Tsai Faces Many Challenges Over Foreign Policy

The new president must be open to various alternatives, particularly towards cross strait relations and Taiwan’s international participation
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Kelvin Chen

With the election of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) two months ago comes a new wave of hope and aspirations for the people of Taiwan. This was a major political victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and hopefully one that will allow the party to reinvent itself and to bring about progressive change throughout the nation. In addition to addressing domestic issues such as stagnant wages and increasing living costs, many observers are eager to see how Taiwan under Tsai will conduct its foreign policy.

The island-nation is currently in a precarious situation as closer relations with China could easily undermine its efforts to position itself on the international stage. Beijing’s tactical intimidation has already hindered Taipei’s cooperative potential in the world community on countless occasions. Thus, in order to strengthen its survivability, Taiwan must have an assertive and comprehensive strategy. This, by no means, will be an easy task. However, having witnessed the challenges and successes of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) administrations, Tsai can identify a viable course of action and steer Taiwan toward a brighter diplomatic future.

With no detailed strategy made public as of yet, looking into the past three presidencies also helps academics hypothesize what her actual plan may look like.

With Lee’s inauguration in 1988, Taiwan’s political status was still in shambles from the loss of UN membership and the breaking of diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1971 and 1979 respectively. President Lee actively pursued full diplomatic relations wherever possible, while maintaining unofficial ties when a state already recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Even with unofficial ties, Taiwan was able to establish representative offices, both its own abroad and those set up by foreign countries in Taipei. The solidification of unofficial relations was a groundbreaking means of resuscitating Taiwan’s political status and diplomatic significance. Near the end of Lee’s presidency, the number of Taipei representative offices abroad had increased from 58 in 39 countries in 1988, to 94 in 62 countries in 1999; while foreign institutions in Taipei increased from 31 by 26 countries in 1988, to 53 by 47 countries in 1999. Lee’s pragmatic approach helped bolster ties with other nations, create an international presence for the island-nation, and establish Taipei as a major partner in global affairs.

Upon Chen’s election in 2000, Taiwan’s foreign policy became noticeably more radical and unapologetic. Chen’s unyielding fervor for Taiwanese independence became the mainstay in his policies. His “pluralistic diplomacy,” aimed at robust relations through various efforts, seemed like an attractive formula for a more influential Taiwan. However, Chen’s fixation on safeguarding Taiwan’s independence put Taiwan at odds with many of its allies, increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait and created a deep rift of distrust between Washington and Taipei. Over eight years as president, brash actions lost multiple diplomatic allies, including Costa Rica, Senegal, and Liberia. By the end of the Chen administration, Taiwan was left with only 23 diplomatic allies. What began as a highly anticipated political takeover by the DPP culminated in a disappointing era in which Taiwan earned its “troublemaker” moniker.

Ma’s presidency, which ends in less than two months, has placed Taiwan in a more prominent spot on the international stage and cross-strait relations at an all-time high. His flexible approach has proven its effectiveness and arguably was an improvement over Chen’s aggressive demeanor. Ma’s more relaxed strategy repaired U.S.-Taiwan relations and decreased tensions in the Taiwan Strait. However, his infatuation with China was not a foolproof strategy, as the 2013 diplomatic break in relations with The Gambia demonstrated. His proposed “viable diplomacy” received another blow on March 16 this year when China and The Gambia restored diplomatic relations, which seemed to “shatter” the diplomatic truce that had existed between Taipei and Beijing. Completely investing in cross strait relations therefore does not guarantee diplomatic security for Taiwan.

As Tsai’s accession to the presidency approaches, there are a few major options she may choose to pursue. First, she should avoid having a blanket strategy and instead aim for sensible decisions on a case-by-case basis. There are times when compromising will be the most helpful and others when standing up and asserting Taiwan’s sovereignty will be the right thing to do. Strictly sticking to one agenda, as presidents Chen and Ma did, could further damage Taiwan’s standing in the world. Tsai must be open to various alternatives, particularly toward cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s international participation.

Just as this year’s presidential election was focused on transitional justice, so too should Tsai’s presidency encourage and promote international justice for Taiwan. From increasing the island-nation’s international presence to bolstering ties with its allies, Tsai should act pragmatically and confidently. In doing so, she must not be afraid to stand up against Beijing or Washington in certain instances. This does not mean, however, that she should be reckless in her actions in a manner reminiscent of the Chen administration. Rather, she must be extremely careful in her decision-making. That being said, if it becomes clear that Taiwan must adopt a course of action that departs from the U.S.’ or China’s preferences, Tsai should not be afraid to follow through based on her good judgment and that of her advisers.

In strengthening Taiwan’s foreign policy, Tsai should increase direct donations and assistance to NGOs in allied countries. This idea is nothing new, but it is an effective tactic that should be continued in order to maintain transparency in foreign aid. This option would help prevent Taiwan from slipping back to “checkbook” diplomacy. As the 2008 Papua New Guinea scandal and the break with The Gambia have shown, Taiwan needs to strategize its foreign policy and foreign aid more cautiously.

Tsai has a long, difficult road ahead of her, with Beijing suspicious of her party’s refusal to accept the “1992 consensus” and the possibility that it will try to sabotage her attempts in cross-strait dialogue as well as increasing Taiwan’s international space. Despite such unfavorable conditions, Tsai has already shown signs of rational and progressive thinking with her assurances of maintaining the “status quo” based on Taiwan’s “democratic will.” In addition, her declaration of a “southward policy” to boost exchanges with Southeast Asian nations and India demonstrates her forward thinking. These few initiatives Tsai has publicized so far are only a portion of her strategy to uphold Taiwan’s image as a modern, democratic nation. If successful, they will surely pave the way for a brighter future for the island.


Kelvin Chen is a graduate of the International Masters program in Asia Pacific Studies (IMAS) at National Chengchi University. His primary research focuses on Taiwan’s strategic security and foreign policy. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.

13 Responses to “Tsai Faces Many Challenges Over Foreign Policy”

April 05, 2016 at 12:47 pm, shiyali said:

The same people who belittle and ridicule what they call China’s failed and futile propaganda efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people on Taiwan, then turn around and ascribe China’s propaganda some magnificent and all-mighty power to put words into the mouths of top US officials and even shape the Western media discourse concerning Taiwan. You can’t have it both ways, folks.


April 05, 2016 at 1:14 pm, Michael Turton said:

“”‘The same people who belittle and ridicule what they call China’s failed and futile propaganda efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people on Taiwan, then turn around and ascribe China’s propaganda some magnificent and all-mighty power to put words into the mouths of top US officials and even shape the Western media discourse concerning Taiwan. You can’t have it both ways, folks.””””

Wrong again, showing a very poor understanding of the situation. To win hearts and minds in Taiwan requires that China bend the thinking of millions of Taiwanese, hundreds of thousands of whom have visited China and understand it well, and whose economic life is directly and negatively affected by China in countless waves, and over whom China has few direction negative sanctions.

Whereas, for Beijing to bend the international media and commenters requires that China offer junkets, cash, and business opportunities to only a few hundred people. Many commentators willingly serve Beijing’s needs because they have agendas that dovetail with Beijing’s. The entire international media contingent, are non-specialists, trained as journalists, not scholars, and grew up on a steady diet of propaganda history handed out by Beijing. How many of them, for example, can discuss New Qing critiques of Chinese history-as-propaganda? Moreover, China can hand out negative sanctions, by denying visas and punishing informants. Finally, let’s not forget: the media is largely a Establishment media, and serves power (I hope you paid attention to how quickly changes appeared in the international media portrayal of Taiwan after Tsai Ing-wen won the election).

All in all, it is much easier for Beijing to influence the way certain aspects of China are presented in the media and commentariat than to win hearts and minds in Taiwan.

Of course, there’s this, a problem people from democratic states seldom have a good understanding, as one media thinker observed:

“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state….. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’ s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. — William L. Shirer, US news correspondent in Berlin during the Hitler years.

Michael Turton


April 06, 2016 at 7:56 am, shiyali said:

–DPP leaders undertook the UN referendum, including the name Taiwan, because they believed it would help them in the 2008 election.

–In light of past pledges, the inclusion of the symbolically charged name element in the referendum created the impression that DPP leaders were taking a step to change the status quo (a change which the United States opposed).

–That action ignored Chinese redlines and reactions and so constituted needless
provocative behavior (it might lead to a PRC military reaction). The referendum initiative in turn put at risk the security of people of Taiwan, in which the United States had an interest, and the security of the United States.

–The U.S. government sought privately to dissuade DPP leaders from pursuing this course of action, but to no avail. It therefore had no choice, in its own interests and for the interests of the security of the people of Taiwan, to voice its concern. “Friends have an obligation to warn friends who are moving in an unwise direction.”

The above points are from a speech made by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen in 2007 and were summarized by Richard Bush III from Brookings Institute

Three years earlier Charles W. Freeman, Jr., former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said the following in a speech he delivered on June 25, 2004: 

“It is in our interest to convince Taipei that it is both playing with fire and becoming dangerously distant from its sole protector, the United States. It is not in our interest for Beijing to accomplish this for us by upping the military threat to Taiwan or taking a bite out of the island. The Bush Administration, as recently as yesterday, has spoken out ever more bluntly in an effort to instill realism into Taipei and to deter it from taking steps that will provoke such unilateral action by Beijing. Mr. Chen has not only brushed these warnings aside, he has ensured that his partisan press ignores and distorts the Administration’s message so that it is never heard or read by his followers. It is becoming clear that words alone may not be enough to convince the Taiwan authorities not to jeopardize the island’s future and our own; punitive actions may be required.”

The US refusal to allow Chen a stopover in the lower 48 states in 2006 may have been just that.

While geopolitics and China-US relations play a certain part, the US was upset that Chen was trying to be the tail that wagged the US dog and it reacted. To call the downturn in Taiwan-US relations “CCP propaganda” is in itself nothing but blatant propaganda, a crude whitewash of the failed policies of the Chen era.


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