The government of President Tsai Ing-wen claimed a major success for its “New Southbound Policy” Thursday, as Australia decided to “open its skies” and allow more flights by Taiwanese air lines to an unlimited number of destinations.
While the Tsai administration’s policy has so far been more noted for its visa waivers for visitors from Southeast Asia and for an emphasis on learning more about that region’s cultures, the Australian decision is a major positive change which will also benefit the average Taiwanese citizen looking to travel to the country for tourism, study or business.
It adds to the completely unrelated move by Costa Rica to institute a visa waiver for Taiwanese visitors. While the Central American country is not a prime destination for Taiwanese tourists and ended diplomatic relations with Taipei years ago, its move shows the amount of goodwill available in the world toward the island.
For a long time, Taiwan has been known worldwide as a source of reliable computers, smartphones and bicycles, while its peaceful transition to democracy also attracted admiration.
As far as its politics are concerned, scenes of fighting legislators also made headlines around the world, but in a negative sense.
Earlier, this year Taiwan chose its first woman president, though other countries in the region, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea, already had female presidents, and Thailand a woman prime minister.
To everyone’s surprise, by the end of this year, it was not President Tsai who put the issue of Taiwan at the front of global awareness, but the man who unpredicted by most had been elected the next president of the United States, businessman and television host Donald Trump.
By becoming the first president or president-elect to accept a phone call from a president of Taiwan in almost four decades of official relations with Beijing, Trump turned Taiwan into a global focal point of attention.
Initial reactions in the United States revealed disbelief that the next president was willing to throw traditional diplomatic practice overboard and take calls from “just about anybody,” even though the president of Taiwan was the democratically elected head of a prosperous democratic nation.
In Taiwan, the response was one of optimism that a man who had been described as unpredictable and scary nevertheless seem to be sticking to U.S. support to Taiwan, and even dared to go one step further.
Enthusiasm cooled off a level or two when Trump seemed to hint that China’s claims over Taiwan, the “One China Principle,” could be negotiated in return for trade concessions, in effect turning Taiwan into a bargaining chip.
For the moment at least, Trump seems to have surrounded himself with advisers who, in the Republican Party tradition, favor Taiwan over China. The problem is how much influence they will continue to have once the administration is sworn in next month, especially considering the top officials, such as Trump himself and his pick as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, are not specialized in Asian affairs.
Trump’s campaign promises about getting tough on trade issues could also turn him against Taiwan, which has been seeking to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he wants to leave on the first day of his presidency.
If eventual trade talks find Taiwan not budging on issues such as the import of U.S. pork with ractopamine residues, Trump’s initial support could turn into a cooler attitude, if not outright animosity.
Predicting what the next occupant of the White House will do, has been difficult right from the start, with nobody expecting him to defeat 16 more traditional Republicans as well as one of the most experienced Democratic Party candidates heralded as the first woman to become president.
The Tsai Administration will need to maintain close relations with both political camps in the United States, the Trump Administration but also the opposition Democrats.
It can build on the feelings of support for Taiwan as expressed during the recent visit of Republican Asia expert Stephen Yates and increase its bridges to the Trump Administration. On the other hand, it should not lose sight of the support for democracy and human rights in Taiwan as expressed by the Democrats, and continue to maintain contacts with senior senators, politicians and international strategists from the Democrat side.
As uncertainty about the future grips the world, it is more than ever necessary for Taiwan to project a high profile based on its reputation for implementing democracy and human rights while at the same time also conducting successful economic policies.
Taiwan is not a source of destabilization, but an island of common sense in an uncertain world.