President Tsai Ing-wen’s well-modulated critique of China at her year-end news conference in Taipei struck just the right note.
It’s not very often that a Taiwanese president has the ear of the international community. Months or even years can pass without senior politicians in London or Washington sitting up and taking notice of developments in Taiwan, particularly if its relations with China appear to be calm. Thus, for example, during the recently concluded presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan rarely made news internationally, at least of the kind that was not directly connected to damaging typhoons or other natural phenomena. Western politicians and others were largely content to focus their attention elsewhere, like on the Middle East or the Ukraine, convinced that the perennially tense Taiwan Strait was thankfully a thing of the past.
Over the past several weeks, however, incoming U.S. President Donald J. Trump has changed Taiwan’s position decisively, moving it back into the international spotlight in a way that hasn’t been seen since 1996, when China launched missiles across the Taiwan Strait to protest the island-nation’s first direct presidential elections. The Taiwan-finally-matters process began on Dec. 2, when Trump agreed to participate in a precedent-setting telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, marking the first time since Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 that a senior American leader is known to have spoken directly to a Taiwanese president.
It gathered steam over the next several weeks, first with Trump’s equally unprecedented critique of the U.S.’s decades-old “one-China” policy, and then with his nomination of renowned China-basher Peter Navarro to head up a new White House trade office that many believe will be used to launch a no-holds barred trade war with Beijing. As a central party to the suddenly frayed U.S.-China dynamic, Taiwan found itself — unwittingly or otherwise — directly under the klieg lights for the first time in years.
To be sure, not all the coverage it received was positive — some American news outlets even portrayed it as having shamelessly connived its way onto Trump’s telephone receiver — but at least it was back in the geopolitical conversation after such a long and troubling hiatus. For a country that had previously been all but invisible, that in itself was a boon.
Which is one of the main reasons that President Tsai’s year-end news conference in Taipei was so important to Taiwan’s international relations. For the first time in decades a Taiwanese leader had the opportunity to make Taiwan’s voice heard far beyond the ornate presidential office building at the foot of Ketagalan Boulevard. And much to her credit, she did exactly what she had to, neatly lighting into China for a series of provocative anti-Taiwan actions. No less a publication than the New York Times gave her remarks pride of place, underscoring Taiwan’s newfound status as an important player on the world stage. “President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan sharply criticized China’s leaders,” the Times story began, “saying they had resorted to military and economic threats to intimidate the island.” The story then described the anti-Taiwan steps China has taken since Tsai was sworn into office on May 20, 2016. These included sending its Ukrainian-built aircraft carrier through waters adjacent to the country, flying provocative combat missions around its perimeter, and ending a longstanding diplomatic truce with Taipei by poaching Sao Tomé and Principe, one of its few remaining official diplomatic allies.
Tsai’s remarks were clearly well conceived, leaving very little or no room for complex parsing or interpretation. “Step by step, Beijing is going back to the old path of dividing, coercing and even threatening and intimidating Taiwan,” she told the assembled journalists at the presidential office building. “We will not bow to pressure and we will of course not revert to the old path of confrontation. We hope this does not reflect a policy choice by Beijing, but must say that such conduct has hurt the feelings of the Taiwanese people and destabilized cross-strait relations.”
Turning the Tables
There are two main reasons to believe that Tsai’s remarks will be effective in Washington and elsewhere in the West. To begin with, she cleverly turned the prevailing narrative about Taiwan-China relations directly on its head, calling out Beijing for the recent upsurge in cross-strait tensions, rather than the other way around. Purposely or otherwise, the international press has long tended to see Taiwan as the aggressor in those relations, needlessly “provoking” China through its actions. In just this way for example, Tsai’s refusal to accept the notion that Taiwan is part of China has been roundly criticized in media outlets around the world, despite the fact that this position in backed by a wide majority of Taiwanese themselves. In much the same vein, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan are almost always portrayed in a negative light, not least because they are fatuously described as tools to needle Beijing. Never mind of course, that it is China threatening to invade Taiwan rather than Taiwan threatening to invade China. That point is rarely invoked.
But well aware of the opportunity that Trump’s actions presented her, Tsai clearly put the onus on Beijing, accusing it in particularly forceful terms of creating waves in the Taiwan-China relationship. Especially cutting was her ironic reference to China’s “hurting the feelings of the Taiwanese people,” a phrase that is usually employed by Beijing itself, not least when it wants to underscore its anger at some perceived slight it has received at the hands of a foreign country or allegedly hostile foreign actors.
The second inspired aspect of Tsai’s performance was its uniquely fortuitous timing. It came just days before she was due to set off on an official visit to Latin America that includes stopovers in Houston and San Francisco. By speaking out so forcefully when Taiwan is once again in the news, Tsai all but guaranteed that she will receive far more attention in the United States than would otherwise have been the case. She can certainly use that opportunity to repeat her central message that it is China which is intimidating Taiwan, rather than the other way around. That in itself, will help make her trip worthwhile, if only because it will help the new American leadership understand that Taiwan boasts a fully-fledged democracy that makes it a natural ally.