‘On a Tightrope’: How Taiwan’s President Navigated the U.S. and China

In an island renowned for boisterous politics, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is an improbable leader.

Described by those close to her as scholarly and bookish, Ms. Tsai is known for caution and understatement. In 2016, she ordered her staff to stay silent about a call with incoming President Donald Trump, even though it was the first time in decades a Taiwanese leader had spoken to an American president or president-elect. (Mr. Trump was less discreet.)

When she rose to lead her party 15 years ago, she was known as a technocrat, not a transformative politician. “Many commentators view Tsai as a transitional and relatively weak leader,” noted a U.S. diplomatic cable at the time assessing her place in Taiwanese politics.

As Ms. Tsai, 66, makes one of her final visits before leaving office next year after two terms, she does so as one of the most important leaders in the world. Sitting at the center of the yawning divide between China and the U.S., she has steered Taiwan between the contradictory demands of the world’s two most powerful countries, one that claims the island under its authoritarian rule and another that views the democracy as one prong in a broader confrontation with China.

Ms. Tsai’s visit this week, including an expected meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is not about diplomatic breakthroughs, but about solidifying Taiwan’s status in the minds of U.S. leaders amid significant geopolitical uncertainty.

Ms. Tsai, then the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, during a protest in 2009 against the China policies of Taiwan’s president at the time, Ma Ying-jeou.Credit…Sam Yeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“She has earned a place in the eyes of Americans, but also other parts of the world, as being a reliable interlocutor. It is very hard for China’s propaganda machine to paint her as some kind of maniacal attack robot on all things China,” said Steve Yates, chair of the China Policy Initiative at the America First Policy Institute.

As president, Ms. Tsai has developed the closest relations with the United States that Taiwan has had since it became a full democracy nearly 30 years ago, securing unofficial support along with the promise of weapons. Deepening Taipei-Washington links has created space for other countries not officially recognizing Taiwan’s government to expand their ties, including Japan and some European nations.

This has given the island the best hope for solidifying a defense in the face of increasingly bellicose calls by Beijing to take Taiwan by force. Ms. Tsai has also worked to push back against China without openly confronting the economic and military giant just 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait.

Privately, Ms. Tsai has likened the position to “walking on a tightrope,” according to two people who have worked closely with her. For a model, she has looked to the former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who like her, came out of academia.

Ms. Tsai, center, during a presidential debate with President Ma Ying-jeou, left, and James Soong in Taipei in December 2011. A few weeks later, she lost that election to the incumbent, Mr. Ma.Credit…Pool photo by Aden Hsu

“Her mass appeal is not what people consider her strength. But her governance, her thinking, her determination, and her decision-making are actually the typical characteristics we should see in governing a modern country,” Ms. Tsai said of Ms. Merkel in a TV interview in 2015.

During a stop in New York on her current visit, Ms. Tsai seemed calm and relaxed, letting through some of the wry humor she usually displays only to those close to her.

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Making a mordant reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s claims over Taiwan, Ms. Tsai told the Americans gathered: “My domestic politics is harder than yours, because I’ve got an additional party that wants to be a part of the politics,” recalled Patrick M. Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, who was in attendance at the closed-door speech.

“Here’s this leader of Taiwan, seven years into her tenure under unrelenting daily pressure and coercion, and she was optimistic and funny, and connecting with her American audience like a skilled politician,” he said.

When Ms. Tsai stepped in to lead her Democratic Progressive Party in 2008, she had little competition for the post. The party was reeling from an election defeat and a corruption investigation into former President Chen Shui-bian. Ms. Tsai calmed the mood and built support by managing the need for resources with a new, grass-roots fund-raising campaign.

She had to work on campaigning, which in Taiwan involves large rallies with speeches set to dramatic music. “She could not speak fluent Taiwanese at first and did not know when she should step on the stage,” recalled Liu Chien-hsin, a longtime aide to Ms. Tsai, referring to the language spoken alongside Mandarin across the island.

She found her own style, leveraging social media and looking to Taiwan’s youth to connect more broadly. In ads, she posed with her cat, Think Think, driving a mini-trend of pet politics.

Ms. Tsai campaigning in Taichung City in 2015. Quiet and low-key by nature, she had to work on learning to campaign, but eventually found her own style.Credit…Billy H.C. Kwok for The New York Times

Ms. Tsai had to overcome geopolitical skepticism. Despite her close ties with many in Washington, American leaders distrusted her party, in part because of President Chen’s penchant for fiery speeches that angered China and set back American efforts to improve Sino-U.S. relations.

In 2011, Ms. Tsai, as her party’s presidential candidate, visited the United States to introduce her foreign policy outlook to the Obama administration. Afterward, an anonymous senior U.S. official told The Financial Times that she had left the U.S. with “distinct doubts” about her ability and willingness to maintain stability in Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, which were then improving under President Ma Ying-jeou. Such sentiment from the U.S. helped turn the 2012 election for Mr. Ma.

She learned from that setback to avoid anything that could be considered a direct provocation of China, according to her former speechwriter Jiho Tiun. When Ms. Tsai again visited Washington in 2015 ahead of an ultimately successful presidential campaign, she had shaped her party according to a consistent vision: a Taiwan quietly working to consolidate its sovereignty and independence without inflaming the fractious China-U.S. relationship.

“She wants to push Taiwan’s position as an independent country as far as she can without the Americans losing trust in her,” Mr. Tiun said.

Supporters of Ms. Tsai during an election rally in New Taipei City in January 2016. She won that election.Credit…Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That strategy helped strengthen ties. President Biden has repeatedly vowed that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict, going beyond his predecessors and the formal commitments to Taiwan. (Each time, the White House clarified that a U.S. policy of calculated ambiguity toward intentions to defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict has not changed.) Additional military support, weapons sales, and diplomatic visits have underscored the tighter relationship.

“Tsai has been a straight shooter — she has consulted with the U.S. in advance, and taken on board many of the U.S.’s suggestions,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Managing the China relationship has been harder. Ms. Tsai had deep experience working with Chinese officials from leading Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. At first, she hoped Beijing would engage, despite historical distrust of her party for its embrace of a Taiwanese, rather than a Chinese, identity.

Ms. Tsai celebrating her victory in the presidential election in January 2016.Credit…Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In her inaugural speech in 2016, she sought to leave the door open, acknowledging a 1992 meeting, albeit not a consensus that Chinese officials and her rival political party, the Kuomintang, later claimed emerged from that meeting. While the legitimacy of the consensus is debated in Taiwan, Beijing had said it should be the foundation for their relationship.

Ms. Tsai, in part because of back channeling with the Chinese ahead of the inauguration, believed her nod to the meeting amounted to a concession. But Chinese officials shot back that Ms. Tsai’s speech was like “an incomplete exam.” Ms. Tsai was shocked by the intransigence, according to Raymond Burghardt, a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and a person close to the administration who declined to be named given the political sensitivities.

The experience influenced her approach to China. Although treading cautiously, she found opportunities to push back. In late 2018, her administration received intelligence that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was planning a major speech on Taiwan, according to Lin He-ming, a former spokesman of the presidential office and Ms. Tsai’s longtime aide Mr. Liu. Their account was verified by a third person familiar with the matter who declined to be named given the political sensitivities.

Taiwanese military personnel participating in an amphibious landing drill. Late last year, Ms. Tsai was able to extend mandatory military service terms to one year, up from four months.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

On Jan. 2, 2019, Mr. Xi proposed a new “one-country, two-systems” approach to Taiwan that would mirror China’s arrangement in Hong Kong, in which Beijing controlled the city, but in theory gave it a wide degree of domestic autonomy.

Within hours, Ms. Tsai rejected the idea: “I want to reiterate that Taiwan absolutely will not accept ‘one country, two systems.’ The vast majority of Taiwanese also resolutely oppose ‘one country, two systems,’ and this opposition is also a ‘Taiwan consensus.’”

Her social media team spread the word online. They turned her rebuttal into an online poster in English and Chinese. Other supporters translated it into nearly 40 languages.

“China was so confused about how Tsai was able to disseminate her message to the global community,” said Mr. Lin, the former spokesman.

Beijing’s freeze-out of Ms. Tsai has in some ways been self-defeating. With engagement off the table, Mr. Xi has been left with few outlets to win hearts and minds on Taiwan. Recent Chinese policy there has mixed economic coercion, threats issued by state media and officials, and military intimidation via increasing sorties of fighter jets and bombers nearby.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ms. Tsai at the presidential office in Taipei in August 2022. She was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit in 25 years.Credit…Taiwan Presidential Office, via Reuters

That posturing has helped Ms. Tsai accomplish policy goals. When former Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan last year, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit in 25 years, China held large-scale military drills surrounding Taiwan’s main island. The antagonism, combined with Russia’s war in Ukraine, heightened alarm and strengthened consensus to prepare for a potential attack by China. Ms. Tsai was able to extend mandatory military service terms to one year, up from four months.

Even so, many in D.C. have worried about Taiwan’s readiness. While Ms. Tsai can point to domestic achievements, including pension reform, capably managing the pandemic, and legalizing gay marriage, efforts to sharpen Taiwan’s defense capabilities have been sluggish.

Ms. Tsai must step down at the end of her second term next year. Given Taiwan’s raucous politics, her successor is unlikely to bring her discipline, which could make the already dangerous game of brinkmanship over the island even more perilous, said Mr. Burghardt of the American Institute in Taiwan.

“I think we will miss her,” he said. “The real question is whether the Chinese will miss her. Or whether they will feel with her gone, and if a less cautious person takes charge there, that might drive them to be less cautious. That’s a big question mark hanging over the future.”

Ms. Tsai on Friday during her visit to New York.Credit…Taiwan Presidential Office, via Reuters

Christopher Buckley contributed reporting.

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