What Can We Expect From Tsai’s US Visit?

The 12-day visit will be key to the DPP candidate’s success in 2016; and this time around her audience will likely be more receptive than in 2011
Photo: Tsai Ing-wen Facebook page
Chris Wang

To say that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) upcoming visit to the U.S. will be a “make or break” factor in her presidential campaign might be an overstatement, but there is no doubt that Tsai and her party are taking the trip seriously and that what happens in Washington could be a defining factor for Tsai’s second shot at the presidency.

The London School of Economics graduate is scheduled to leave for the U.S. on Friday with a 50-member strong delegation — 20 staff members and 32 journalists — for a 12-day trip that includes stops in six U.S. cities (Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, New York, Houston and San Francisco) before returning to Taiwan on June 9.

Tsai, who inaugurated her campaign office in Taipei on Tuesday, will meet with Taiwanese-American communities in various cities to kick off her presidential campaign. Her most important task, however, awaits her in Washington, where she will meet State Department and Pentagon officials for discussions on some of the core issues in Taiwan’s presidential elections — her China policy, Taiwan’s defense capabilities, and security.

The 58-year-old failed to convince Washington in 2011 with her proposed “Taiwan Consensus” that she would be able to maintain cross-strait stability and manage DPP ties with China if she were elected. Although those who were present are divided on how “bad” it went, the visit ended up hurting Tsai’s campaign and was critical to her loss to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who was re-elected to a four-year term, in January 2012.

Some Taiwanese lament the fact that DPP presidential candidates always have to “convince” the U.S. (though Chinese Nationalist Party candidates seem to be doing the same thing) on their cross-strait policies and that KMT candidates have almost always had to seek Beijing’s “approval” to boost their campaign profile. Observers have likened such campaign visits to a “college entrance exam,” a description that points to the subtle and sophisticated triangular relationship between Taiwan, China and the U.S. and also explains why such trips are necessary.

Vowing not to be burned a second time, Tsai seems to be more prepared this time. She has proposed maintaining the “status quo” as the backbone of her China policy, and opinion polls suggest that the initiative is receiving strong public support. Former Mainland Affairs Council vice minister Lin Chong-pin (林中斌) described the initiative as “the safest formulation” for the DPP and Tsai.

Tsai’s challenges

The DPP chairperson’s first challenge in her meetings with U.S. officials will be to offer enough substance on her approach to the “status quo” and the management of cross-strait ties under Chinese scrutiny and high suspicions of the pro-independence DPP. Tsai and her advisors have revealed very little about what Tsai will tell her American counterparts. But one thing is sure: Tsai will not offer catch phrases like the KMT’s “1992 consensus” as the foundation of cross-strait exchanges. More than likely she is expected to present a set of principles on maintaining and promoting bilateral relations.

Earlier this month, Tsai said her stance on the nation’s “status quo” is “aligned with the U.S.” and reportedly told pro-independence groups that her interpretation of the status quo is “keeping Taiwan’s sovereignty” and “a status quo that sees Taiwan as not belonging to China.”

Responses from Washington have been positive so far, with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel saying that Washington will not take sides in the election and looks forward to hearing what Tsai has to say. Asked about the 1992 consensus recently, Susan Thornton, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a forum that it was not appropriate for the U.S. “to either favor or disfavor” the name that is used to describe the mechanism (or “foundation”) used for cross-strait dialogue.

It is nevertheless expected that the KMT and Beijing, as well as pro-KMT academics and former officials both in Taiwan and the U.S., will try to box in Tsai and the DPP using the 1992 consensus, which they say the DPP must accept as the foundation for bilateral relations. Recently, Ma and several former Taiwanese and U.S. government officials have advocated for the consensus, while after an initial silence, Beijing has also raised its voice in demanding that Tsai provide clarifications on her definition of the “status quo.”

The Ma administration will also probably try once again to disrupt Tsai’s U.S. visit — Ma sent his top aide King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) to mirror Tsai’s trip in 2011 — by organizing various activities. Ma is scheduled to take part in a digital videoconference with academics at Stanford University on June 3, the same day that Tsai will be giving a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. The Chinese-language Next Magazine reported that King is scheduled to leave for the U.S. on July 2 before Ma makes transit stops in Boston en route to Central America. The Harvard-educated Ma, King, and former premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), who is now a visiting scholar at Harvard University, are expected to meet at Ma’s alma mater and “make some noise,” according to the report. The Presidential Office denied that the arrangements are related to Tsai’s U.S. visit.

While all eyes will be on cross-strait relations, China policy will not be the only issue that Tsai must address. With tensions flaring up in the South China Sea, the chairperson will likely be required to clarify the DPP’s stance on the region, in particular Taiwan’s territorial claims demarcated by the so-called U-shaped line or nine-dash line. Additionally, Tsai may need to convince the Pentagon that she is capable of handling the role of commander-in-chief and make the DPP’s position known regarding Taiwan’s ban on U.S. beef and pork, seen as a crucial factor for U.S. support of Taiwan’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) bid.

Perhaps the most important yet unnoticed task for Tsai will be to strike a balance between U.S. interests and Taiwan’s own interests so that Taiwanese voters back home will not see her as a weak leader who “gives in to foreign pressure.”

Reminders to Washington

As superpower and arguably Taiwan’s staunchest ally, the U.S., which ranks only behind Japan as Taiwanese people’s preferred country, is perhaps entitled to scrutinize what is on a future Taiwanese leader’s mind. But this does not mean that Washington doesn’t make mistakes sometimes.

How the U.S. interfered with Taiwan’s 2012 presidential election left a bad taste in the mouths of many Taiwanese. Thomas Donilon, former National Security Adviser to President Obama, reportedly told the Financial Times in late 2011 that the U.S. was concerned that a win by Tsai could jeopardize cross-strait stability. Former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director Douglas Paal, who visited Taiwan during the final week of the campaign in an individual capacity, publicly endorsed the 1992 consensus. As recently as March this year, Paal was still trumpeting the 1992 consensus and saying that “one China” was Beijing’s “bottom line.”

Washington would be well advised to avoid the same mistakes this time. The DPP and political analysts in Taiwan have urged the U.S. to value “substance over form and process over result” in Taiwan’s relationship with China. The good news is that the Obama administration has been cautious so far, as demonstrated by Russel and Thornton’s remarks.

The current mainstream public opinion and political atmosphere in Taiwan is quite different from what it was four years ago when Washington rallied behind Ma, assuming that Ma’s re-election would better promote stability and peace across the Taiwan Strait. The Sunflower Movement and the emergence of a “third force” not only showed how unbearable Ma’s leadership and pro-China stance had become to the public, but also completely changed the political dynamics in Taiwan.

Given this, added to Washington’s “pivot” to Asia and the current tense situation in the South China Sea, the last thing the U.S. wants is another pro-China leader in Taipei, someone who can superficially maintain “peace and stability” while in reality jeopardizing the U.S.’ strategy and interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Moreover, cooperation between Taiwan and the U.S. could and should go well beyond the cross-strait relationship to include areas such as expanding trade ties and Taiwan’s role in Asia-Pacific security as well as collaboration in technological developments and environment issues, among them combating PM2.5 pollution.


Chris Wang is a staff member at the Thinking Taiwan Foundation and a former journalist with the Taipei Times and the Central News Agency.

One Response to “What Can We Expect From Tsai’s US Visit?”

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