of colonialism with much of Southeast Asia, save for Thailand. This meant comparable histories of colonial rule that brought elements of economic development and modernization along with subjugation, exploitation, organized state violence, survival, and resistance.

Given the cultural and linguistic similarities between Japan’s Taiwanese subjects and many ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, Taiwanese business people formed part of the Japanese empire’s efforts to establish commercial ties in pre–World War II Southeast Asia.[8] Some Taiwanese in the region later acted as spies for the Japanese military in the lead-up to Japan’s southward military expansion, and subsequently as interrogators and police officers to help control the local population.[9] Taiwanese too served in the imperial Japanese military as it occupied large areas of Southeast Asia from the Philippines through Burma and the Dutch East Indies. Taiwan itself was an important staging ground for the Japanese military as it prepared for the invasion of Malaya and Singapore.[10] Generations of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia who lived through World War II sometimes carry strongly negative memories of people from Taiwan, whom they associate with the atrocities and excesses of the Japanese military. Taiwanese serving with Japanese forces in Southeast Asia faced their own ordeal of repatriation after the war, with many dying in camps and prisons while waiting to go home.[11]

Cold War Circulations

The Cold War saw East Asia divided into areas under Communist and anti-Communist rule. Along with most of maritime Southeast Asia, Thailand, and Burma, Taiwan ultimately came under the control of a conservative, anti-Communist regime in the form of the KMT. On top of U.S. military assistance, most of these areas shared access to the U.S. and Japanese markets, investment, and aid. These economic networks helped underpin growth and development, particularly as part of the economic boom that accompanied the Korean and Vietnam Wars, providing the foundations of East Asia’s prosperity.[12] Taiwan was a destination of choice for ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia seeking higher education outside Communist influence, but locked out of opportunities at home by discriminatory racial policies.[13] However, being in the anti-Communist camp often meant coming under authoritarian regimes ready to use state violence on their own populations to eradicate communists and other threats to their rule. This was certainly the case during the KMT’s White Terror in Taiwan, Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law in the Philippines, Suharto’s New Order in Indonesia, and arguably elsewhere in Southeast Asia as well.

Cold War–era anti-Communist ties also put Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia within overlapping cultural spheres once again. Not only were these areas consumers of the new American popular culture produced in movie studios in Hollywood and recording studios across the United States, they too were producers of popular culture that circulated throughout the region, at least for a time.[14] Production houses and distribution networks in pre-independence Singapore that created Malay films popular in Singapore, Malaya, and Indonesia were also responsible for making Mandarin, Minnan, and Cantonese films for markets in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Movies, popular music, and television shows from Taiwan have likewise been widely marketed and well-received from Thailand through Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia since the 1970s. This circulation of popular culture during the Cold War created common cultural markers and references for generations of people in Taiwan and across Southeast Asia that persist to this day.

Reorienting Public Attention

Official and popular emphasis on cross-strait relations and ties with Japan and the United States over the past decades has somewhat obscured the extensiveness of Taiwan–Southeast Asia ties in the public mind. Certainly, paying attention to Taiwan’s ties with major powers active in Asia does not have to come at the expense of appreciating the island’s ties with the rest of its neighborhood. However, the KMT’s decades-long emphasis on Taiwan’s status as part of China (with a Mandarin high culture), along with the island’s frontline role in the early Cold War and the legacies of Japanese colonial rule, puts these sets of relations at the fore of mainstream narratives about Taiwan. Aid flows, foreign investment, the inflow of technology, and export-oriented economic policies targeting developed economies reinforced the importance of the United States and Japan in the public consciousness across non-communist Southeast Asia and Taiwan. Such perspectives were pervasive in everything from school textbooks to official publications and mass media representations, drawing attention away from the ubiquitous but more pedestrian linkages between Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia and Taiwan are jointly embedded in a thick web of relations that provides ready-made groundwork for the further development of ties. If nothing else, their histories and physical proximity suggest that what affects Southeast Asia quickly influences Taiwan and vice versa. That the Tsai Ing-wen administration is trying to heighten Taiwan’s linkages with Southeast Asia comes as little surprise, and is reminiscent of the Lee Teng-hui administration’s earlier Go South Policy from the 1990s. Outreach between Taiwan and Southeast Asia naturally complements and bolsters the connections these areas already share with Japan, China, and the United States. Interactions can take advantage of the social and cultural capital established from extended contact to enhance collaboration on a variety of fronts , and can go beyond the admittedly important, but albeit largely transactional, commercial exchanges. From environmental protection to disaster relief and recovery, public health, cultural conservation, and fisheries management, societies in Southeast Asia and Taiwan have much to learn from each other in terms of meeting the many contemporary challenges they jointly face.


[1] Isabelle Cheng, “Making Foreign Women the Mother of Our Nation: The Exclusion and Assimilation of Immigrant Women in Taiwan,” Asian Ethnicity 14, no. 2 (2013): 157–79.

[2] Michael Stainton, “The Politics of Taiwan Aboriginal Origins,” in Taiwan: A New History, ed. Murray A. Rubinstein (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2007), 27–44.

[3] Stainton, “The Politics of Taiwan Aboriginal Origins.”

[4] Minnan, or Southern Min, is a Sinitic language spoken in Taiwan, parts of Fujian, Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Hainan in China. It is commonly spoken in ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, such as in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Linguists find little mutual intelligibility between Southern Min and other major Sinitic language families, such as Mandarin, Cantonese (Yue), and Wu. See Victor H. Mair, “The Classification of Sinitic Languages: What Is ‘Chinese?’” in Breaking Down the Barriers: Interdisciplinary Studies in Chinese Linguistics and Beyond, vol. 2, ed. Guangshun Cao, Hilary Chappell, Redouane Diamouri, and Thekla Wiebush (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 2013), 735–54.

[5] Victor Mair, “Malaysian Multilingualism,” Language Log, September 11, 2009,; and Henning Klöter, “Writing Taiwanese: The People Behind the Scripts,” in Transformation! Innovation? Perspectives on Taiwan Culture, ed. Christina Neder and Ines Susanne Schilling (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrasowitz KG, 2003), 45–64.

[6] Tonio Andrade, Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[7] Tonio Andrade, How Taiwan Became Chinese: Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

[8] Lin Man-houng, “The Power of Culture and Its Limits: Taiwanese Merchants’ Asian Commodity Flows, 1895–1945,” in
Chinese Circulations: Capital, Commodities, and Networks in Southeast Asia
, ed. Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-chin Chang (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 306–35.

[9] National Archives of Singapore, Interview with Lim Bo Yam by Tan Beng Luan, Japanese Occupation of Singapore, Accession Number 00314, Oral History of Singapore, Reel 5/8, September 10, 1983,; and National Archives of Singapore, Interview with Teong Ah Chin by Tan Beng Luan, Japanese Occupation of Singapore, Accession Number 000047, Oral History of Singapore, Reel 4/24, June 25, 1984,

[10] Akashi Yoji, “The Nanyo Kyokai and British Malaya and Singapore, 1915–45,” in New Perspectives of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Singapore, 1941–45, ed. Akashi Yoji and Mako Yoshimura (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008), 30–31.

[11] Shih-shan Henry Tsai, Maritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West (London: Routledge, 2009), chap. 8.

[12] Richard Stubbs, “The Origins of East Asia’s Developmental States and the Pressure for Change,” in Asia after the Developmental State: Disembedding Autonomy, ed. Toby Carroll and Darryl S.L. Jarvis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 54–57.

[13] Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Taiwan), Chinese Education in Malaysia: The Taiwan Connection,” May 8, 2017,

[14] Sai-Shing Yung, “Territorialization and the Entertainment Industry of the Shaw Brothers in Southeast Asia,” in China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema, ed. Poshek Fu (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 133–53.

Ja Ian Chong is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore. His research covers the politics of security in the Asia-Pacific. He is the author of External Intervention and the Politics of State Formation: China, Indonesia, Thailand, 1893–1952 (2012).