Don't Count Out Tsai Ing-wen Just Yet

January 9, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: TaiwanPoliticsChinaTsai Ing-wenEconomy

Don't Count Out Tsai Ing-wen Just Yet

Taiwan's president hasn't been afraid to take on the toughest of issues, either abroad or at home.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has been under a lot of pressure recently. After a poor showing by her ruling DPP party in November’s nationwide local elections, Tsai stepped down as chairperson. She has been hit by persistently low approval ratings and she has even had to rebuff members of her own party who called on her not to run for a second term in 2020. Despite this, the embattled president deserves some credit for policies that have been underappreciated and gotten little attention.

First, ever since her inauguration, Tsai has struck a firm but evenhanded approach towards China, which maintains a claim to Taiwan. She has voiced support for maintaining the status quo, but refrained from agreeing to the “1992 consensus,” an alleged agreement between the two sides made after a 1992 meeting that China and Taiwan belong to the same country. China has put heavy pressure on Tsai to agree to the “1992 consensus” by breaking off official exchanges, as well as doing things like curtailing tourist groups from visiting Taiwan. China has also poached five diplomatic allies from Taiwan since 2016, and prevented Taiwan from participating in international events such as the World Health Assembly this year.

However, recent events have proven that Tsai is right to not agree.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping started off the year by demanding in a January 2 speech on that Taiwan accept “reunification,” which Tsai rebutted on the same day. Xi’s speech was noticeably firmer regarding Taiwan than his previous ones and there are serious concerns that he plans to invade Taiwan at some point in the future.

The “1992 consensus” is not even a real consensus because both sides do not agree on the same definition. While the KMT, which then ruled Taiwan, maintains that the “1992 consensus” allows for flexible interpretation, China unequivocally believes that Taiwan belongs to it. Xi’s speech firmly made it clear that to China, there is no ambiguity on how it views Taiwan and that the KMT’s claim of different interpretations is wrong.

Furthermore, KMT official Su Chi admitted to making up the term in 2000, long after the 1992 meeting. Many Taiwaneses aren’t even clear on what the “1992 consensus” actually means and so, are unaware of the true ramifications. For Tsai or any Taiwanese leader to agree to the “1992 consensus” means admitting that Taiwan is a part of China, and thus removes Taiwan’s sovereignty.

As can be seen by recent developments such as its reaction and retaliation to the ongoing Huawei CFO’s court case in Vancouver, China is an increasingly aggressive, erratic and untrustworthy member of the international community. Over the past few years, China has been intensifying domestic repression, including detaining as many as a million of its Uighur minority. In the South China Sea, it has seized and militarized numerous islets that enables China to virtually control much of the sea.

Tsai’s resilience in the face of China’s bullying over the past two years is justified by the fact that much of the world including the United States, Canada, the EU, and developing countries across Africa and Asia, are gradually waking up to the threat posed by China.

It is sadly ironic that several newly elected KMT mayors have said they will agree to the “1992 consensus” in hopes of increased economic trade and tourism from China. This is the sort of shortsighted and naive thinking that blights Taiwan’s political and economic climate.

Second, after coming to power, Tsai unveiled the New Southbound Policy (NSP), an ambitious plan to boost trade and exchanges with Southeast and South Asian nations, as well as Australia and New Zealand. This would allow Taiwan to diversify its trade and reduce its over-reliance on mainland China, which along with Hong Kong, accounts for over 30 percent of Taiwan’s trade and over 40 percent of its exports.

The NSP covers trade, investment, tourism, and educational and cultural exchanges. This makes it different from previous policies under earlier presidents, which focused on increasing trade with Southeast Asian nations.

While those previous plans floundered, there are strong reasons to try again.

With a combined population of over 650 million, and boasting large developing countries like Vietnam and Indonesia forecast to have GDP growth of well over five percent for 2018, Southeast Asia is not a market to ignore. Throw in India, with the world’s second-largest population of over 1.2 billion, and a growth rate that reached as high as 8.2 percent during the second quarter of this year, and it is not hard to see immense trade and investment potential.

The NSP’s non-trade aims of fostering stronger scientific, cultural and tourism exchanges are also vital, given Taiwan’s global diplomatic isolation and exclusion from multilateral organizations including the UN.

While the NSP may not attract many headlines, it is seeing modest success. In 2017, trade with NSP countries grew by 15 percent year-on-year in 2017 while more than two million tourists visited those countries—a 30 percent increase over the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of students from Southeast Asia enrolled in Taiwan tertiary institutions grew to forty-one thousand during the 2018–2019 school year, accounting for 35 percent of foreign tertiary students. Additionally, a record eleven million tourists visited Taiwan in 2018, despite a substantial decrease in Chinese tourists since 2016, thanks in part to growing NSP rivals.

South Korea, a regional rival with a larger economy, launched its own NSP strategy earlier last year, with the similar name of New Southern Policy. Focusing on Southeast Asia and India and Pakistan, South Korea’s plan also aims to diversify trade away from China. This further validates Tsai’s decision to launch the NSP.

Tsai’s government has also been tackling several other vital issues.

She has overseen greater military spending and upgrades, including Taiwan’s first-ever indigenous submarine program. Under her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, military spending dipped to 2.1 percent of GDP, the military conscription period was cut to four months, while attempts to create an all-volunteer military floundered. Tsai’s administration has also attempted to reform civil servant pensions and labor regulations. Both aroused significant protests and the latter was poorly done, which the government needs to rectify.

Neither the NSP, pension reform, the submarine program, nor the ongoing standoff with China have made Tsai popular. They do not promise immediate benefits nor guaranteed success. What they do provide, however, is a solid foundation for Taiwan’s government to maintain the island’s integrity, expand economic and regional links, and build a more secure future. In doing so, Tsai should be commended for demonstrating initiative and foresight that has been sorely lacking in previous administrations.

Hilton Yip is a Taiwan-based writer and editor who previously lived and worked in Beijing and Hong Kong.

Image: Reuters