Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
On 11 January 2020 Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen won a major re-election victory, with her inauguration taking place two weeks ago, on 20 May 2020. What are the expectations for her second term? How will she deal with the domestic challenges? How far and how fast will much-needed domestic reforms go? How will she deal with the challenge across the Taiwan Strait, where Beijing is taking positions and making moves that are increasingly threatening to Taiwan’s freedom and democracy? How will she manoeuvre to broaden and enhance Taiwan’s international space in the face of Beijing’s attempts to undermine and smother Taiwan’s global presence?
In this article, we will attempt to lay out a modest and practical vision of what we may expect in the coming four years. Of course, there are significant uncertainties, both domestically and internationally. Still, if past experience is a guide, she and her government will be able to deal with those in an even-handed and level-headed fashion, and Taiwan along with its people will be better off because of it.
A Brief Retrospective
Those who want to look into the future will do well first to take a look at the past. What can we glean from President Tsai’s performance during her first term in office? Her election in 2016 was a high note, as it ended eight years of Kuomintang rule under President Ma Ying-jeou, who had been edging closer to China, certainly in economic terms, but increasingly also in political terms. After the Sunflower Movement of March-April 2014, the tide started to turn, with the Kuomintang losing badly in the November 2014 mid-term elections. The trend culminated in President Tsai’s major victory in January 2016, when the DPP also gained an absolute majority in the Legislative Yuan.
This led to high expectations among her followers, who had voted for change and expect progressive social, economic, legislative, judicial and political reforms. In the subsequent months and years, a significant number of reforms were initiated. Still, some of these policies – particularly labour reform (shortening the workweek) and pension reform (phasing out the extravagant pensions enjoyed by military and civil servants, the KMT’s strongholds) — ran into significant opposition, which in turn slowed down other planned reforms.
By the time the local elections of November 2018 rolled around, this had led to significant dissatisfaction among some of her key supporting groups. These were groups that felt she had not gone far and fast enough in her reforms and decided to stay home. The results of the elections were disastrous for Tsai and the DPP. The newly energised Kuomintang won back most city mayor and county magistrate seats lost in 2014. Moreover, expectations grew that it could even win back the Legislative Yuan, if not the presidency, in the January 2020 elections.
As is now well-known, that didn’t happen. In the first half of 2019, President Tsai was able to regroup and win back many of her disenchanted supporters, patch the deep-green divide with former Premier Lai Chin-te — who eventually agreed to become her vice-presidential candidate — and put together a formidable coalition that helped her ride to victory in January 2020 with the largest popular vote ever in the history of Taiwan’s presidential elections.
On the other side of the political aisle, the Kuomintang virtually self-destructed by naming the populist and highly erratic mayor of Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu, to be its standard-bearer. He shot himself in the foot and put the other foot in his mouth on a number of issues – particularly with his inept response to the Summer 2019 developments in Hong Kong – and lost with 38.6% against President Tsai Ing-wen’s winning 57.1%.
The Way Forward: Domestic issues
So, with this recent history in mind, how will President Tsai prioritise domestic issues? A good indicator is a speech she gave on the occasion of her second inauguration on 20 May 2020.
First and foremost, she intends to build national unity and a better country through a sense of pride in various joint achievements, particularly in the country’s excellent performance in combating the coronavirus crisis. In her opening statement, she declared, “From January to now, Taiwan has amazed the international community twice. The first was our democratic elections, and the second was our success in the fight against COVID-19. In recent months, Taiwan’s name has appeared in headlines around the world, thanks to our successful containment of the coronavirus outbreak.”
She did emphasise several social issues, such as Long-term Care 2.0, childcare, residential justice, health and disease prevention safety, along with mending gaps in the social safety net.
She did acknowledge that judicial reform had been slow but promised that it would move forward. Transitional justice is receiving a boost through the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission under the Control Yuan, where the newly appointed chairperson — former Kaohsiung mayor and Presidential Office general-secretary Chen Chu — is expected to give strong momentum to the issue.
A lot of attention was also given to her announcement that a constitutional amendment committee would be established under the Legislative Yuan. As constitutional amendments are generally considered as rather sensitive, she added that this would give Taiwan “a platform to engage in dialogue and reach a consensus on constitutional reforms pertaining to government systems and people’s rights.”
This means that she intended to move forward with constitutional reforms on practical issues — like the lowering of the voting age from 20 to 18 (which required a Constitutional Amendment), and restructuring and streamlining the top-heavy five branches of government system (Executive, Legislative, Control, Examination and Judicial Yuan) — brought over by the Chinese Nationalists in 1949. This system is severely outdated and needs streamlining, but that also requires a change of the Constitution.
Industrial and Economic Development
She also indicated how she wants to keep the economy humming, which had done quite well during her first term, ending in 2019 with a GDP growth rate of 2.7%, which is the highest of any of the Asian “Four Tigers.” Due to Taiwan’s excellent handling of the Coronavirus crisis, its seasonally adjusted jobless rate also remained very low: 4.10% in April 2020, which is up slightly from 3.73% in April 2019.
Unlike most other countries, Taiwan did not need to institute a lockdown as the Tsai government was able to keep the number of infected cases limited to only 441, and the number of deaths to seven (data as of 26 May 2020). Thus, it was able to keep both industrial production and domestic consumption going. Of course, the global decrease in demand for goods and services is having an impact on Taiwan. Nevertheless, its production capacity was not affected like it was in most other nations. In fact, it was able to significantly increase the production of several medical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) products like facemasks, which it could use in its “facemask diplomacy.”
To transform Taiwan into a critical force in the global economy, she outlined six core strategic industries. These are founded on the current 5+2 Innovative Industries Program, which is intended to strengthen Taiwan’s linkages to Japan, the US and Europe, and reduce dependency on China. The six strategic industries are: information and digital industries, cybersecurity, biotech and medical technology, defence and strategic industries, green energy and renewable energy industries, and strategic stockpile industries “… that can ensure the steady provision of critical supplies.”
Additionally, she emphasised how she wanted to continue with promoting the New Southbound Policy, which aims to enhance Taiwan’s relations with India and countries in Southeast Asia.
She did discuss how the Coronavirus crisis is changing the World Order and indicated that this is an opportunity for Taiwan to enhance its position in the international community. She said, “…only those who can end the pandemic within their borders, lay out a strategy for their country’s survival and development, and take advantage of opportunities in the complex world of tomorrow, will be able to set themselves apart on the international stage.”
In the context of her discussion on economic development and industrial strategy, she also maintained an international focus: “Looking to the future, Taiwan must further connect with the international community. We will work to cultivate more outstanding bilingual and digital talents, giving our industries a global competitive edge.”
She did indicate that in the next four years her government would continue “…to fight for our participation in international organisations, strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation with our allies, and bolster ties with the United States, Japan, Europe, and other like-minded countries. We will also participate more actively in regional cooperation mechanisms and work hand-in-hand with countries in the region to make concrete contributions to peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
No doubt, Beijing will continue to attempt to chip away at Taiwan’s existing 15 formal diplomatic allies. Still, President Tsai is more than making up for that with Taiwan’s strengthening of substantive ties with like-minded nations in the region. These are countries such as Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. Nations which all had their share of overbearing influence operations from the side of Beijing. Of course, one should not forget to mention the United States and Europe, which have started to view Taiwan in a new light against the background of its stellar performance in the Coronavirus crisis.
Too often international observers focus almost exclusively on cross-strait relations, and President Tsai Ing-wen’s inaugural address on 20 May 2020 was no exception. Indeed, most media highlighted four paragraphs, where she laid out her policies in relations with China. In her speech, President Tsai was reaching out with a firm but open hand: “Both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term and prevent the intensification of antagonism and differences“, she said.
She added: “Faced with changing circumstances, I will hold firm to my principles, adopt an open attitude to resolve issues, and shoulder my responsibilities as President. I also hope that the leader on the other side of the Strait will take on the same responsibility, and work with us to jointly stabilise the long-term development of cross-strait relations.”
It can be expected that Beijing will persist in their confrontational policy of increasingly aggressive moves of circumnavigation flights and military manoeuvres. This will be combined with a hawkish “wolf warrior” approach to limiting and reducing Taiwan’s room for manoeuvre in international space. Still, it is clear that this approach is increasingly backfiring, as it is solidifying support for President Tsai’s policies and side-lining the pro-Beijing Kuomintang.
Internationally, Beijing’s crash approach, such as keeping Taiwan out of the World Health Assembly, is increasing support for Taiwan’s acceptance by the international community as a responsible and reliable partner, and a force for good in the world.
Furthermore, Beijing’s repressive behaviour in Tibet, the establishment of “re-education camps” in East Turkestan, and its recent proposal for national security legislation in Hong Kong – totally negating the “One Country, Two Systems” agreements under the 1984 Joint Declaration and 1990 Basic Law – have led democratic governments around the world to conclude that Beijing’s aggressiveness against Taiwan is not an isolated issue, but part of a fundamental problem: Beijing’s aims and actions are increasingly seen as undermining the basic tenets and values of the liberal international order.
Still, both domestically and in terms of international relations, Taiwan is well-position for the next four years. Her overwhelming victory in the elections has already given President Tsai Ing-wen a robust mandate to push domestic reforms with greater vigour. What is more, the country’s excellent performance in combating the Coronavirus crisis also gave Taiwan unmatched international visibility, which will be conducive for pushing back against China’s mounting political and economic aggressiveness.
Taiwan’s closer defence and security cooperation with the United States, as well as Taiwan’s own national defence reforms, will be a primary factor in deterring Chinese adventurism in the Taiwan Strait. With the evolution of China as a strategic competitor, the US has started to see Taiwan in a new light. Indeed, Taiwan is increasingly seen as a key factor in advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communiqué. He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and Current Issues in East Asia at George Washington University.
This article is part of special issue on the President Tsai’s inauguration speech.