Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Tsai Ing-wen: Being President is like walking a tightrope

Posted by on 2023/04/06. Filed under Breaking News,China,Headline News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Described by those close to her as scholarly and scholarly, Ms Tsai is also known for her cautious and low-key manner of speaking. In 2016, she instructed her staff to keep quiet about a phone call she had with incoming President Donald Trump, even though it was the first time in decades that a Taiwanese leader had spoken to an American president or president-elect.

When she rose to the leadership of the Democratic Progressive Party 15 years ago, she was seen as a technocrat rather than a transformational politician. “Many commentators see Tsai Ing-wen as a transitional, relatively weak leader,” wrote a US diplomatic cable at the time, assessing her standing in Taiwanese politics.

Tsai, 66, who will end her second term as president next year, is on what could be her last foreign trip as one of the world’s most important leaders before stepping down. At the center of a huge divide between China and the United States, she has steered Taiwan through the conflicting demands of the world’s two most powerful nations, with China claiming to restore Taiwan to its authoritarian rule and the United States seeing a democratic Taiwan as part of a broader counterbalance to China.

Tsai’s schedule includes an expected meeting with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a trip aimed less at diplomatic breakthroughs than at bolstering Taiwan’s standing in the eyes of U.S. leaders at a time of major geopolitical uncertainty.

Tsai Ing-wen, then chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party, attends a protest against then-President Ma Ying-jeou’s China policies in 2009.

As president, Ms Tsai has forged the closest ties with the US since Taiwan’s transition to democracy nearly three decades ago, cementing its unofficial support and commitment to arms. For other countries that do not formally recognise Taiwan’s government, including Japan and some European countries, deepening ties with the US gives them more room to build ties with Taiwan.

This offers the best hope of strengthening defences in the face of Beijing’s increasingly belligerent demands to retake Taiwan by force. Ms Tsai has also tried to stand up to China without openly confronting the economic and military giant, which lies just 160km across the Taiwan Strait.

In private, Tsai has compared the presidency to “walking a tightrope,” according to two people who have worked closely with her. She looks to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who like her comes from academia, as a role model.

In an acerbic and witty reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, Tsai told an American audience, “My domestic politics are more difficult than yours because I have an external party on my side that wants to participate in politics,” recalled Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Hudson Institute, who attended the closed-door meeting hosted by the institute.

“The Taiwanese leader has been under constant pressure and coercion during her seven years in office, but she is upbeat and funny and communicates with her American audience like a seasoned politician,” he said.

When Tsai stepped forward to lead her Democratic Progressive Party in 2008, she had few rivals for the job. The party had just lost an election and the former president, Chen Shui-bian, was under investigation for corruption, leaving it reeling. Ms Tsai steawed the mood and, with a new grassroots fundraising campaign, managed both the resources needed and broad support.

She has had to learn to campaign, which in Taiwan sometimes involves speaking at large rallies fueled by rousing music. “She wasn’t fluent in Taiwanese at first, and she didn’t quite know when to speak on the platform,” recalled Liu Jianxin, a longtime aide to Tsai.

She has found her own style, making full use of social media to build wider connections with young Taiwanese. She started a mini-trend in pet politics by putting pictures of herself with her cat, Think CAI, in advertisements.
Ms Tsai will also have to overcome geopolitical suspicions about Taiwan. Although she is close to many in Washington, US leaders distrust her party, in part because of Mr Chen’s penchant for fiery speeches that irritate China and make it difficult for the US to improve relations with Beijing.

In 2011, Tsai visited the United States as the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate to present her views on foreign policy to the Obama administration. Afterwards, an unnamed senior US official told the Financial Times that she had left Americans with “obvious doubts” about her ability and willingness to maintain stability in Taiwan’s relations with Beijing, which were improving under President Ma Ying-jeou. Such sentiment from the United States helped propel Mr. Ma to victory in the 2012 presidential election.

This strategy has helped strengthen US-Taiwan relations. President Biden has repeatedly pledged that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of conflict, a statement that goes beyond his predecessors and the United States’ formal commitment to Taiwan. (Each time Mr. Biden said this, the White House came out to clarify that there had been no change in the deliberate policy of strategic ambiguity about whether the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict.) The additional military support and arms sales, as well as visits to Taiwan by U.S. officials, underscore closer U.S.-Taiwan ties.

“Tsai Ing-wen has always been a forthright person — she has consulted with the US beforehand and taken on board many of its suggestions,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Managing relations with China has become more difficult. Tsai has a long history of working with Chinese officials as head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. She had initially hoped that while Beijing traditionally distrusts the Democratic Progressive Party, which embraces a Taiwanese identity rather than a Chinese one, it would engage with her government.

A visit last year by former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking U.S. official to Taiwan in 25 years, was followed by large-scale military exercises around the island. This confrontational approach, along with Russia’s war in Ukraine, has raised awareness of a possible armed attack by China and the consensus on the need to be prepared, allowing Ms Tsai to extend the mandatory military service from four months to a year.

Still, many in the administration are concerned about Taiwan’s preparations. While Ms Tsai can point to her domestic achievements, including pension reform, effective coronavirus control measures and the legalisation of same-sex marriage, her efforts to strengthen human rights defences have been slow.

Ms Tsai must step down at the end of her second term next year. Given Taiwan’s fractious politics, her successor is unlikely to have her kind of self-restraint, which could make Taiwan’s already dangerous game of brinkmanship even more dangerous, said Rui-Kwong Bo, a former president of the American Institute in Taiwan.

“I think we’re going to miss her,” he said. “A real question is whether the Chinese will miss her. Do they wonder if a less cautious person in her post-presidency might prompt them to be less cautious, too? It’s a big question about the future.”

comments powered by Disqus