Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Tsai passes first-year test, but challenges loom

Relations with China are chilly but have not descended into conflict, US relations are stable, and there has been some promising global outreach for Taiwan.

Photo: Flickr/總統府
Photo: Flickr/總統府
Published 25 May 2017 

One year has elapsed since Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated on 20 May. This article assesses her administration’s performance in three specific foreign policy areas - cross-Strait relations, relations with the US, and relations with the broader international community - and briefly touches on her domestic policy and its possible impact on foreign relations.

Cross-Strait relations

Tsai’s election in the wake of the transformational events surrounding the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April 2014 ended eight years of steady (albeit not uncontroversial) rapprochement with Beijing under president Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT). Soon after President Tsai, who heads the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), entered the Presidential Office last year, several analysts predicted that a new era of instability in the Taiwan Strait, reminiscent of that which characterised relations during much of the Chen Shui-bian years (2000-2008), was about to begin. Keeping relations with Beijing as stable as possible while remaining firm on fundamental ‘red lines’ drawn by Tsai, her party, and a majority of the Taiwanese who brought her to power via democratic means was inevitably going to represent the new administration’s top foreign policy challenge.

This uncertainty was compounded by developments in China, which created new challenges and risks for the Tsai administration. Chief among them was China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under President Xi. Facing pressure from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to complete the ‘great rejuvenation’ of China, a task which in theory includes the ‘re-unification’ of Taiwan, President Xi has unsurprisingly turned the screws on Taiwan and the Tsai administration, principally due to Tsai’s refusal to acknowledge the so-called ‘1992 consensus’ and ‘One China’ framework. The lead-up to the CCP Party Congress later this year has also induced incentives among contenders for top positions in the CCP to demonstrate strength and determination on ‘core issues’, which, rhetorically at least, includes Taiwan.

Beijing’s ire has translated into retributive action against Taiwan. China has resumed its efforts to ‘steal’ Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies, pressured non-official partners worldwide, successfully blocked Taiwan’s access to international organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the World Health Assembly (WHA) and Interpol (three agencies that interestingly enough are currently headed by a Chinese national), curtailed tourism, ostensibly frozen all communication with Taipei, and increased military activity near and around Taiwan, culminating with the transit of the Liaoning aircraft carrier in the Taiwan Strait in early 2017.

Despite these actions, relations in the Taiwan Strait have nevertheless not deteriorated to the low point seen in the latter part of the Chen Shui-bian mandate. Much of this due to the Tsai Administration’s flexibility in dealing with China, which, though not officially acknowledged by state organs such as the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), has been noted by Xi and other top decision-makers in Beijing. While showing determination over her ‘red lines,’ Tsai has been careful to calibrate her administration’s criticism of China on issues such as the kidnapping of Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che in Guangdong in March, or the rendition to China of Taiwanese nationals suspected of fraud in a third country that could quickly have spun out of control and turned into major crises.

Communication between the two sides, meanwhile, hasn’t ceased altogether, though it has relied on alternative back channels. Continuing communication is of great importance, as it minimises the risks of surprises and misunderstandings while contributing to conflict resolution.

Overall, Tsai has succeeded in keeping the cross-Strait relationship relatively stable amid the upcoming CCP Party Congress and signs of a Chinese economic slowdown. Though the drop (by as much as 3%, from a high of 4.1 million in 2015) in Chinese visitor numbers and Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan’s diplomatic allies may have achieved symbolic objectives, in the aggregate these moves have not undermined Taiwan’s interests, nor have they translated into substantial domestic pressure on Tsai to realign her policies by making concessions to Beijing. Moreover, in most cases the Tsai Administration has compensated for losses resulting from Beijing’s retribution by scoring successes in other foreign policy areas (despite the substantial drop in Chinese tourist arrivals, foreign tourist arrivals still reached an all-time high in 2016).

Continued popular support for her cross-Strait policy has also enabled Tsai to withstand pressure from the ‘green’ camp to adopt a harsher stance on China and to be more proactive on matters of self-determination, such as seeking to join the United Nations or hold national referenda on the subject. By avoiding these issues, Tsai has avoided giving more hard-line members within the CCP (some of whom have grown impatient with Xi’s ‘soft’ approach to Taiwan) reasons to pressure the Chinese leader to further tighten the screws on Tsai and Taiwan.

Tsai ran for election on a platform of maintaining stability and the ‘status quo’ in the Taiwan Strait. One year into her four-year term, she can be said to be delivering on that promise.

Relations with the United States

Much as former presidents Chen and Ma faced challenges with the US due to domestic developments there or changes in the international system (for Chen, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and subsequent ‘global war on terrorism’; for Ma, the global economic crisis of 2008 and China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Sea), Tsai was soon confronted by a challenge of her own: the election, in November 2016, of Donald Trump to the presidency. Seen as inexperienced in international affairs and of a transactional temperament, Trump was perceived by some as the best outcome for Taiwan (largely due to his campaign’s anti-China narrative) and by others as potentially disastrous.

The unprecedented 10-minute telephone conversation between Tsai and President-elect Trump on 2 December, followed by Trump’s questioning of the validity of the ‘One China’ policy, initially fed hopes that the new US president could be a solid partner for Taiwan. This elation quickly turned to dismay, however, after President Trump’s brief telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart, following which he reaffirmed US commitment to the ‘One China’ policy, and his subsequent infatuation with President Xi following their summit at Mar-a-Lago in early April, where the Chinese leader appears to have convinced Trump of the indispensability of China in resolving the North Korea issue.

Through all this, the Tsai administration carefully handled its relationship with the US and avoided mood swings that could have exacerbated the situation. Tsai wisely ignored pressure from the ‘green’ camp to quickly bank on the ostensible opening created by Trump’s election and refrained from adopting policies that risked alienating Washington or Beijing, or both, while being willing to take the hit from impatient domestic forces at home. By doing so, Tsai was able to remain firm on Taiwan’s ‘red lines’, with important support from the US at the tail-end of the Obama Administration and in the first months under Trump and absent the sobriquet of ‘troublemaker’ that became associated with her predecessor from the DPP (largely due to his advisers’ failing to fully assess the global context in which he was pressing for Taiwan’s international space). This success has occasionally translated into vocal defence of Taiwan’s position in academic and semi-official settings (such as trilaterals) by US participants, who often do much of the push-back against China.

Arms sales, long seen as a yardstick by which to assess the health of US-Taiwan ties, appear to have encountered delays, which has been seen by some as a sign of souring relations or disinterest in assisting Taiwan due to renewed interest in securing China’s assistance over North Korea. However, it is too early in the Trump Administration to determine whether this is caused by initial inertia (many of the officials who would handmaiden the process of arms sales have yet to be appointed) or something deeper and more long-lasting, as occurred under both presidents George W Bush and Obama (the longest hiatus since the 1980s), when their administrations were also wooing China for help over Iraq or North Korea. As with other issues, the Tsai Administration has adopted a pragmatic position on delayed arms sales and is likely paying close attention to signs that the Trump Administration is realising that Beijing cannot, and will not, resolve the North Korea crisis.

Meanwhile, the Tsai government meanwhile also continues to receive strong and important support from US Congress, which can be counted on to act as a counterweight to the executive branch should it decide to compromise US commitments to its longstanding partner through a rumoured Fourth Communiqué (as was reportedly suggested by no less a figure than Henry Kissinger, who has gained Trump’s ear) or by ignoring the Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances, which have formed the basis of the US-Taiwan relationship since 1979.

Relations with the international community 

Historically, relations with the international community is a policy pillar that has received relatively little attention from successive Taiwanese governments, often due to overemphasis on domestic issues, cross-Strait relations or relations with the United States.

Against all expectations, the Tsai Administration’s New Southbound Policy (a spinoff of a policy initiated by president Lee Teng-hui in the 1990s) has paid some early dividends and made inroads in southern parts of Asia, which holds great economic potential as Taiwan seeks to reduce its economic dependence on China through diversification into other markets. Socially and politically, the region also offers opportunities for Taiwan, where its democratic successes provide an alternative to the development model proposed by China and other autocratic regimes.

The Tsai government also continues to receive support from major democracies and economies around the world, such as backing for access to international institutions like ICAO, the WHA and Interpol. Although such behind-the-scenes efforts have not succeeded in securing invitations for Taiwan, they nonetheless remain an essential part of the unofficial architecture of support by major allies of Taiwan, one that will become increasingly important in the coming years. Encouragingly, Tsai’s election was accompanied by renewed interest among foreign governments for engaging Taiwan at various levels, from the social to the economic. Her ability to appease Beijing while remaining steady on Taiwan’s ‘red lines,’ as she did during her first year in office, will play a large role in determining the extent to which members of the international community will be willing to interact with Taiwan.

The loss of official diplomatic allies, most recently that of Sao Tomé e Principe in December 2016, can be seen as foreign policy failures for the Tsai Administration, at least when contrasted with the ‘diplomatic truce’ that prevailed under president Ma. However, in the latest incident the Tsai Administration arguably did the right thing by refusing to be blackmailed by a small diplomatic ally requesting astronomical sums of money (upwards of US$200 million) as a quid pro quo for continued diplomatic recognition. As long as the Tsai government continues to develop strong (if unofficial) ties with major democracies and economies, the loss of official diplomatic allies will not have much of a detrimental impact on Taiwan outside their symbolic (and perhaps psychological) value.

Relations with Japan have continued to improve under Tsai, what with the symbolic renaming of each country’s respective representative offices earlier this year and official visits to Taiwan by senior Japanese officials. There also are early signs that the relationship with India may be deepening. Following its decision to stay out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its escalating strategic competition with China, India could prove more amenable to trade and economic alternatives such as those offered by Taiwan, something that the Tsai government appears to understand. As we saw, rising tourism arrivals from counties other than China are also an indication of success and a means to compensate for punishment by Beijing.

On the down side, the Tsai Administration has fared rather poorly in its global communication campaign. Long a blind spot for Taiwan, public diplomacy remains reactive at best and insufficient to counter the immense propaganda efforts that have been launched by Beijing in recent years through think tanks and billions of dollars invested in a global media footprint. As the Reuters incident earlier this month demonstrated, the presidential office still lacks a communication strategy (and proper staffing) to deal with and appeal to the international community, and remains relatively naïve on how things can go wrong. The communication branch at Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also been underperforming and seems to lack the basic language skills to properly interact with the international community. For the time being, international media remain overall supportive of Taiwan, but that could change soon due to intensifying efforts by China to isolate Taiwan and alienate it from the international community.

Outreach, even in areas where it has improved, remains too focused on the US and Japan – the Tsai Administration should do more to appeal to major democracies and economies by staffing its representative offices accordingly.

Domestic policy

One area that receives little attention when discussing a country’s foreign efforts is the interplay between domestic support and foreign policy. In Taiwan, as elsewhere, approval ratings for governments are largely determined by domestic issues rather than foreign policy. Therefore, if Tsai’s support rate drops due to mishandling of key domestic issues, her ability to maintain course overseas could be severely constrained. There are indications, moreover, that Beijing is paying close attention to Tsai’s support figures, with the belief that it will not take dramatic action against Taiwan as long has her numbers are high, but could do so if they drop. Seeing a sign of a weakened presidency, Beijing could escalate tensions in order to deal a final, devastating blow to Tsai. Thus, Tsai’s ability to stand up to China is largely contingent on her administration delivering on the promises she made during her election campaign. Chief among them are improving a stagnant economy and convincing the population that it will take some time for the benefits to be felt by ordinary citizens. Although improvements have already been seen on the stock exchange and in the strength of the New Taiwan dollar, with moderate gains in GDP growth and a low unemployment rate, structural issues from salaries to career opportunities continue to haunt the job market in Taiwan and stoke fears of a potential ‘brain drain’ to China.


All in all, the Tsai Administration has passed the foreign policy test in its first year: relations with Beijing, though chilly, have not descended into outright conflict and Taipei has given China little incentive to escalate. The relationship with the US, though marked by uncertainty due to Trump’s erratic beginning, remains stable, and here again the Tsai administration hasn’t given the White House any reason to reprimand it. Finally, the Tsai government has taken some promising steps to reach out to the rest of the international community, though so far this will likely be insufficient to ensure momentum within a coalition of like-minded countries that can translate into concrete benefits for Taiwan.

This article is adapted from a talk given by the author at the conference ‘Review of Tsai Ing-wen’s Presidency: One Year Later’ at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan, on 23 May.

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