Asean is not a singular whole, but a group of countries with different industries and needs. So Taiwan should do more to tailor its contributions to individual countries in the 10-nation bloc if it wants to do more business in the region, said Mr Simon Wong, Singapore's trade representative in Taiwan.
This includes getting Taiwanese and Asean scholars to conduct more joint studies to explore niche areas it can contribute to, and tailoring university courses to develop expertise that will expand Taiwan's presence in the region, he added.
"Currently, the consciousness of Taiwan in Asean and vice versa is not high enough," Mr Wong said.
"But if you have deep studies and drill down to the specific industries and economic areas to grow, you can see that each Asean country is different, and Taiwan can then see where the money is (and) where the outcome is."
Mr Wong was speaking at the inaugural Taiwan-Asean Dialogue in Taipei on Tuesday. Co-hosted by Taiwanese non-profit think-tank Prospect Foundation and its Indonesian counterparts, The Indonesian Council on World Affairs and Habibie Centre, the event was attended by some 200 former and current parliamentarians, diplomats and scholars from Taiwan and Asean.
The dialogue took place as the government looks to expand its trade and investment links with South-east Asia and reduce its reliance on China - a key policy proposed by President Tsai Ing-wen during her presidential campaign.
The move is also underpinned by the already strong trade ties between Taiwan and Asean, the island's second-largest trade partner, with a market share of 16 per cent. Bilateral trade grew 45 per cent to US$79.3 billion (S$112 billion) last year.
The government wants to use its New Southbound Policy to help Taiwanese firms ink trade deals with their counterparts in 18 countries or states in South-east Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Mr Wong's suggestion on how Taiwan can get its policy right comes as Ms Tsai declared that the initiative to pivot south has entered the "operational phase".
Speaking at the same event, she elaborated on how the NT$4.2 billion (S$186 million) plan's vision will "turn into concrete initiatives", adding that Taiwan would be Asean's "most reliable partner".
Citing her government's move to simplify visa requirements for Asean visitors in July, Ms Tsai said Taiwan saw more than 120,000 visitors from the region in September, a 19 per cent rise from the same month last year.
She also said her government aims to sign new trade deals and renew existing bilateral investment agreements to make Taiwanese firms more competitive.
Ms Tsai is the third president to attempt a pivot to the south to snag favourable trade deals in South-east Asia, after Mr Lee Teng-hui in 1993 and Mr Chen Shui-bian in 2002.
Where Ms Tsai's plan differs is its focus on the "people element", said Mr Wong, adding that Taiwan faces limited resources and can better match its talent to expand cooperation with Asean in niche areas. "Between Asean and Taiwan, the economic space is very big. We will be able to find specific areas of collaboration."
Also weighing in on the New Southbound Policy was former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, who spoke at a closed-door luncheon at the dialogue.
He told The Straits Times that Taiwan has always maintained a presence in South-east Asia, which has resulted in "tremendous synergy and goodwill".
What Taiwan needs to do now is to retune or tweak its presence by helping Asean countries plug the gaps in the areas of science, technology and innovation, said Professor Pitsuwan.
"That means going beyond transferring ready-made original equipment manufacturing businesses and factories, and looking into reproducing the kind of tech talent Taiwan has in Asean."