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 02, 2016 at 2:04 pm, Michael Turton said:

“”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.””””

This is CCP propaganda. It has no place in any serious analysis of cross-strait affairs.

“”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”

You mean, like Chen did?


April 04, 2016 at 1:48 am, Kyle Pearson said:

>>>This is CCP propaganda. It has no place in any serious analysis of cross-strait affairs.

You’ve got to love it when Turton comes out declaring that US Dept. of State memos are “CCP propaganda.” Not a surprise, though.



April 04, 2016 at 2:36 am, Kyle Pearson said:

Gotta love it how Turton first says that it’s “CCP propaganda” that Chen’s behavior sparked a diplomatic rift with the US, and then in his next response admits that yeah, the US actually did blame Chen, and chastise him, because “US interests” (read: peaceful coexistence and cooperative development, rather than war) in the region were being damaged by Chen’s behavior.

Apparently, he doesn’t realize that saying “the US blamed Chen for threatening peace, prosperity, and stability in the region” and “[The assertion that Chen’s behavior caused a rift in US-Taiwan relations] is just CCP propaganda” are two mutually-exclusive assertions.

However confusing that cognitive dissonance might be, there is ample evidence that the rift existed and as Shi Yali up there says: the facts speak for themselves.

At the time of Chen’s presidency, the Bush administration repeatedly sent envoys across the strait with the specific intention of rapping his knuckles and warning him off a certain course of action – which, typically, Chen ignored by finding some way to pursue his original goal by changing up the wording.

This is not CCP “propaganda” at all – unless one wishes to include the Congressional Research Service as “CCP propaganda” –

“But when press accounts quoted some Taiwan officials as saying there was no difference between the NUC being “abolished” and its “ceasing to function,” the State Department issued a rare written statement (March 2, 2006) saying it expected Taiwan authorities to “unambiguously” and publicly clarify that the NUC had not been abolished but that it continued to exist. The State Department written statement also reiterated that the United States expected President Chen to reaffirm publicly his repeated assurances to maintain the status quo.24 These assurances were not given until June 8, 2006, when President Chen issued them publicly to Raymond Burghardt, the chairman of the de facto U.S. office for Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT).

I’m not sure how Turton is going to try and spin an ultimatum where the Dept. of State dictates to Chen what his public statement will be as “CCP propaganda” – but i’m sure it’ll be as blackly comedic as the rest of his commentary is.



April 03, 2016 at 11:33 am, Jim said:

Stop thinking that the US government will step in for Taiwan. The US government is NOT our friend. It is friendly as long as it is convenient and profitable to be so. They kept Taiwan close after the revolution because of Taiwan’s spy system in China as well as its proximity to Korea and Vietnam during our cold war-related wars. Taiwan’s spy network has largely been dismantled by China and the idea of re-taking the mainland is kaput. Taiwan is in a strategic position along with Japan and the Philippines in the Pacific, creating a “wall” to the Pacific. Now this is my take. The recent war-like behavior of the US is aimed at destabilizing countries and destroying economies, not the traditional “winning a war.” We Taiwanese think the US would come in to help us if military trouble between us and China occurred. They might as long as it were convenient. They won’t if not convenient.
Our entire population in Taiwan equals that one city in China, Shanghai. It is not a big market for the US, about the same as one very highly populated state in the US. Our market isn’t as attractive as that offered by the billion in China. America is all about money and power. The money is not really here. Then, power. America is behind the recent military beef-up in Japan and Australia, preparing for a possible military conflict with China. They call it a deterrent or a means of reducing China’s influence. Those countries might go for traditional sea warfare. The US is becoming less reliant on tradition and more reliant on multi-layer inhuman Drone-Starwar-like means of warfare and letting other people do their dirty work. Considering that the US aims to destabilize, not win, we in Taiwan would not benefit from a conflict between the United States and China. The United States would seek to only destabilize (leaving both sides of Strait weak). After such a conflict, we would only be weakened. It would be prudent not to count on the US to defend us and unwise to think their involvement would benefit us.


April 03, 2016 at 5:44 pm, shiyali said:

Not CCP propaganda but fact. Tsai herself and her advisers go to great length to distance themselves from the excesses of the Chen administration.

“Taiwan will not be a “troublemaker” in the Asia-Pacific region under the country’s newly elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, a DPP think tank member said Monday in the United States.

York Chen (陳文政), convener of the Defense Policy Advisory Committee under DPP think tank the New Frontier Foundation, made the prediction at a conference on Taiwan-U.S. strategic relations while addressing possible changes in bilateral ties after President-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) assumes office in May.” (Focus Taiwan Feb.22)

And the US certainly blamed Chen for ratcheting up tensions. Here are two top US officials comments in 2006 when Chen was pushing for the UN referendum:

In 2006 . . .National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs, Dennis Wilder cited the longstanding U.S. position that it does not consider Taiwan—or the ROC—to be a “state” in the international community
and did not see any prospect for Taiwan actually to join the UN. In this situation, he argued, the referendum “only adds a degree of tension to cross-straits relations that we deem unnecessary.”

Soon after that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen spoke on behalf of the US administration:

“While U.S. opposition to Chinese coercion of Taiwan is beyond question, we do not recognize Taiwan as an independent state, and we do not accept the argument that provocative assertions of Taiwan independence are in any way conducive to maintenance of the status quo or peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait . . . In fact, we rank such assertions along with the referendum on joining the UN under the name Taiwan as needless provocations that are patently not in the best interests of the Taiwan people or of the United States.”

The facts speak for themselves.


April 03, 2016 at 6:17 pm, Michael Turton said:

Of course the US blamed Chen. That was because the US was responding to Chinese pressure and propaganda, which suited its own goals (to develop relations with China it could use in the Middle East and elsewhere) and because so many individuals in the last three administrations and in the legions of advisers and commenters are doing business with China.

No one on the US side is going to say “We are acceding to Chinese pressure and responding to Chinese propaganda.” Instead they are going to blame Chen because that is more convenient for them.

The idea that Taiwan is “provocative” is PRC propaganda, which the US responds to and uses. This framework that China imposes on X-strait relations also influences the media discourse.

Naturally Tsai has to fit herself into this box. Don’t worry, though. I am sure Beijing will label Tsai a trouble-maker and provocative. How do you think the US will respond? China has much less leverage now….


April 03, 2016 at 7:50 pm, Trevelyan said:

Mr Turton is quite right. Chen was the scapegoat for the Bush administration when the US felt it needed help from China, e.g. over North Korea. Chen didn’t actually do anything that was really provocative.

As for preserving Taiwan’s independence, don’t you think that should be any Taiwanese President’s number 1 priority? How on earth would you feel if your country’s leader seemed amenable to ceding even a degree of sovereignty to a neighbouring, hostile country?

Yes, Taiwan should aim for good relations with China. But if China is being hostile and threatening, the fault lies with Beijing and the CCP. If that’s inconvenient for the US and other countries, tough luck. A victim of bullying shouldn’t be blamed because he refuses to hand over his lunch money to the bully.


April 04, 2016 at 3:36 pm, Mike Fagan said:

“Trevelyan” writes…

“How on earth would you feel if your country’s leader seemed amenable to ceding even a degree of sovereignty to a neighbouring, hostile country?”

Actually, I already know that better than any Taiwanese.

It is precisely because I am English that I know exactly what it feels like when whole swathes of my native country’s law is ceded to a foreign, anti-democratic, politically-correct, viciously intolerant, quasi-totalitarian superstate that is hostile to our culture of individualism and irreverence to authority. And that’s just the West Lothian problem of Scots in the House of Commons. The EU is all of that too, but on another level altogether.


April 04, 2016 at 5:40 pm, Paul Adams said:

“whole swathes of my native country’s law is ceded” – Exactly which powers did England lose to Scotland’s devolved parliament?
“anti-democratic” – In what sense? Scotland is based entirely on democracy. We elected our leaders democratically. We elected our Westminster MPs democratically. That you dislike the outcome only shows your own personal disdain for democracy.
“politically-correct” – Again, please explain. From north of the border it appears that you are referring to England, not Scotland. We regularly mock you guys for this. In fact half of your more recent comedy consists of you mocking yourselves for it.
“viciously intolerant” – Intolerant of what exactly? In fact Scotland has become increasingly tolerant under the MSP and will soon be one of the few European countries to give legal recognition to people who are neither male nor female. Again, your distaste at Scotland’s progressive policies only highlights your own intolerance.
“quasi-totalitarian” – Do you even understand what totalitarian means? Nobody demands subservience to the state. If the people didn’t like those in power they would vote them out but instead, seeing as they are doing a bang-up job of taking care of the country, more and more are supporting them.
“superstate” – Well yes, we are pretty super. First pseudo-sensible thing you’ve said.
“hostile to our culture of individualism” – There’s nothing anti-individualistic about Scotland. In fact anyone who has ever been there will tell you it’s the precise opposite. Of course if your idea of individualism equates to slavish obedience to Westminster then I can see your point.
“irreverence to authority” – Seriously? So when the SNP’s latest raft of MPs took to Westminster and applauded their colleagues, only to be shouted down by the speaker and chided for their irreverence to authority, what exactly was that about?
“that’s just the West Lothian problem” – EVEL has put an end to the West Lothian question, as you would well know if you were even vaguely up to date on matters political. EVEL is indeed an anti-democratic notion but thankfully, seeing as we’re quite fond of democracy, it represents nothing more than pathetic Tory whinging and will be considered as another welcome push towards independence.
“The EU is all of that too” – Can you vote in the EU referendum? I hope so. Please vote to leave and convince the rest of your countryment to do so. That will be the final nail in the coffin of the Union and will allow Scotland to remain in the EU and free from Westminster interference and incompetence.


April 05, 2016 at 1:39 pm, Mike Fagan said:

@Paul Adams – for your enlightenment. Of course I was referring to the European Union.


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.