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Taiwan Analytics: President Tsai Ing-wen’s Diplomatic Legacy

  • 25 May, 2023
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In her final May 20 speech as president, Tsai Ing-wen this year made clear her own awareness of the “post-Tsai era” and her understanding of future challenges facing Taiwan, as well as reflecting on her administration’s performance to date.

Most notable among President Tsai’s achievements is clearly her foreign policy, since Taiwan has gone from being marginalized as a small island trapped off China’s coast, to playing a pivotal role in world affairs. This new focus on Taiwan is evidenced by active discussion of the Taiwan issue and de-risking instead of decoupling China by world leaders at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan.


Numerous significant events have occurred since President Tsai entered office in 2016. These include the UK referendum to leave the EU; Donald Trump’s election in the US; Xi Jinping’s abolition of the PRC’s presidential term system; anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong and China’s subsequent promulgation of the national security law; the Covid 19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China and closed the world for three years; and Russia’s launching an aggressive war against Ukraine. These developments have led to disintegration of the post-Cold War political era and post-1990 globalized economic order.

At the same time, China’s rise was expressed as seeking hegemony and advocating a rise of the East as the West declines, accompanied by attacks on the international democratic system. Furthermore, developments in digital technologies have brought major challenges to existing concepts of classical liberal democracy, undermining democratic systems around the world. It is consequently very difficult for Taiwan, located at the eye of these various storms, to maintain its current situation. Yet it is precisely because Taiwan’s performance has been outstanding that its international status has risen considerably without firing a single shot.

New developments of "breaking away from unification-vs-independence" and "internationalization" in Taiwan Strait security issues

Changes in China’s internal and external attitudes have also brought about significant changes in the international community’s perception of the PRC. When Trump’s administration issued its National Security Strategy in 2017, it changed four decades of US policy and instead regarded China-US relations as a geostrategic competition between major powers, while not yet regarding China as a hostile force.

Rather, it was China’s subsequent actions that led to an increasingly confrontational relationship. These included Xi Jinping’s amending the constitution, China’s redefinition of universal human rights at the United Nations, and its growing inclination to use force in handling disputes. In particular, China’s kidnapping of Canadian visitors during the Huawei controversy—despite them having no connection to that incident—as well as its initial responses to the Covid 19 outbreak and continued refusal to conduct transparent investigations, have fundamentally changed Western attitudes towards China.

These attitudes also led countries to view China’s military incursions and diplomatic isolation of Taiwan differently.

Many countries thus realize China’s intrusions against Taiwan are not simply normal cross-Strait disputes and, since they have discovered that China’s means of exerting pressure on them are essentially the same as its coercions against Taiwan, this cannot be regarded as an issue of unification vs. independence. Given that Taiwan has neither done nor said anything, China’s increased military threats can only be a dictatorship’s hostility for its neighboring democracy. Now aware of Taiwan’s indispensable values, these countries know that should China’s threats to Taiwan lead to military confrontation, it would seriously impact their own interests.

Thus rapid progress was made when the Biden administration adopted its 2021 Taiwan’s security internationalization policy to deal with peacekeeping across the Strait. Emphasis on peace and stability, opposition to changing the status quo by force, and the need to resolve disputes peacefully have started to become the basis of international consensus on Taiwan’s security issues. This internationalization of Taiwan Strait security is possibly the most critical recent development in Taiwan’s strategic position.

On leaving office in 2016, President Ma Ying-jeou’s bequests to Taiwan were the 1992 Consensus, which already submitted to the CCP’s One-China Principle; an economic system enmeshed with that of China; and an under-resourced national defense system. These were, therefore, the things with which Tsai Ing-wen had to first grapple after taking office. Using the principle of democracy rather than the One-China Principle, she strove to maintain basic exchanges with China, reduce Taiwan’s exposure to China’s economy, diversify Taiwan’s investment potential in China, and pro-actively strengthen Taiwan’s national defense.

Taiwanese identity as key to defending democracy not as disruptor of the status quo

During Taiwan’s democratization in the 1990s and the concomitant rise in Taiwan’s self-identity, international security experts tended to think this might challenge the One-China policy and regarded Taiwan national identity as potentially disruptive to the status quo. Some even suggested that only popular opinion supporting One China represented responsible democracy, while that challenging it was irresponsible populism that would bring war to the Taiwan Strait. Once it was recognized that the main cause of Taiwan Strait insecurity is China’s hostility to Taiwan’s democracy, Taiwan national identity is no longer seen as the initiator of status quo disruption. Moreover, since Taiwan national identity is believed to help defend democratic society and consolidate a collective will to resist should China invade, its importance has been elevated, and entrenched international hostility to Taiwan identity has correspondingly declined.

While the international community continues to claim adherence to the “One-China policy,” in an attempt to pacify China’s relentless protests over engagement with Taiwan, employing such strategic ambiguity also gives countries room to argue there is a difference between their “One-China policy” and China’s “One-China Principle".

These achievements directly relate to major behind-the-scenes efforts by President Tsai’s administration. In her speech, President Tsai specifically stressed the need to pay attention to continuity and predictability when undertaking international diplomacy. Under her administration, Taiwan’s accumulation of international credibility has been so considerable that, when issues arise, it is generally no longer necessary for Taiwan to prove it is not the trouble-making entity, but, conversely, China is perceived as needing to. This strong international trust has created a favorable space for Taiwan’s diplomatic operations.

This international credibility appears focused personally on President Tsai, however. It is not clear whether this sense of trust will be conferred on the next president. This is partly related to divergence in strategic thinking among the presidential candidates and, should there be a transfer of power between political parties, there will likely be significant changes in national defense, foreign affairs and China policy. Furthermore, since many of President Tsai’s achievements have not yet been institutionalized, when a different person assumes office, there is a significant chance of reversal.

President Tsai states that, since Taiwan has attracted global attention, security of the Taiwan Strait is no longer simply a cross-Strait issue. A key question is, therefore, whether the Taiwan recognized by the world is also the globalized Taiwan that Taiwan wishes for itself.

After assuming office, President Tsai proposed the New Southbound Policy. This was not only economic but also intended to reposition Taiwan’s regional role. Combined with increasing prosperity among Taiwan’s new ethnic groups, it offered fresh foundations for Taiwan’s future roles and identity within the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan is no longer an island constrained to the eastern edge of the Asian continent, but a part of both Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. However, little has subsequently been heard of this ambitious policy, perhaps because the focus of Tsai’s national security team was largely on stabilizing cross-Strait relations.

While numerous other nations—both near and far—have announced Indo-Pacific strategy, that Taiwan, at the geographic center of the Indo-Pacific Region, has not, greatly mystifies the international security community given Taiwan’s hopes for dynamic relationships in the region. Countries could therefore comprehend Taiwan’s regional self-positioning so as to interact with Taiwan from a more comprehensive perspective, develop more profound strategic expectations and build stronger mutual trust. Taiwan’s lack of Indo-Pacific strategy might cause allies to revert to traditional thinking, regulating their relations with Taiwan by once again putting ceilings on their relationships with Taiwan.

Taiwan, also needs to shoulder corresponding global responsibilities

During Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency, Taiwan’s international status has greatly improved and Taiwan Strait issues have been internationalized.

Also due to Taiwan’s rising status, its international role has become increasingly important. Expectations for Taiwan will also rise accordingly, but when Taiwan wants to shoulder corresponding international responsibilities, it finds existing preconceptions restrict its potential contributions. Statements at the start of the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in April addressing Taiwan’s international participation manifest this development.

Improvements in Taiwan’s international status will generate greater expectations, and these expectations will lead international attention to problems arising from Taiwan’s restricted international participation, developments which will bring new challenges and opportunities. It is clear that time is running out for President Tsai Ing-wen to deal with these matters. This also indicates the sort of approach that future presidents should take since, if they apply the structures existing before 2016, this will inevitably bring disaster to Taiwan’s international diplomacy.

Most importantly, these issues cannot be understood from the perspective of cross-Strait relations. President Tsai has made major contributions to improving Taiwan’s status, but how this can be developed and what new challenges might emerge, are key issues facing the next president as well.