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Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen balances China and the United States

In an island renowned for its tumultuous politics, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is an unlikely leader.

Described by those close to her as scholarly and bookish, Ms Tsai is known for her caution and understatement. In 2016, she ordered her staff to remain silent on a call with new President Donald Trump, even though it was the first time in decades that a Taiwanese leader had spoken to a US 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 his place in Taiwanese politics.

As Ms Tsai, 66, makes one of her last visits before leaving office next year after two terms, she does so as one of the world’s most important leaders. Sitting at the center of the gaping rift between China and the United States, she has steered Taiwan between the conflicting demands of the world’s two most powerful countries, one claiming the island under its authoritarian rule and the other sees democracy as one strand in a broader confrontation with China.

Tsai’s visit this week, including an expected meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is not about diplomatic breakthroughs, but about cementing Taiwan’s status in the minds of US leaders amid uncertainty. important geopolitics.

“She has earned a place in the eyes of Americans, but also other parts of the world, as a reliable interlocutor. It’s very difficult for the Chinese propaganda machine to portray it as some sort of maniacal attack robot on anything China-related,” said Steve Yates, president of the China Policy Initiative at America First Policy Institute.

As president, Ms. Tsai has developed the closest relationship with the United States that Taiwan has had since becoming a full-fledged democracy nearly 30 years ago, garnering unofficial support as well as the promise of arms. The deepening of Taipei-Washington ties has created space for other countries that do not officially recognize the Taiwan government to expand their ties, including Japan and some European countries.

This gave the island the best hope of solidifying its defense against Beijing’s increasingly bellicose calls to take Taiwan by force. Ms Tsai has also worked to fend off China without openly confronting the economic and military giant just 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait.

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

“His mass appeal is not what people see as his strength. But his governance, his thinking, his determination and his decision-making are in fact the typical characteristics that we should see in the governance of a modern country. Ms. Tsai said of Ms. Merkel in a 2015 television interview.

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

Making a biting reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s claims on Taiwan, Ms Tsai told the assembled Americans: “My domestic politics are more difficult than yours, because I have an additional party that wants to be part of politics,” recalled Patrick M. Cronin, president of Asia-Pacific security at the Hudson Institute, who was present during the closed-door speech.

“Here is this leader from Taiwan, seven years after taking office under relentless daily pressure and coercion, and she was upbeat and funny, and connected 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 job. The party was reeling from an election defeat and a corruption investigation into former President Chen Shui-bian. Ms. Tsai has calmed the mood and built support by managing the need for resources with a new grassroots fundraising campaign.

She had to work on the campaign, which in Taiwan involves large rallies with speeches set to dramatic music. “At first, she was not fluent in Taiwanese and did not know when to go on stage,” recalls Liu Chien-hsin, a longtime assistant to Ms. Tsai, referring to the language spoken alongside Mandarin across the world. ‘island.

She found her own style, leveraging social media and turning to Taiwanese youth to connect more broadly. In the ads, she posed with her cat, Think Think, leading a mini-trend in pet politics.

Ms. Tsai had to overcome geopolitical skepticism. Despite his close ties to many in Washington, U.S. leaders distrusted his party, in part because of President Chen’s penchant for fiery speeches that angered China and stymied U.S. efforts to improve relations. Chinese-Americans.

In 2011, Ms. Tsai, as her party’s presidential candidate, traveled to the United States to present her foreign policy vision to the Obama administration. Afterwards, an unnamed senior US official told the Financial Times that she left the United States with “obvious doubts” about her ability and willingness to maintain stable Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, which has deteriorated. then improved under President Ma Ying-jeou. Such sentiment on the part of the United States helped swing the 2012 election for Mr. Ma.

She learned from that setback to avoid anything that could be seen as a direct provocation from China, according to her former speechwriter Jiho Tiun. When Ms. Tsai visited Washington again in 2015 ahead of an ultimately successful presidential campaign, she had shaped her party around a cohesive vision: a Taiwan quietly working to consolidate its sovereignty and independence without inflaming China-US relations. restless.

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

This strategy has helped strengthen ties. President Biden has repeatedly promised that the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict, going beyond his predecessors and formal commitments to Taiwan. (Each time, the White House has clarified that the US policy of calculated ambiguity regarding intentions to defend Taiwan in the event of conflict has not changed.) Additional military support, arms sales and visits diplomatic underlined the closer relationship.

“Tsai was a direct shooter – she consulted with the United States in advance and considered many suggestions from the United States,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia Program Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. .

Managing relations with China was more difficult. Ms. Tsai had extensive experience working with Chinese officials from the Taiwan 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.

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

Ms. Tsai, in part because of communication with the Chinese before the inauguration, felt her nod at the meeting amounted to a concession. But Chinese officials countered that Ms Tsai’s speech sounded like “an incomplete review”. Ms Tsai was shocked by the intransigence, according to Raymond Burghardt, former president of the American Institute of Taiwan and close to the administration who declined to be named given political sensitivities.

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

On Jan. 2, 2019, 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 large degree of control. domestic autonomy.

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

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

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

Beijing’s blocking of Ms. Tsai has, in some ways, been counterproductive. With the pledge on the table, Xi found himself with few outlets to win hearts and minds in Taiwan. Recent Chinese policy there has mixed economic coercion, threats from media and state officials, and military intimidation via increased fighter and bomber sorties in close proximity.

This stance has helped Ms. Tsai achieve her political goals. When former President Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year, the highest US official to visit in 25 years, China held large-scale military exercises around the main island of Taiwan. The antagonism, combined with Russia’s war in Ukraine, has heightened alarm and strengthened consensus to prepare for a potential attack from China. Ms. Tsai was able to extend the length of compulsory military service to one year, up from four months previously.

Even so, many in DC have expressed concern about Taiwan’s readiness. While Ms. Tsai can point to national achievements including pension reform, effectively handling the pandemic and legalizing same-sex marriage, efforts to build Taiwan’s defense capabilities have been slow.

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

“I think she will be missed,” he said. “The real question is whether the Chinese will miss her. Or will they feel gone with her, and if a less cautious person takes matters into their own hands, that might inspire them to be less cautious. That’s a big question mark hanging over the future.

Christopher Buckley contributed report.

nytimes Gt

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