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The Future of the Taiwan-Australia Relationship


Author: Harrison Williams


Taiwan and Australia enjoy robust bonds forged through mutual interests as well as complementary assets. As democratic states, they share the same foundational values of open and free societies. Building on the strength of their current relationship, how can the Taiwan-Australia relationship develop to further benefit both parties? This article focuses on the future of people-to-people exchanges between Taiwan and Australia and how they can contribute to a better, mutually beneficial relationship.

Although Australia does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the two countries nonetheless enjoy a vibrant relationship based on trade, investment, education, tourism and people-to-people ties.


Taiwan was Australia's sixth-largest merchandise export market in 2018 (worth AUD$10.6 billion), while Taiwanese exports to Australia were worth AUD$5 billion in that year. In addition to coal, minerals and natural gas, agricultural products are another major export item from Australia to Taiwan. In contrast, Taiwanese exports to Australia mostly include high-technology and communications merchandise. The trade relationship between Taiwan and Australia can therefore be described as a complementary one.


In terms of people-to-people links, apart from Taiwanese tourists, business travellers and students coming to study in Australia, each year young people from Taiwan also come to Australia through the Working Holidaymaker Scheme. Taiwanese consistently rank within in the top six largest groups of foreign nationals taking advantage of this scheme. Interestingly, Taiwan also has a Working Holidaymaker Scheme available to Australians, among others; however, the number of Australian nationals who participate in the scheme every year rarely gets close to filling the fairly low quota of around one thousand applicants (the number changes every year).


While it is hard to get an exact figure on the number of Australian nationals studying degree-related programs in Taiwan, the figure is probably also not very high. According to MOE statistics, the number of foreign students in Taiwan studying degree and non-degree programs totalled around 126,997 in 2018. Australia was not among the top ten national origin of foreign students, according to these statistics. This is despite the fact that both the Australian Government (through incentives such as the New Colombo Plan) as well as the Taiwanese Government (through the Ministry of Education’s Huayu Enrichment Scholarship and the Taiwan Scholarship, among others) both offer generous incentives for Australian nationals to study in Taiwan. One reason for this may be the increasing popularity of the People’s Republic of China as a destination for Australian students, to both undergo exchanges as part of their degree in an Australian University as well as a destination to learn Mandarin Chinese.


Based on these statistics, more work could be done to promote Taiwan as a destination for Australian students. More Australian students traveling to Taiwan could have valuable outcomes for both countries. On the Australian side, although the quality of Australian learning institutions is very high, their ability to compete with those in Taiwan falls flat in two areas. First, it is in the immersive environment required to achieve fluency in a foreign language. Needless to say, Taiwan is a superior environment in which to learn Mandarin Chinese. In addition, in contrast to China, Taiwan is a democratic country that has similar principles – such as freedom of the press, rule of law, democratic and free elections, multiculturalism – which arguably makes it a better place for Australians to study, if we consider education a holistic practice where the student is able and encouraged to learn about the environment where they study. In the same vein, Taiwan has certain characteristics, such as their aforementioned high-tech industry, which Australian students would have the opportunity to learn about, either through study and immersion or accompanying internships. The skills and knowledge garnered from such experience could be brought back to Australia and ultimately enrich the national pool of skilled workers.


On the Taiwanese side of the equation, creating more people-to-people connections with Australia through Australians who studied in Taiwan could result in more Australian interest and favourable policies towards Taiwan (for example, diplomatically or in terms of trade and investment). Further, more Australian native-English speakers in Taiwan could help supply the country with English teachers, who are currently in demand, as students studying in Taiwan could teach English or undertake language exchanges with Taiwanese in their spare time. University-educated and other students from a native-English speaking background would be highly qualified to help local Taiwanese with their English in such situations, as local Taiwanese would be able to help Australians with their Mandarin.

Both Taiwan and Australia have so far had very successful responses to the COVID-19 outbreak. At the same time, sections of both countries’ economies that rely on tourism and international travel are suffering greatly. Ironically, countries that have done best with their COVID-19 response will also be the most reluctant to open their borders to international travellers again because they have more to lose (particularly if an effective vaccine takes years to develop or is never developed). Qantas CEO Alan Joyce recently suggested that international travel may not be possible again till mid 2021, and even then it will not be ‘business as usual’, as travellers may be asked to provide proof of vaccination and/or undergo COVID-19 tests. An unsatisfactory result in either case would result in turning back travellers and, in worse case scenarios of secondary outbreaks, border closures could again be implemented.


One solution that has been floated is a ‘COVID-19-safe travel bubble’ of countries that have managed to get the pandemic under control. This would allow some international travel to resume (specifically, non-stop flights to minimise infection risk) and provide a much-needed boost to sectors impacted by the travel ban. These countries would most likely be in the Oceania region to fulfil the one-stop flight criteria. Countries that have fared better throughout the outbreak, such as Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand, would be a natural choice for such a travel bubble. This is therefore another area for collaboration between Taiwan and Australia in the future.

During my time interning at the Taipei City Government, I was proud to be able to be a part of exchanges between Australia and Taiwan alongside my supervisor, then-Taipei City Government Deputy Spokesperson Chen Kuan-ting. Creation of the Taipei City Government International Intern program, video-exchanges between the Mayor of Taipei and an Australia-based social housing provider, and the establishment of major sports events were all achievements that I was able to take part in. But beyond this, there is so much I learnt in Taiwan that is difficult to put into simple dot points. From supporting Taiwan’s vibrant high-tech scene and cyber-security environment to the way the Taiwanese government has managed a difficult diplomatic relationship with China, these are increasingly issues that we face, not just as individual nations but as a region. I firmly believe that increased collaboration between those nations facing similar problems will be part of any long-term solution.

Harrison Williams served as the first International Research Intern at the Taipei City Government and helped to establish the program for future university students; he graduated from the University of Sydney in 2017 and was awarded First Class Honours and the Richard B. David Prize for Asian Anthropology for his thesis on the Chinese perspectives of African traders in Guangzhou.

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