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Tsai's Mission: Possible

Tsai's Mission: Possible

Taiwanese politicians visiting the United States are hardly making history, since despite having no official diplomatic relations, they are still widely considered to be close allies. U.S. presidents never visit Taiwan while they are in office, but Taiwanese presidents can enter the U.S., even if it’s only on short stopovers on their way to or from allies in the Caribbean or Latin America.
So it should come as no surprise that government officials, politicians and academics on the other side of the Pacific are interested in meeting the most likely person to become Taiwan’s next president, Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen.
She has visited the U.S. before, but she has never been closer to power in Taiwan than today. About every single opinion poll shows her leading any potential Kuomintang candidate to succeed President Ma Ying-jeou.
Not only will Taiwan have a new president, but a victory for Tsai will also imply a second handover of power from the KMT to the DPP. When President Chen Shui-bian ruled the country from 2000 to 2008, he sometimes surprised Washington by launching unexpected initiatives, leading to some observers describing him as a “troublemaker,” even though he was mostly reacting to belligerent and needlessly provocative actions from Beijing such as the passage of an “Anti-Secession Law” in 2005.
Critics of Tsai and the DPP will no doubt lose no time in predicting that she will return Taiwan to the same path of confrontation with China, thus raising tension and causing concern in Washington about the emergence of a new flashpoint in the region.
During her trip from May 29 to June 9, Tsai will meet top politicians, China and Taiwan experts, Taiwanese students and Overseas Taiwanese living in the U.S., and even Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The highlight of the visit could come in the shape of a June 3 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the most prominent think tanks in the U.S. Since attention in Washington is bound to focus on where Tsai wants to lead Taiwan vis-à-vis China, the whole U.S. establishment is bound to tune in to that event.
While some observers have speculated Tsai plans to reveal how she wants to pull Taiwan out of its economic torpor and relaunch it on the road back to tiger or dragon status, most of the interest will focus on how she sees China and the future development of the cross-straits relationship.
Even though during its years in opposition, the DPP held vehement protests against the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and the trade-in-services pact with China, that does not mean that a President Tsai will simply abrogate those agreements or dump them altogether.
As she said on numerous occasions, a DPP government will believe in a constructive relationship with Beijing, but will take a stronger stance on basic issues of Taiwan’s sovereignty and basic interests.
If an agreement like the trade pact threatens the position of Taiwanese business sectors and the independence of the nation, then she will be right to demand changes. The U.S. would do no less if its interests were adversely affected by a treaty with China.
Tsai is unlikely to go for anything as radical as rupturing relations with China, but she will try and recalibrate them in Taiwan’s favor. After the clock swung too far in Beijing’s direction during the Ma years, it will swing back some way, simply because of public opinion in Taiwan. While the KMT government has relentlessly touted the advantages of its China policies, the public has seen the drawbacks from close up: the hollowing out of local businesses, the overcrowding due to unbridled development of tourism, the lack of international respect for the country and the weak-kneed responses from the government.
The Taiwan-China relationship also does not lead a separate life from the Taiwan-U.S. relationship.
While Ma boasted of having improved bilateral relations with Washington to their best level since President Jimmy Carter recognized the People’s Republic of China, there should be concern in Washington that he also brought Taiwan closer to Beijing than it’s ever been.
The Ma years will also be remembered for serving and retired Taiwanese military officers selling secrets to the communist enemy time after time. As the government failed to keep the public aware of the dangers posed by China’s military buildup, officers lost their sense of danger and loyalty to the nation, making it easier for them to hand over key secrets in return for money.
A strange variation on the theme of lack of military secrecy was the recent Apache incident where an officer who should know better apparently treated military installations as his private playground to entertain his friends.
The occurrence of such scandals in the military is hardly likely to encourage U.S. government officials and even Taiwan-friendly members of Congress to promote weapons sales to the island, even though they are more than necessary to make up for China’s rapidly increasing military might.
President Xi Jinping’s repeatedly aggressive stance in territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam about stretches of water and uninhabited islands shows the importance of Taiwan having a strong defense.
It should therefore not be so difficult for Tsai to persuade the U.S. establishment that having her as president of Taiwan is also in its interest. A Tsai administration will defend the basic values of human rights and democracy more vigorously than its predecessor, while numerous visits by local DPP mayors and other officials to China show that the party is not averse to dealing with the reality of having that communist country as a neighbor and trading partner.
The U.S. should be reminded that Tsai has a long background in trade negotiations and also ran the Mainland Affairs Council, so relations with China are not an issue she is likely to mismanage.
Tsai should not forget the fact that in the event she is elected president, the U.S. itself will be in the middle of a hard-fought race to pick the successor to President Barack Obama. She should therefore take the occasion of her trip to the U.S. to establish contact with the entourages of all major White House hopefuls, whether Democrat or Republican.
No new president of the United States should be so aloof from Asia Pacific issues that he neglects Taiwan, an ally which bears the term “unofficial” yet is so sympathetic to its causes.


Updated : 2021-09-26 07:58 GMT+08:00