Beijing tests mettle of Taiwan’s Iron Lady President

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
May 28, 2016

A television in a sales showroom features Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen during a televised political debate in Taipei, Taiwan, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Olivia Harris
A television in a sales showroom features Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen during a televised political debate in Taipei, Taiwan, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan in January, the Chinese regime of Xi Jinping has done everything it can to inflame cross-strait relations by goading her into making an outraged response.

Tsai, who was inaugurated President of the island nation of 23 million people on May 20, has refused to react in the way Beijing wants. She is far too experienced a politician, especially in dealing with the slippery fish in Beijing, to be easily trapped into saying things that can be use against her, especially with Taiwan’s indispensable ally, Washington.

Xi and his boys certainly didn’t plan it this way, but all that their bully tactics in the last four months have done is reinforce what ought to have been evident to everyone for many years.

The relations between Taiwan and China are not a threat to regional security because Taiwan’s people want to keep their status as an independent country. They are a threat because of the imperialist instincts of the Beijing regime, which, without any historic, legal, moral or political justification, claims to own the island and its people.

The friction in this fault line in Asian security is growing not because Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won for the first time both the presidential and parliamentary elections in January.

The tectonic plates are grinding because Xi in Beijing is a belligerent and vengeful autocrat who is trying to use manufactured patriotism to divert public attention from the economic, social and political failures of his regime.

Beijing has sneered and questioned the sincerity of Tsai’s commitments to maintain stable relations with China; statements made in both her victory speech in January and at her inauguration a week ago.

A major reason a clear majority of Taiwan’s voters elected Tsai and the DPP was the party’s pledge to revive the economy and lessen its dependence on trade with China. But within hours of Taiwan’s election day Beijing made it clear it intends to use every weapon in its arsenal to foil the new government’s efforts to rebuild the island’s economy. This crass and indefensible attack on the internal affairs of a foreign country has continued Beijing’s bile is not just institutional. It has shown it can and will abduct Taiwanese citizens anywhere and at any time it chooses.

The personal attacks on Tsai have become more and more pointed. A few days ago a senior Beijing official responsible for China’s relations with Taiwan wrote in state-controlled media that Tsai is not fit to lead a government because she is a women, and therefore temperamentally unsuited to the task.

In fact, there are few elected leaders around today who have come to office with as many accomplishments or essential experience as does Tsai. She is a lawyer who got her first degree at Taiwan’s National University, went on to do a masters degree at Cornell and gained her doctorate at the London School of Economics. On her return to Taiwan she taught law for several years before being spotted as one of the brightest and best of her generation by then-President Lee Tung-hui of the Kuomintang party. Lee was the island’s first Taiwanese president and also the first directly elected leader. In the 1990s Tsai worked for him both as a national security adviser and as a drafter of China policy. She also negotiated Taiwan’s entry in 2000 into the World Trade Organization.

When the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian won the presidency in 2000, Tsai became the main adviser on relations with China. This marked Tsai’s transition to political commitment to the DPP. She has been through the political mill, running unsuccessfully both for mayor of New Taipei, and for president, before her victory in January.

She has a wealth of political, economic, diplomatic and administrative experience.

Tsai has taken some risk in the very measured statements she has made about her approach to cross-Strait relations. Tsai has repeated that she wants to maintain the status quo in relations with Beijing and that she will respect the agreements made by the previous Kuomintang government of Ma Ying-jeou with China.

This has been disappointing for many of her supporters, who want to call Beijing’s bluff and move to have the reality of their independence recognized internationally.

But Tsai’s measured caution is not enough for Beijing. It has ranted against the “ambiguity” of her statements. In particular, Beijing officials have railed against her for not explicitly recognizing the so-called “1992 Consensus.” In this agreement Taipei and Beijing said there is “One China,” but without saying what that entailed. For Taipei it meant there is one China, but Taiwan is not part of it. For Beijing it means Taiwan is a renegade province and should submit to China’s sovereignty or risk military invasion.

Tsai comes to office with an ambitious five-point plan to revive Taiwan’s economy and enhance the island’s social structure.

Taiwan has a formidable international reputation for high-tech innovation. But in recent decades Taiwanese companies have followed the international trend and moved their manufacturing and assembly operations to China. Tsai wants to reverse this and to encourage development of new specializations in such areas as biotechnology that are not dependent on supply chains involving China

In the same vein, she wants to lessen Taiwan’s dependence on exports to China by expanding the island’s reach into the Southeast Asian and Indian markets. Tsai is also intent on seeking membership in the U.S.-led, 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes the 10 countries of Southeast Asia, China, India and Japan.

Her problem is that Beijing has a long history of using its economic muscle to blackmail other countries not to admit Taiwan to trade or other international organizations without China’s agreement.

Beijing has made it clear it intends to continue its economic warfare against Taiwan. Soon after the DPP’s election victory Beijing announced it was cutting the number of Chinese tourists allowed to visit the island. This did not have the desired effect, as many Taiwanese breathed a sigh of relief. The Chinese visitors have become notorious for their ill manners and arrogance, just as they have in Hong Kong, where the administration had to plead with Beijing to cut the visa quotas so as to avoid a serious backlash against the tourists.

In Taiwan, Chinese tourists had swarmed famous attractions like Sun Moon Lake and the Taroko Gorge in such numbers that local visitors have been driven out. And in the National Palace Museum the ill manners and discourtesy of the Chinese tourists reached the level where museum staff found it necessary to post dozens of notices with information about how to behave in a public place.

If Beijing’s tourist gambit misfired, another ploy did not. Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with only 21 countries. Most nations have downgraded their diplomatic representation in Taipei as the price of having full bilateral relations with Beijing. Several small countries, however, found regularly switching diplomatic relations between Taiwan and China was a very profitable business. During his eight-years in office former Taiwan President Ma negotiated an unofficial end to this “dollar diplomacy.” But in March, the small African state of Gambia, which had previously recognized Taiwan, announced it was establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. This move clearly came after pressure from China and is undoubtedly intended as a warning to Taipei that Beijing will step up its efforts to enforce Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.

There was an even nastier example of Beijing’s vengeful nature in April, when Kenya was persuaded to force 45 Taiwanese on to planes to China. The 45 had been implicated in a fraudulent telemarketing scheme aimed at China. All were tried in Kenya and most acquitted. But China told the Nairobi government it wanted the Taiwanese, claiming they are Chinese citizens. Kenya herded the first batch of eight Taiwanese onto a China-bound plane on April 8. When another 28 Taiwanese, being held in jail, heard what had happened they barricaded themselves in their cells, Kenyan police stormed the prison and took the prisoners to the airport.

Taipei accused China of “extrajudicial abduction,” but Beijing insists it has the right to detain and try the Taiwanese.

Beijing’s abuse has also been aimed directly at Tsai. A long and thorough assessment of her was published this week in the International Herald Leader, a subsidiary of the state-controlled Xinhua news agency. The article was written by Wang Weixing, a council member of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, Beijing’s arms-length organization for dealing unofficially with Taipei. Wang is also head of the foreign military studies department of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences.

What caught contemptuous international attention this week was that half way through the essay Wang comments that “as a politician who is single, Tsai is unencumbered by feelings of love, and is without constraints of a family or the need to care for children, her political style and action strategy commonly incline toward emotionalism, individualism and extremism.”

The article concludes that “Tsai Ing-wen’s personality is clearly two-faced.”

While the reaction has focused on Wang’s misogyny, his overall judgement on Tsai should give Beijing cause for concern. He described a very tough, determined and experienced person who will not be easily manipulated by Beijing and who is a formidable opponent.

For Tsai, her major day-to-day problem will be satisfying the expectations of the people who voted for her and the DPP. In 2014 thousands of mostly young Taiwanese occupied the parliament, the Legislative Yuan, to block an expanded free trade deal with China planned by the Ma administration. The protesters succeeded, but also established that as well as being deeply suspicious of economic relations with China, young Taiwanese are confident of their own identity and are increasingly frustrated that their nationhood is not internationally recognized.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
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Correction, May 30:  Tsai Ing-wen ran for mayor of New Taipei, not Taipei, as stated in the original column. New Taipei was called Taipei County until 2010 and is in fact the large area around downtown Taipei, the capital.

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Translation of Tsai Ing-wen profile, by Wang Weixing, International Herald Leader, a subsidiary of the state-controlled Xinhua news agency:

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”


Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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