By Filip Noubel

After Taiwan holds presidential and legislative elections in January 2024, the current President Tsai Ing-wen will have to step down in May after two consecutive mandates. What will be her legacy as the first woman president of Taiwan?

To answer this question, Global Voices talked to French journalist Arnaud Vaulerin who just published a book about Tsai's career and image. Vaulerin is a journalist covering Asian news for the leading French daily Libération. He previously covered Japan as a foreign correspondent and wrote a book about the Fukushima disaster, “La Désolation. Les humains jetables de Fukushima.” [The Desolation. The Disposable Humans of Fukushima.]

The interview took place over email in French after an in-person meeting in a bookstore in Taipei.

Filip Noubel (FN): Your book is one of the first biographies of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen published in the West. Why such a book now, as she will no longer hold office by May 2024?

Arnaud Vaulerin (AV): We are at the end of an important cycle. An assessment was necessary as Tsai Ing-wen completes a double mandate of eight years. During this period, this democracy of 23.5 million inhabitants has positioned itself in the international arena. There will be a before, and an after Tsai Ing-wen. Who knew that this island is facing increasing pressure from its powerful neighbor who views it as a rebel province to be taken by force? Who could say that the archipelago was home to one of the most successful industries on the planet, one that is essential in our connected lives? In eight years, the progress made is striking. It was therefore necessary to tell the story of how Taiwan became a democratic laboratory, and an industrial model. Trade tensions between the Americans and Chinese and the growing rivalry between the world's two leading powers have placed Taiwan at the center of international attention.

And then, I wanted to look at Tsai, this character that I have been following for eight years. This president remains largely unknown, despite a legacy of good international record and reforms, even if they are far from all being successful. In eight years, she has stood firm in the face of pressure from China and also from the United States, without any missteps, or crises, or scandals. This is not so common in the democratic world. She is the only elected president in Asia — and one of the few in the world — in a macho and aging region. Tsai is an atypical politician, single and discreet, without apparent charisma and ego, who has broken codes in Taiwan. She is not the heir to a constituency, she is not the wife, the daughter, or the widow of a political leader. She made it on her own by studying brilliantly and working a lot. I also show in the book how luck smiled on her at key moments.

Some of those close to her portray her as a conservative in a progressive party. She was not very feminist, not very open to social issues while she promoted marriage equality, and apologized for 400 years of “suffering and injustice suffered” by the Indigenous people of Taiwan. But its social policy for young people, the working classes, and women is largely unfinished.

FN: How is the image of Taiwan changing in France, within the media but also the wider public?

AV: With China's threats in Asia (in the South China Sea), the mass abuses against the Uyghurs — after those against the Tibetans — the policy of aggressive wolf diplomats in Western countries, and the calamitous and deceitful management of Covid-19 by the Chinese regime, Westerners became aware of the risks that Xi Jinping's China posed to global governance.

The European Union has started talking about a “systemic rival”: The image of China has deteriorated very clearly. On the other hand, Taiwan has gained visibility and respectability; its management of the Covid-19 pandemic was cited as an example. Taiwan was even the first country to alert the World Health Organization (WHO) — where it does not have a seat because Beijing refuses to allow it — and China of the risks of a mysterious epidemic in December 2019. We realized that Taiwan came out of this pandemic very well, without confining its population, without having a vaccine initially.

We also perceive that Taiwanese identity is complex, that the narrative of the big Chinese family that Xi Jinping intends to sell is misleading, that “reunification” is a disregarding reality since the People's Republic of China has never controlled the island.

The West is very interested in the way in which Taipei tries to fight against cognitive warfare, disinformation, infiltrations, all these destabilizing operations, “gray zone” activities which aim to destabilize democracies, to sow division and chaos within their society.

FN: What do you think of the Ukraine/Taiwan comparison?  

AV: The comparison at first glance may be surprising. Taipei and Kyiv are 9,000 kilometers apart and have no common history. Unlike Ukraine, which borders Russia via cereal plains, Taiwan is an island, separated from the continent by a large strait through which half of the planet's container ships circulate. Taiwan is difficult to access, with mountains over 3,500 meters high. A conflict in Taiwan would be catastrophic for the planet, with colossal consequences for all the economies of the world because the island has a strategic position of prime importance on maritime commercial and energy routes. Military action by China against Taiwan would almost automatically provoke a reaction from the United States, potentially supported by South Korea and Japan.

But if we look closer, there are real similarities and the Taiwanese authorities are now taking about the lessons they learned from the Russian invasion. The Taiwanese archipelago, like Ukraine, shares a common history with a very powerful neighbor with an army and abundant resources. Beijing since 1949 (like Moscow since 2014 in Ukraine), has never hidden its plan to invade the island. Taiwan and Ukraine are two democracies, exposed to threats from illiberal powers who want force to prevail. For these two countries, it is a question of survival, and for the democratic camp, it is a question of credibility to support them. Many in Taiwan, on the evening of February 24, 2022, when Putin's troops were advancing towards Kyiv, made the comparison with the Russian invasion. Some said to themselves: today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan. As if the fall of Taiwan was inevitable. What followed showed that nothing was written in advance.

FN: The silicon shield is the foundation of Taiwanese diplomacy. Do you think this strategy is sufficient to avoid an armed conflict with China?

AV: Taiwanese has a unique know-how acquired over more than 40 years: mastery of the most efficient chips and semiconductors. The island's industrial giants, like TSMC, are still dominant in a complex ecosystem where companies at all stages of manufacturing are extremely dependent on each other. Taiwan is therefore at the heart of strategic rivalries and colossal trade battles. A study commissioned by the U.S. State Department found that a disruption to Taiwan's chip industry caused by a hypothetical Chinese blockade would cause annual losses of USD 2.5 trillion to the global economy.

Tsai Ing-wen used the expression “silicon shield,” this plate on which circuits are etched and electronic components integrated. The commonly held idea is that China will perhaps think twice before embarking on a very risky action. This potential for conflict in the Taiwan Strait has alerted manufacturers and governments around the world to the need to reduce risks by diversifying supply chains and relocating industries. This is why TSMC is building two sites in the United States (Arizona); another is planned in Germany. But don't these relocations risk being done at the expense of Taiwan, as Morris Chang, the founder of TSMC, fears? “Production of the most advanced chips remains in Taiwan. Research and development is carried out entirely on the island. This shield is not weakened,” Taiwanese Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Mei-hua explained to me in June 2023.

At the same time, Taiwan is modernizing its army and drawing lessons from the war in Ukraine: Taipei has established — under strong American pressure — a new asymmetric combat framework to exploit its weaknesses. This involves acquiring large quantities of mobile, cheap and small weapons to prevent any invasion. The Tsai administration has increased the length of military service to better prepare men for combat. Civil society has also started to prepare. Taiwan will therefore prepare for a conflict so as not to have to lead it. Tsai Ing-wen has said it often in recent months: “War is not an option.”

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Global Voices, a border-less, largely volunteer community of more than 1400 writers, analysts, online media experts, and translators.

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