Written by Chieh-Ting Yeh.
Image credit: 04.07 「民主夥伴共榮之旅」總統與媒體記者茶敘 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.
In 2011, a relatively unknown politician in Taiwan named Tsai Ing-wen became the presidential candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party, which was at the time the opposition. She was a capable bureaucrat that was most notable for her blandness; she had close to zero personal charisma to speak of.
Ironically, this was also her strength. The last DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, was seen by American policymakers as an unpredictable populist. He used his charisma to play to his base’s anti-China stance. As a result, when the US was trying to engage China, Chen and the DPP were seen as “troublemakers”, raising “tensions.”
Tsai’s personality was the opposite; she was soft-spoken, considered a legal academic, and emphasised reassurance over provocation. Still, after she travelled to the US in 2011 hoping to dissuade American policymakers of their scepticism about her party, the Financial Times reported an Obama administration official saying that Tsai “left [the administration] with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.”
Many of Tsai’s supporters point to this quote as a major cause of Tsai’s defeat in 2012.
You had one job.
It might seem exaggerated to suggest that a single quote from an unidentified “US official” could jeopardize an entire presidential campaign, but considering Taiwan’s unique situation, it becomes understandable. The primary role of Taiwan’s president is to symbolise the nation’s relationship with the world’s two superpowers, the United States and China. In Taiwan, the premier mainly handles domestic affairs, while the president focuses on foreign policy and national security. It is important to remember that Taiwan’s foreign policy and national security centre on addressing China’s annexation threat and maintaining US support in defending against China. The president’s approach to this issue essentially defines Taiwan’s overarching strategy.
As a result, every Taiwanese president places great importance on Taiwan’s relationship with the US, particularly on their personal connections with key figures in Washington. They approach these relationships with the utmost care and priority. Additionally, every aspiring presidential candidate visits the US to strengthen and solidify these relationships.
More so than negotiating and managing the interactions between the two sides, a big part of the president’s job, and the president’s job alone, is simply representing the country. As the highest elected official, the president personifies the country. The personality of the president him or herself becomes the perception of the entire country to the outside world.
Against this backdrop, the president of Taiwan’s interaction with the United States becomes paramount. No wonder a blunt statement in 2011 from a US official could potentially mean so much to who gets chosen as president. In 2011:
The US official said that while Tsai understood the need “to avoid gratuitous provocations” of China, it was “far from clear… that she and her advisers fully appreciate the depth of [Chinese] mistrust of her motives and DPP aspirations”.
Changing diplomatic realities.
Reading these words after President Tsai Ing-wen’s latest trip to the United States, one cannot help but laugh at how wrong they were. Tsai’s trip to New York and Los Angeles has been almost universally hailed as a success for Taiwan, as she meets congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Her reception indicates that she is warmly welcomed in America. Moreover, her remarks at the Reagan Presidential Library exude a brand of quiet confidence, even in the face of an ever-growing menacing threat from China.
Much has changed since when Tsai Ing-wen first visited the US as a presidential candidate in 2011. In 2014, President Ma Ying-jeou’s Cross-Straits Service Trade Agreement ignited the Sunflower Movement, which reflected the public’s rejection of closer Taiwan-China ties. Tsai became the president in 2016 on a platform of maintaining the status quo, defined as keeping Taiwan free and independent from Chinese aggression.
Since then, Taiwan has lowered its economic dependence on China and increased security and trade cooperation with the US. In addition, Taiwan has shown the world how good governance can help save lives during a global pandemic and asserted itself as an indispensable link in the global supply chain, especially for semiconductors. Most importantly, Taiwan has emerged as the front line in the standoff between democracy and authoritarianism in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The United States has changed as well. In recent years, the US has begun to honestly take stock of how its engagement policy with China has worked out. Policymakers are starting to realise that engagement with China will lead to China becoming a democracy or that inviting China into the US-led world order will lead to China becoming a responsible stakeholder, which turned out to be rather wishful thinking. As the US shifts its stance on China, it also places much more of a spotlight on Taiwan. Congressional leaders and key administration officials have stopped trying to keep Taiwan off the radar. Instead, there have been bundles of legislation supporting Taiwan and high-level visits, and meetings are becoming the norm.
China has also undergone significant changes. Since Xi Jinping assumed leadership, he has accelerated consolidating his control over the state and asserting China’s influence internationally. As a result, Xi is no longer content with challenging the US gradually; his approach has become more direct. This shift has resulted in harsh crackdowns in Hong Kong against perceived “foreign influence” and unprecedented diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan. This includes recent naval and missile exercises in response to Tsai’s visit to the United States.
Last, but not least, Tsai Ing-wen has also changed. Yes, she is still soft-spoken, carries herself as a legal academic, and emphasises reassurance rather than provocation. But in her eight years as a political leader, these traits have become the source of her charisma. She is not a populist—she was willing to expand her political capital to lift the ban on American pork, a very controversial topic in Taiwan—to further trade negotiations with the US. She will always have a bit of a distance from people, no matter how many cat videos appear on her Instagram account. Nonetheless, her quiet, confident style has become a characteristic of Taiwan.
Taiwan is hardly seen as a provocative troublemaker these days. Taiwan is not seen as needlessly challenging China, but as conscientious, steadfast, and predictable, especially compared to China’s “wolf warrior” tantrum diplomacy of recent years. It is perhaps not easy to quantify how much Tsai’s personality contributed to US-Taiwan relations becoming the best they have ever been, but it is certainly a crucial factor.
This trip will most likely be Tsai Ing-wen’s last trip to the United States as president of Taiwan. Her success is a testament to how she has, both by her actions and by her constitution, taken US-Taiwan relations to a new level.
But she will step down next May, and Taiwan will have a different president. Prospective candidates such as Foxconn founder Terry Guo and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je have also travelled to the US recently. Meanwhile, the DPP’s candidate, Vice President William Lai, is sadly still being treated by the US foreign policy establishment as a potential troublemaker, the same way Tsai was treated in 2011.
No matter who becomes president, the question remains whether that person can advance US-Taiwan relations beyond President Tsai. It will not be enough to simply maintain things as they are. Tsai opened the door to new possibilities by starting trade negotiations and security cooperation talks. The next president will have to close the deal. It will not be enough to simply convince Washington that Taiwan is not a liability. The next president will have to prove that Taiwan can be an asset.
President Tsai will leave US-Taiwan relations as central to her presidential legacy. She has transformed from a mundane bureaucrat to the emblem of Taiwan and has significantly improved the nation. Though her tenure may conclude next year, the dawn of her enduring legacy in shaping US-Taiwan relations has just commenced.
Chieh-Ting Yeh is a venture investor in Silicon Valley and a director of US Taiwan Watch, an international think tank focusing on US-Taiwan relations. In addition, he is a co-founder and the editor of Ketagalan Media and an advisor for the Global Taiwan Institute and National Taiwan Normal University’s International Taiwan Studies Center.
This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Tsai’s Stopover in the USA: Wins for Taiwan?”