Taiwan to be Tested in 2017: President Tsai

Taiwan to be Tested in 2017: President Tsai
Photo Credit: EPA/ 達志影像

What you need to know

Tsai Ing-wen today held her first major briefing and Q&A with the foreign press in Taipei.

Taiwan’s patience, resolve and versatility will be tested in 2017 amid an increasingly uncertain international environment and renewed pressure from Beijing.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) first major press conference as president with both foreign and local press was held in Taipei this morning and covered a range of issues from cross-Strait relations and her phone call with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, to the local economy and same-sex marriage.

Tsai won the presidential election on Jan. 16, becoming Taiwan’s first female president. She is also the first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader to hold both the executive branch and majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. In her January victory speech, Tsai said that she will maintain a status quo to build a “relationship with no provocations and no accidents” with the Chinese government. At her May inauguration, Tsai said the new administration would “work to maintain the existing mechanisms for dialogue and communication across the Taiwan Strait.”

“For us to accomplish our goals, dialogue and communication are absolutely crucial,” she said at the time. “We will establish mechanisms for intensive and routine communications with all parties involved, and exchange views at all times to prevent misjudgment, establish mutual trust, and effectively resolve disputes.”

However, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) in June confirmed that Beijing had suspended cross-strait communication mechanisms due to failure by the Tsai administration to endorse the so-called 1992 consensus and “one China” principle. The hotline set up in 2014 between the TAO and the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei is said to have gone silent after Tsai’s inauguration. However, experts say it is unlikely that Beijing cut all channels of communication with Taipei. Meanwhile, critics have slammed China for using its leverage in international institutions to block Taiwan’s participation, including at the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and Interpol.

Today, Tsai said Taiwan has been committed to maintaining stable and peaceful cross-Strait relations since May 20. The country continues to extend goodwill to China and hopes to establish meaningful communication to settle differences across the Strait.

However, she noted in the past few months, the Taiwanese people have felt that Beijing has been unjustly pressuring, threatening and even intimidating Taiwan. She hoped that this is not Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan, as it affects the stability of cross-Strait relations.

She reiterated Taiwan's goodwill remains, but said the country will not bend to pressure or return to the previous state of confrontation. Whether or not cross-Strait relations will change in the year ahead would depend on Taiwan’s continued patience, how Beijing views cross-Strait ties, and whether the Beijing administration is willing to bear responsibility to develop new methods to promote cross-Strait interactions.

Tsai’s briefing to the packed hall at the Presidential Office in Taipei comprised of short speech by Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) followed by a longer presentation from Tsai and a one-hour question and answer session. In a 90-minute public appearance broadcast live by local media, Tsai was for the most part characteristically reserved and serious - her voice at times competing with camera shutters and the bashing of keyboards - though she did appear relaxed and broke from script at several junctures, making light-hearted jokes with reporters.

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

On ‘The Call’ and diplomacy

The Dec. 2 phone call between Tsai and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is thought to be the first time a president or president-elect of the United States has directly contacted the leader of Taiwan since 1979, when formal diplomatic ties between the United States and China were established. The call marks a major break with convention, as China has for decades blocked formal relations between the U.S. and Taiwan. However, some commentators have warned that a shift in U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan may provoke Beijing, which could have negative consequences for Taiwan.

As Taiwan-based political analyst J. Michael Cole wrote in the wake of the phone call earlier this month, “As a result of the international attention that the call has received, Beijing may feel it has license to take "defensive" action against Taiwan and, indirectly, against the U.S. This could translate into further moves to prevent the island-nation’s diplomats from participating at international institutions and a resumption of efforts (frozen under President Tsai’s more China-friendly predecessor) to steal Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies.”

Today, Tsai said while she could not comment on U.S. foreign policy, the uncertainty of 2017 will test the Taiwanese national security team and the government’s versatility in the face of change. She also reiterated the hope that it was not the Beijing administration’s policy to intimidate Taiwan in response to moves made by Trump.

The president was also drawn to comment on the state of flux among Taiwan's diplomatic allies.

On Dec. 20, São Tomé and Príncipe announced that it was ending diplomatic relations with Taiwan and establishing ties with the People’s Republic of China. A week later, Beijing said it had resumed ties with the tiny West African nation. The move took Taiwan’s total number of diplomatic allies to 21.

The Brookings Institution noted recently that Latin American countries have played China and Taiwan off one another off one another for years “to negotiate preferential trade, financial, and other assistance, with Costa Rica being the latest example of winning new investments in exchange for its recognition of Beijing in 2007.” Brookings also said there has been something of a “truce” between China and Taiwan in their competing in the region during the recent years of “calmer” relations across the Taiwan Strait. However, it also noted there had been speculation since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party took power from the more China-friendly Kuomintang this year, competition “could heat up again.”

Tsai is scheduled to embark on a state visit in January to four of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Central America, namely Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. Earlier this month, Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee (李大維) dismissed rumors of Tsai making a stop in New York City to visit U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Yesterday it was confirmed Tsai would transit through Houston and San Francisco on the trip.

Today, Tsai said Taiwan needs to be able to adapt to its changing international landscape and maintain stable and peaceful conditions, while also finding new opportunities to contribute to regional safety and trade.

Vice President Chen said that diplomatic relations with the Vatican and Taiwan’s other partners remain stable.

Tsai added that while there was no need to compete with China’s capacity to provide financial aid to other countries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would continue to work with its allies to provide suitable aid, mostly in agriculture, education and renewable energy.

Tsai also stressed that her transit in the U.S. during her upcoming trip to Central America was nothing more than a stopover, in response to speculation on whether she would meet with Trump’s team during the stopover.

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

Popularity and same-sex marriage

Since Tsai took office, her popularity has been a frequent focus of local media speculation. Late last month, Taipei Times reported that Tsai’s approval rating had sunk to 41.4 percent while her disapproval rating had climbed to 42.6 percent. That compared to an approval rating of 69.9 percent and a disapproval rating of 8.8 percent when she took office in May. It was the first time her disapproval rating was higher than her approval rating. The same poll found that more than half of respondents were dissatisfied with the government’s economic record.

In response to a question this morning, Tsai said that it was normal for any newly elected president’s ratings to rise and fall, but it was more important to focus on what her administration planned to do in the future. Once the public could see her accomplishments, her ratings would rise again, she said. Tsai highlighted the proliferation of fake news on the Internet and social media platforms. She said that the spread of fake or wrong information packaged as news was a serious problem not just in Taiwan, but on an international level as well.

“Government policy and information being disseminated on closed social media platforms like [popular Taiwan app] Line is often distorted, which affects the public’s trust in the government,” said Tsai.

Tsai was also asked about same-sex marriage.

Taiwan has been progressing toward enacting legislation to allow same-sex couples to marry. Tsai, who made marriage equality part of her campaign platform in the lead-up to the election, has been criticized for failing to back the changes amid opposition from religious groups, disappointing supporters. As TNL contributor Courtney Donovan-Smith wrote recently, “President Tsai Ing-wen, though she’s expressed personal support for ending marriage segregation, is refusing to expend any political capital on the issue and has washed her hands of the issue.”

Tsai said that same-sex marriage was a divisive topic in other countries as well as Taiwan, and that the discussion would certainly have to go through conflict before achieving resolution.

She also said that same-sex marriage would test the maturity of Taiwanese society, and that she hoped that the Taiwanese people would be able to have a rational discussion on the topic. She said that the Legislative Yuan hoped a draft bill would be able to pass the second reading during the next parliamentary session.

Photo Credit:Reuters/ 達志影像
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during the New Year's Eve news conference in Taipei, Taiwan Dec. 31, 2016. REUTERS/Fabian Hamacher

On the economy

Tsai and the DPP were also elected on a promise to start to restructure Taiwan’s economy, including improving the lot of the country’s many low-paid workers who have not seen a wages increase in years, and lessen its dependency on China by increasing engagement with Southeast Asia. There remains criticism that the longer-term changes will remain very difficult to achieve, particularly given uncertainty about the future of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was seen as a possible opportunity for Taiwan to engage with partners outside of China.

There has been several positive indicators for the economy under Tsai’s watch. In October, global rating agency Fitch Ratings upgrades its view on Taiwan to reflect the stable outlook under the new administration.The ratings agency has also has forecast stronger economic growth for Taiwan next year. In a statement released earlier this month the agency said it expects modest real GDP growth of 1.5 percent to 2 percent in 2017 to 2018, up from an estimated 1 percent in 2016. Also, Taiwan reported double-digit year-on-year growth for exports in November. Exports for the month were up 12 percent compared to the same time last year, led by a 20 percent increase in exports to its biggest market, China.

Tsai said that in 2016, her administration had worked to lay down a solid foundation for rapid development in 2017. Still, she said that although the Taiwanese economy showed signs of improvement in 2016, progress had not gone far enough. It was the government’s responsibility to revive the economy through policy and public investments. To that end, Tsai signalled a boost in government spending via a number of potential infrastructure projects, including: integrated transport system that incorporated the high-speed rail, light rail, and local metro systems; high-speed broadband; measures to help could control climate change, and to prevent flooding and drought; software and hardware infrastructure to assist Taiwan’s transition to an aging society; strengthening scientific research institutions; and, moving towards a non-nuclear and lower carbon energy system.

In Asia, Tsai said that Taiwan needs to be able to play a developmental role within the region, bear more international responsibility, and stand firm in its commitment to free trade. The government will continue to promote the New Southbound Policy by strengthening ties with ASEAN countries as well as India, New Zealand and Australia. Taiwan will also continue cooperation with existing trade partners like the U.S., Japan and those in the E.U. to develop its economy, she added.

UPDATE [15:00] Economy; Fake News

Translating and additional reporting by ZiQing Low

Editor: Olivia Yang