Taiwan: Tsai’s Call to Trump Upholds Nation’s Dignity on the International Stage
Photo courtesy of: Ashley Pon & John Minchillo/AP 2016 @ABC News
A phone call between the President-elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump, and Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen has rattled both Beijing and Washington. The incident was widely covered by the media and is an occasion to reflect on Tsai’s recent rapprochement of Taiwan with other democratic powers such as India and Japan. It remains to be seen whether the US and Taiwan will be able to engage in close relations – despite of China trying to meddle with Taiwan’s foreign policy on a massive scale.
The following article was published by The New Yorker:
Last week, Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of Taiwan, a self-ruling island of twenty-three million people off China’s southeast coast, called President-elect Donald Trump, who by taking the call shattered a decades-long Washington taboo. The news thrilled millions of Taiwanese citizens, who have long complained that the United States has neglected the world’s only Chinese-speaking democracy in order to please authorities in Beijing. China, which has claimed Taiwan as an unrecovered province since Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party government fled into exile on the island, in 1949, relentlessly uses its global clout, and its United Nations Security Council veto, to keep Taiwan diplomatically invisible, and Chinese officials protest noisily against any foreign government whose actions might confer on Taiwan even a whiff of statehood. Fewer than two dozen countries, most of them tiny, officially recognize Taiwan. The United States is not among them. For Tsai, getting Trump on the phone was a major coup, the first known top-level contact of its kind since the severing of formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei, in 1979.
On the surface, Tsai would seem an unlikely ally for Trump. A former World Trade Organization negotiator, she generally supports free trade and was a prominent backer of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She favors robust American engagement along the Pacific Rim, a strong welfare state, and strict environmental protection. She is also temperamentally Trump’s opposite: a methodical, soft-spoken technocrat who is childless and unmarried, enjoys reading classical Chinese literature, and sometimes seems to shrink under a spotlight. But a land as small and vulnerable as Taiwan cannot afford to be picky about its allies—some of the smallest and most despotic regimes in the world (Swaziland’s, for instance) have received generous aid from Taiwan in exchange for diplomatic recognition and an occasional mention in speeches at the United Nations. By making a phone call to Trump, Tsai saw an opportunity to boost her domestic approval ratings while establishing a rapport with the next American President and, crucially, his hawkish and China-skeptic advisers. For her, geopolitics and Taiwan’s survival come first.
Tsai, who is sixty years old, took office earlier this year, after winning a landslide vote in January. A former corporate attorney and law professor, she is the first woman elected to lead an Asian state without following a father, brother, or husband into politics. Born to a native Taiwanese family, Tsai came up through the élite institutions that were once dominated by the children of mainlander refugees, like National Taiwan University, from which she graduated in 1978. She continued her studies at Cornell and the London School of Economics. A generation earlier, a woman of Tsai’s abilities might have joined Chiang’s Nationalist Party, which groomed talented native-born Taiwanese to fill its graying senior ranks of mainlander exiles. Tsai, however, rose to the Presidency via the Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.), which began as an underground movement during the decades in which Taiwan was effectively a one-party police state, and which became Taiwan’s second political party after a contentious democratization process took place in the nineteen-eighties and nineties.
Where Nationalist Party ideology ties Taiwan’s identity to China, the D.P.P. emphasizes local Taiwanese culture and progressive civic values, like support for gay marriage. The D.P.P.’s party platform also calls for official de-jure independence to match Taiwan’s de-facto self-rule—though Tsai herself has never endorsed this incendiary proposal. In fact, during her run for President last year, Tsai explicitly promised to maintain the cross-Strait status quo, a delicate entente that allows trade and peace between Beijing, Washington, and Taipei.
But during her campaign Tsai also spoke to economic and cultural themes that in some way echo Trump’s, minus the rhetoric of raw bigotry. Both politicians distrust China’s economic policies and strategic intentions. On the stump last year, Tsai argued that Taiwan had become too economically exposed to mainland China, enriching a politically connected élite at the expense of working people. (In tandem with its ever-present military threat, Beijing encourages broad economic ties with Taiwan as a way to peacefully lure the island back into the fold; the mainland is now Taiwan’s biggest trading partner.)
Unfettered trade with China, Tsai argued, had hollowed out Taiwan’s domestic industries. Manufacturing jobs had disappeared and had not been replaced with adequate employment. A sclerotic and aloof government in Taipei, she charged, was protecting corporate cronies who were too close to China, while ignoring the pocketbooks and dignity of normal Taiwanese. Tsai pressed her candidacy with insider authority, highlighting her credentials, including her time as the head of Taiwan’s powerful Mainland Affairs Council, which manages relations with China. She had the expertise, she told voters, to help nudge Taiwan’s economy away from its covetous neighbor, and toward democratic allies like the United States, Japan, and India.
Tsai had run unsuccessfully on this argument once before, in 2012. That year, she lost decisively to the Nationalist Party candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, whose historical ties to the mainland made him Beijing’s preferred choice. But in 2014, as China’s economy flagged and its President, Xi Jinping, pressed a harsh crackdown on civil liberties, Taiwanese anxieties boiled over into protests that immobilized the parliament in Taipei. The unrest put the brakes on a trade bill that, critics charged, went too far in opening sensitive local industries, like the media, to mainland-Chinese investment. This year, a cresting wave of economic angst, and distrust of Beijing’s strategic intentions, brought Tsai to power and gave the D.P.P. its first-ever parliamentary majority. But, with Beijing hostile and Washington skeptical, she faced a tricky path forward.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing openly despise Tsai and the D.P.P. After her election, Chinese state media called Taiwanese independence a “hallucination,” and predicted that the rule of the D.P.P. would be “as fleeting as a cloud.” A columnist for Xinhua, Beijing’s official news agency, later warned that Tsai, who is unmarried, “does not currently have the pull of love, or know the burdens of family or the care of children, which makes her style and policies too emotional, too individual, and too extreme.” Chinese authorities fear that Tsai, despite her public moderation, intends to covertly consolidate Taiwan’s separateness from China, steering Taiwan toward independence and awaiting a geopolitical opening to stand in the world as a zhengchang guojia—a normal country.
Beijing’s leaders see Taiwan as crucial to their own legitimacy. The necessity and inevitability of eventual reunification with Taiwan has been inculcated in all mainland Chinese through decades of propaganda; it is written into China’s constitution, and a 2005 “anti-secession” law mandates invasion if Taiwan formally secedes. Yet today reunification seems further away than ever. Taiwan’s population is a blend of mainlander exiles from 1949, Hokkien and Hakka Chinese who arrived as maritime migrants generations ago, Austronesian aboriginals, descendants of Japanese and European colonists, and economic migrants from Southeast Asia. Together, they overwhelmingly identify as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese.” Beijing’s standing offer to Taiwan—reunification under the “one country, two systems” approach used to regain the colony of Hong Kong from London—has little appeal to Taiwan’s people, who see rising repression in the former British territory despite China’s promises of local autonomy.
Trump’s election, and his breezy bulldozing of political norms, gave Tsai an opening that she never would have had with Hillary Clinton, and an opportunity to deliver on her campaign pledge to uphold Taiwanese dignity on the international stage. According to the Washington Post, her call to Trump was planned weeks in advance and was brokered between Tsai’s aides and a circle of hawkish Americans who see Taiwan as a natural ally of the United States. In the wake of the call, Tsai’s aides publicly feigned bewilderment at the international uproar it had caused. But Tsai knew full well that the call would rile both Beijing and Washington’s foreign-policy professionals. That she made it anyway suggests a hidden streak of boldness that her most fervent supporters have hoped for, and that Beijing has long feared.