‘She is the leader Taiwan needed’: softly spoken president draws China’s rage

Tsai Ing-wen gave her a faint smile three years ago when a foreign visitor asked her if she was concerned about Beijing’s military threat. “Of course. They’ll be right up the Tamsui River to get me,” the president of Taiwan said, referring to Chinese plans to take her land, including imprisoning or killing the leaders.

After Tsai met House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last Wednesday, that scenario no longer seems so far-fetched. China responded to the trip by firing missiles over Taipei, scrambling fighter jets and simulating an attack on the island.

Beijing has accused Tsai of plotting Taiwan’s independence, while Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, denounced her as an “unworthy descendant” of the Chinese nation.

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However, Tsai is not a nationalist hothead, but a lawyer who gritted her teeth in negotiating her country’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

Even now, after six years in power and as leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party, 65-year-old Tsai has changed little from her days as a trade bureaucrat. “She’s a policy freak, she always studies things in detail,” says a former assistant.

Senior officials who have worked with Tsai, Taiwan’s first unmarried president, said she made sure she didn’t make hasty decisions by taking advice from a range of bureaucrats and scholars on every major policy.

“At party headquarters, when we were preparing bills for the legislature, she challenged me the most about whether we had consulted enough people who disagreed with us,” recalls an official who worked closely with Tsai during her time. as DPP chairman between 2008 and 2012. “If there is one important principle for her, it is balance.”

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That approach has also dominated Tsai’s China policy. When she began her first term in office in 2016, she sought to bridge the gap between China’s growing determination to take the island into its lap and the Taiwanese public’s desire to remain an independent democracy.

In her inaugural address, Tsai winked at the semi-official talks in 1992 that had ushered in a period of economic exchange in the Taiwan Strait. The new president said both sides should cherish and support the fruits of interaction and negotiations.

But when Tsai refused to accept China’s claim to Taiwan, Beijing cut regular communications with Taipei.

The Chinese Communist Party considers her the architect of separatist policy since 1999, when then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui described ties with Beijing as “special state-to-state relations”.

Tsai chaired an advisory group “For Strengthening the Sovereign State Status of the Republic of China”, the official name of Taiwan. But according to Chang Jung-feng, a national security officer for Lee at the time, Tsai did not support the policy.

Beijing’s suspicions deepened after Tsai headed China’s cabinet-level policy-making body under Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president, who oversaw a rapid deterioration in ties with Beijing after starting a pro-independence course from 2003.

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Still, foreign diplomats and political analysts were adamant that Tsai was the safest option for Taiwan.

After the chaotic second term of the meerkat Chen, Tsai made the big step from bureaucracy to electoral politics to lead the DPP. The role did not come naturally to her, and she often appeared stiff when addressing a crowd.

But she won the 2016 election after a wave of public discontent over growing economic integration with China under Ma Ying-jeou, Chen’s successor to the more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party.

“She is the leader Taiwan needs. The situation in Taiwan is so difficult that a ‘normal’ politician often can’t figure it out,” said Shelley Rigger, a Taiwanese expert at Davidson College in North Carolina, who described Tsai as demure, cautious, thoughtful and cautious.

That caution has been the trademark of her leadership. Tsai took over from Ma and concluded that Taiwan had become too dependent on China economically. But she also steered clear of Chen’s anti-Chinese policies.

Government officials said the president was well aware of Taiwan’s vulnerability. “It is aimed at preserving what we have – our democracy, our sovereignty, our way of life,” said a DPP politician.

“She decided to achieve that, we had to clearly define Taiwan’s geographic and geopolitical role,” he said.

“She thinks our security can only be improved if we are indispensable – economically as a key hub in global supply chains and politically as a member of a community of democracies.”

For Tsai, the benefits of hosting the first US House Speaker in Taiwan in 25 years outweighed the risk of Chinese retaliation.

As Chinese fighter jets roar across the Taiwan Strait, some will question her verdict. As one Western diplomat said of Tsai, “It’s hard to see how she can improve Taiwan’s security from here. This is her biggest challenge to date.”

Video: Will China and US go to war over Taiwan?

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