Tsai Faces Many Challenges Over Foreign PolicyThe new president must be open to various alternatives, particularly towards cross strait relations and Taiwan’s international participation
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.