Compared to the social upheaval over the handling of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement between Taiwan and China, little attention has been paid over other recent international trade agreements signed by Taiwan. One particular example, the agreement with New Zealand, provides a stark contrast in its progressiveness with a whole section dedicated to indigenous cooperation.

On July 10, 2013, Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with New Zealand, known as the Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (ANZTEC). ANZTEC is Taiwan’s first agreement with a nation that is regarded as “developed” as well as one with diplomatic ties with China.

As Taiwan’s government focuses on relying on the Chinese economy to secure Taiwan’s future, trade deals such as ANZETC should remind the Taiwanese public that there is potential for Taiwan to generate substantial economic growth from other nations in the world. Common sense dictates that there is more economic security when a country diversifies its economy and expands the number of its trade partners.

But the ANZTEC agreement points to something that may be of greater significance for the future than just a trade deal. The cultural connections between New Zealand and Taiwan played a role in the agreement.

Section 19 of ANZTEC mandates that the two nations develop cooperative ties between New Zealand’s and Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. The indigenous peoples of both sides, such as the Atayal and Amis tribes in Taiwan and the Maori tribes in New Zealand, belong to the Austronesian family of peoples. Through DNA research and linguistics, researchers have shown that they are closely related, with Austronesian ancestors migrating from Taiwan across the Pacific since several thousand years ago. Today, the similarities between the distant cousins can be seen in their cultures and languages.

New Zealand Auckland War Memorial Museum Taiwan Map

Taiwan’s Formosan branch of the Austronesian peoples. (Photo by Tony Coolidge)

With initiatives for cultural collaboration and media cooperation, people from both sides will be able to deepen their mutual understanding and appreciation of their shared ancestry and culture. The sharing of a common culture could be a more effective means of strengthening the bonds of the bilateral relationship than pure economic benefits. Learning how much the peoples have in common with each other can shorten the perceived distance between them.

Furthermore, an increased awareness of the cultural similarities has the potential to lead to better cultural tourism. With New Zealanders more interested in the rich diversity of Austronesian culture throughout Taiwan, indigenous communities on our island could benefit from more tourist visits. Indigenous tourism has low environmental impact, and more importantly, gives Taiwan’s indigenous peoples financial incentive to teach their traditional culture to their children. Giving a boost to the sales of indigenous products can provide sustainability to a culture that has long suffered from a low level of interest and appreciation. Increased cultural pride and self-reliance will make it easier for indigenous communities to preserve their languages and culture and reduce their reliance on social welfare programs.

Looking even further into the world, Taiwan and New Zealand are two of the most important territories for the Austronesian people, but there are 400 million people living in 38 Austronesian nations, including Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Brunei, Fiji and Madagascar. Individually, they may not be wealthy nations, but together, they offer an abundance and diversity of resources, including oil and technology. It is possible that these Austronesian nations may want to follow New Zealand’s example and establish relations with Taiwan in an economic partnership that is inspired by their shared cultural ties.

The Taiwanese people should be proud of the parts of their heritage that is Chinese. But more significantly, they should also recognize that their ancient Austronesian heritage can offer something to the world that China cannot replace or replicate. The Austronesian cultures and languages of Taiwan are worth preserving. They inspire national pride and drive transnational cooperation. If Austronesian nations increased their economic activities with Taiwan, Taiwan’s international economic value would increase. A stronger Taiwan will have more to offer China as a trade partner. Who in Taiwan would not want a stronger economy like this?

Currently, the political situation has the region and the world narrowly looking at Taiwan’s potential reliance on and contention with China. But the Sunflower Movement showed that the a great number of people in Taiwan do not want to put all of their eggs into one basket. Perhaps if Taiwan were to position itself as the gateway to the Austronesian marketplace, and develop these international business and cultural relationships, there would be much less for future generations of Taiwanese to worry about. It is worth considering that the Austronesian heritage of Taiwan’s past may hold the key to the brightest hope for its future.

(Feature photo by Tony Coolidge)

Tony Coolidge

Tony Coolidge is the founder of ATAYAL, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting the indigenous peoples of Taiwan and beyond. Tony and ATAYAL produced Voices in the Clouds, a documentary about Tony's search for his Atayal aboriginal roots in Wulai, Taiwan, and hold an annual exchange program bringing Maori students from New Zealand to Taiwan. He is based in Tainan, Taiwan.