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FEATURE/Tsai's 8 years in government: Transforming Taiwan amid global challenges

05/14/2024 04:58 PM
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President Tsai Ing-wen. CNA file photo
President Tsai Ing-wen. CNA file photo

By Teng Pei-ju, CNA staff reporter

In just a few days, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) will complete her two four-year terms in power and pass the baton to her deputy, Lai Ching-te (賴清德), who is also from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and was victorious in the 2024 presidential election.

Over the past eight years, the Tsai administration has elevated Taiwan's visibility on the global stage as it navigated increasing competition between the world's two great powers and other complex geopolitical situations.

Not only that, Tsai's government managed to "internationalize the Taiwan issue," Wang Hung-jen (王宏仁), a political science professor at National Cheng Kung University, told CNA.

Its strategy is to convey to the international community that "Taiwan is not merely an internal problem of China" but rather a global issue that "impacts the core interests of many countries," Wang said.

President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and Vice President Lai Ching-te (second left) wave to the crowds in front of the Presidential Office during the National Day celebrations on Oct. 10, 2023. CNa file photo
President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and Vice President Lai Ching-te (second left) wave to the crowds in front of the Presidential Office during the National Day celebrations on Oct. 10, 2023. CNa file photo

Since 2021, the Group of Seven (G7) has consistently emphasized the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait through statements following key meetings.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at an event in February 2023 that a crisis across the Taiwan Strait "is not an internal matter, as China would have it, based on its sovereignty" but rather a matter of concern to "literally the entire world."

Understanding these developments requires accounting for broader global economic and geopolitical changes, including trade disputes in 2018 and subsequent tensions, between the U.S. and China.

At the same time, the international community was forced to grapple with emerging challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

According to Wang, the Tsai administration has managed to turn these watershed moments into opportunities for Taiwan and, as Tsai pledged on the first day on the job, "fulfill our duty as a citizen of the world and contribute toward diplomatic and global issues."

When COVID-19 began sweeping the West in 2020, Taiwan, which was controlling the virus effectively at that time, offered to share its public health expertise internationally, Wang said.

The country also engaged in what was later dubbed "mask diplomacy," sending millions of face masks, among other medical supplies and equipment, to countries hit badly by the deadly disease, he added.

Officials from those countries expressed gratitude to Taiwan and reciprocated by providing COVID-19 vaccine doses when Taiwan suffered a shortage in 2021.

Following the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Taipei aligned itself with Washington-led initiatives to impose sanctions on Russia, providing aid relief and financial assistance to Ukraine, often in collaboration with Central and Eastern European nations, according to Wang.

Counting what her administration has achieved over the past eight years in her last New Year's address in 2024, Tsai said "Taiwan has changed... and what has changed is that Taiwan is no longer overlooked."

"We win the trust of the international community and deepen cooperation with our democratic partners," Tsai added, alluding to the U.S., Japan, European and Southeast Asian countries.

Among the support garnered by Taiwan from the international community, its relationship with the U.S. is arguably the most important, spanning across military, economic, educational, and other fields.

Tsai's "steady leadership" has ensured "incident-free" relations between Taipei and Washington and enabled "a very smooth channel of communication," Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), who was Taiwan's envoy to Washington from 2020 to 2023, told an event in April.

President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and then-U.S. House of Representative Speaker Kevin McCarthy address the press after their closed-door meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on April 5, 2024 CNA file photo
President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and then-U.S. House of Representative Speaker Kevin McCarthy address the press after their closed-door meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on April 5, 2024 CNA file photo

Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), meanwhile, said in an interview in 2022 that the U.S. had "significant trust" in the Tsai administration, because of its "non-provocative stance toward China" and "determination to defend Taiwan" when coming under pressure.

This included Tsai's prompt and firm rejection of a proposal made by China's leader Xi Jinping (習近平) at the start of 2019 to explore "one country, two systems" -- the political arrangement Beijing has imposed on Hong Kong -- for Taiwan.

In addition to vocalizing Taiwan's commitment to self-defense, the Tsai administration has actively worked on boosting the nation's defense capability through initiatives to build vessels and jets in the country and reinstating one-year compulsory military service for men.

While enjoying flourishing relations with Washington, Taipei's relationship with Beijing has deteriorated since Tsai took office, despite her repeated pledge to uphold the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. 

President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and former President Ma Ying-jeou. CNA photo May 12, 2024
President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and former President Ma Ying-jeou. CNA photo May 12, 2024

Unlike her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Kuomintang, Tsai does not accept the "1992 consensus," a political concept Chinese authorities consider a prerequisite for any dialogue between the two sides.

Beijing responded by cutting official contact with Taipei, ramping up military, political and economic pressure on Taiwan, and seeking to limit the country's participation in the international arena.

Taiwan has lost 10 diplomatic allies to China over the past eight years and has been excluded from the World Health Assembly -- the World Health Organization's decision-making body -- and other United Nations agencies because of Beijing's opposition.

This is a stark contrast with the previous administration led by Ma, which adopted a much more conciliatory approach toward China. During those eight years, Taiwan lost one ally and was able to participate in some of the U.N. agencies as an observer.

Domestically, Tsai has also rolled out several major reforms and policies, with some so contentious that opponents often took to the streets to protest.

These included cutting pensions for retired military personnel, civil servants, and teachers at the start of her first term. She also scrapped seven public holidays and gave the green light to imports of American pork containing ractopamine.

Her administration was also strongly criticized by opposition parties during the COVID-19 pandemic for the perceived slow importing of life-saving vaccines, rapid test kits, and antiviral pills following outbreaks and a surge in confirmed cases in Taiwan since May 2021. The ruling DPP has attributed the delay to China's interference in the purchasing deals.

Tsai, who specialized in international trade law and competition law, was a trade negotiator for Taiwan's accession to the World Trade Organization in the 1990s.

The 67-year-old earned a master's degree in law from Cornell University Law School in 1980 and a Ph.D. in law from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1984.

She then served on the National Security Council as an adviser to former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and later headed the Mainland Affairs Council, the top government agency handling cross-strait affairs, under the government of former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

She did not become a DPP member until 2004, and her ascent to the party leadership came just four years later, after the DPP's dismal defeat in the presidential election in 2008, partly due to Chen's corruption scandal.

Tsai's first presidential bid in 2012 ended in defeat to Ma of the KMT, but she made a successful comeback four years later and became the first female president of the Republic of China (Taiwan's official name).

A social policy that Tsai has often emphasized in key public speeches is the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan in 2019, even though the legislative process also faced significant pushback from religious and conservative groups.

At a talk in March, Tsai said the passage of the same-sex marriage law was "a key moment" where "Taiwan attracted tremendous attention" from the world.

"Since then, the international community's views and perceptions of Taiwan have changed," Tsai said, noting that the country is known not only for advanced technology development but also for its "progressive ideas."

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