China Power

Facing Chinese Pressure, Taiwan’s President Tsai Seeks ‘Survival Niche’

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China Power

Facing Chinese Pressure, Taiwan’s President Tsai Seeks ‘Survival Niche’

Tsai Ing-wen promises to stay the course on cross-strait relations, while pursuing “values-based diplomacy” abroad.

Facing Chinese Pressure, Taiwan’s President Tsai Seeks ‘Survival Niche’
Credit: Presidential Office, Republic of China (Taiwan)

In a major speech on October 10, Taiwan’s National Day, President Tsai Ing-wen insisted that her government will not give in to Chinese pressure, and will seek out friends and allies with similar values around the world to carve out a “survival niche.”

As intermittent rain fell on the crowd assembled in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei, Tsai began her remarks by acknowledging the “dramatic changes in the international political and economic situation” over the past year. For Taiwan, a major part of those changes involves what Tsai called “China’s unilateral diplomatic offensive and military coercion.” Though Tsai did not go into specifics, China has enticed two of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies — Burkina Faso and El Salvador — to switch their recognition to Beijing in the past year, as well as conducting a pressure campaign to force foreign companies to refer to Taiwan as part of China on their websites.

Tsai also spoke at length about the issue of “foreign powers” – which she left unnamed – “infiltrating and subverting our society.”

“Whether it be disseminating disinformation, illegally obtaining scientific and technical intelligence, maliciously damaging the information security system, intervening in the election process, or interfering with government operations,” Tsai promised that “the perpetrators will suffer serious consequences.” While she did not name any specific country as responsible, China’s role in spreading false information and attempting to influence Taiwan’s upcoming local elections has been the focus of much attention in recent months.

In addressing these challenges, Tsai acknowledged that her government has come under pressure from both sides of the domestic political spectrum. “In the face of [Chinese] suppression, some people have wanted the government to adopt a more confrontational stance,” she said – likely referring to more independence-minded members of her own party. “Others believe that we should give in and compromise.”

But Tsai made it clear that she would not choose either of those options. Instead, she would continue her government’s stated policy of seeking to maintain the status quo. “The more dramatically things change, the more Taiwan has to maintain stability,” she argued. She pledged that her government will “neither act rashly to escalate confrontation, nor will we give in.”

While Tsai also called on Beijing “to play a positive role… instead of being a source of conflict,” it was clear that she does not expect a breakthrough in cross-strait tensions. Since she assumed office, Beijing has severed formal dialogues with Taipei over Tsai’s refusal to overtly embrace the “1992 consensus,” under which both sides agree that there is one China (while maintaining different interpretations over which is the rightful government of that China). That has left the Tsai administration with few options for directly addressing the Chinese pressure campaign.

Instead, Tsai hopes to look both inward, with an eye toward strengthening Taiwan militarily and economically, and outward, to the rest of the world. “The best way to defend Taiwan,” she declared, “is to make it indispensable and irreplaceable to the world… This is Taiwan’s niche for sustainable survival.”

More specifically, Tsai’s administration will seek to “strengthen values-based diplomacy” with “like-minded” partners such as the United States and Japan. She expressed appreciation for recent support from the United States, Japan, and the European Union, as well as Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, three of whom sent top leaders to the National Day celebrations: Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez, Saint Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet, and Saint Kitts and Nevis Governor-General Sir Tapley Seaton.

Taiwan will work with its partners to “staunchly defend freedom, democracy, and the market economy,” Tsai said. Taipei will also seek international cooperation on the issue of interference in its domestic affairs, through experience sharing as well as “setting up monitoring and notification mechanisms.” Recently, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also complained of Chinese interference in U.S. domestic politics, and it has been a topic of much debate in Australia as well.

In her concluding remarks, Tsai once again underlined Taiwan’s commitment to values, comparing the island to a lighthouse “for those who long for democracy.” In remarks sure to rankle in Beijing, Tsai addressed Chinese citizens directly on this point: “[T]o all of our friends who are pursuing democracy in Hong Kong, in mainland China, and around the world: You can always look to Taiwan, because Taiwan’s democracy lights up the world.”