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From Tsai to Lai: The Past, Present, and Future of Taiwan’s Foreign Policy

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From Tsai to Lai: The Past, Present, and Future of Taiwan’s Foreign Policy

Given that Lai seems poised to carry on outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen’s diplomatic approach, a look at her foreign policy evolution is useful.

From Tsai to Lai: The Past, Present, and Future of Taiwan’s Foreign Policy

President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and Vice President Lai Ching-te wave during the inauguration ceremony Taipei, Taiwan, on May 20, 2020. Lai will take office as president on May 20, 2024.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s fifth popularly elected president, is set to be sworn in on May 20 and will deliver his inaugural address in front of the Presidential Office Building in Taipei. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will be welcoming its third term in government but, unlike its two previous terms, will begin without a legislative majority.

Similarly, despite its popularity, the DPP inevitably carries lingering grievances from having governed Taiwan for eight years. In other words, the Lai administration should expect a bumpy road ahead, even if the party continues to enjoy popular support. 

In this context, Lai Ching-te’s inaugural speech holds particular significance, as it will be his first opportunity to publicly present his policy platform and plans for the future. Before assessing how Lai might continue or adjust the foreign policy approach from his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, a detailed analysis of Tsai’s foreign policy over the past eight years and the changing international environment is essential. By analyzing Tsai’s inaugural speeches from 2016 and 2020, we may gain insight into the possible trajectory of the new government’s foreign policy and its implications for the future of Taiwan-U.S. relations.

Tsai’s Foreign Policy 

Under President Tsai’s leadership over the past eight years, the DPP government has established a series of foreign policy foundations. When Tsai took office in 2016, she introduced “steadfast diplomacy,” a policy aimed at building a “democratic alliance” by deepening exchanges with other democratic countries through shared values such as democracy and freedom.

Tsai had outlined her “steadfast diplomacy” in both of her inauguration speeches. In 2016, Tsai stated her government’s commitment: 

… to fulfill our duty as a citizen of the world and contribute towards diplomatic and global issues. We will bring Taiwan closer to the world, and the world closer to Taiwan…

Taiwan has been a model citizen in global civil society. Since our democratization, we have persisted in upholding the universal values of peace, freedom, democracy and human rights. It is with this spirit that we join the alliance of shared values and concerns for global issues. We will continue to deepen our relationships with friendly democracies including the United States, Japan and Europe to advance multifaceted cooperation on the basis of shared values.

Despite the ambitious tone of her inaugural speech, Tsai’s steadfast diplomacy progressed only incrementally during her first term. However, during this time the world’s attitudes toward China began to shift, particularly in the United States. The China-U.S. trade war and Beijing’s wolf-warrior diplomacy signaled a more aggressive and belligerent China. This shift provided Taiwan with more opportunities to assert its steadfast diplomacy based on shared values.

In 2020, as her second term began, Tsai remarked: 

Taiwan has been deemed a democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world by the international community. All Taiwanese people should take pride in this. Over the next four years, we will continue to fight for our participation in international organizations, strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation with our allies, and bolster ties with the United States, Japan, Europe, and other like-minded countries.

In Tsai’s second term, Taiwan achieved significant diplomatic successes. Taiwan’s experience with managing the COVID-19 pandemic and its willingness to provide equipment and assistance to other nations had won Taiwan widespread support; supply chain problems that arose during the pandemic also highlighted how critical Taiwan is to the global economy, especially in the field of semiconductor manufacturing. The United States under President Joe Biden continued to deepen ties with Taiwan, and European states also responded positively to Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts, especially Central and Eastern European countries like Lithuania, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia. 

Previous governments in Taiwan often prioritized economic benefits and the expansion of international space as the basis of their foreign policies, maintaining a careful distance from international disputes to avoid entanglement. However, Tsai’s steadfast diplomatic strategy began to place greater importance on shared values, even more so than economic interests. Politically, Taiwan clearly chose to align with fellow democracies against authoritarian regimes. For instance, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Tsai government quickly joined the United States and Japan in imposing sanctions on Russia.

Tsai’s China Policy

From the inaugural speeches of Tsai in 2016 and 2020, we can observe fundamental changes in Taiwan’s approach to Taiwan-China relations. These changes are reflected in three main aspects.

First, there was a noticeable change in how Tsai referred to China. In her 2016 speech, she avoided any direct mention of China, seemingly to avoid controversy and not to anger Beijing. But by 2020, not only did she use terms like “the other side” (對岸) and “Beijing” in her Mandarin speech, but she also directly adopted the terms “Beijing” and “China” in the English translation. This indicated a shift in the Tsai administration’s approach to a firmer and clearer expression of her China policy.

Second, in 2016 Tsai spent a significant portion of her speech clarifying the events of 1992 that led Beijing to assert Taiwan had agreed it was part of China. Beijing had warned that acceptance of the so-called 1992 Consensus was a prerequisite for any engagement with Tsai’s government. In her first inaugural address, Tsai said that in 1992 “the two institutions representing each side across the Strait… arrived at various joint acknowledgments and understandings…in a spirit of mutual understanding and a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences.” 

However, she placed more emphasis on the “over twenty years of interactions and negotiations across the Strait” after 1992, saying that “it is based on such existing realities and political foundations that the stable and peaceful development of the cross-Strait relationship must be continuously promoted.”

By 2020, Tsai no longer mentioned 1992 at all, instead emphasizing “peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue” and explicitly rejecting the “one country, two systems” model, demonstrating a firm stance against Beijing.

Third, Tsai shifted her China policy stance from “setting aside disputes so as to enable joint development” to demanding that both sides take joint responsibility for maintaining regional peace and stability. In 2016, Tsai attempted to signal good faith when she invited Beijing to establish dialogue with her administration, despite Beijing’s refusal to communicate. By 2020, she stated that “[c]ross-strait relations have reached a historical turning point. Both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term and prevent the intensification of antagonism and differences.” Tsai no longer sought to extend goodwill unilaterally, but expected the leaders on both sides to jointly take responsibility, particularly when she saw no reciprocation from China to pursue mutual exchanges on equal footing.

The shift in the Tsai administration’s China policy was particularly influenced by Beijing’s behavior, most notably Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “Five Points” speech and the events in Hong Kong in 2019. Xi’s “Five Points” speech in January 2019 made clear that he is not open to any negotiated resolution other than for Taiwan to become a part of Chinese territory under the “one country two systems” framework. At the same time, Xi’s violent crackdown of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong later that year proved how Beijing can also renege the promises made under the “one country two systems” framework at any time. After over two decades of embracing the “one country two systems” framework, Hong Kong found itself under extensive suppression by Beijing, resulting in the erosion of its economic dynamism, democratic freedoms, and fundamental identity. 

Xi had left no room for Taiwan to negotiate with China. On the one hand, he was forcing Taiwan to accept “one country, two systems”; on the other hand, he was demonstrating through his crackdown on Hong Kong that “one country, two systems” is only a front for eventual political assimilation.

In the broader international context, shifts in China-U.S. relations also profoundly impacted Taiwan’s foreign policy, enabling Taiwan to more confidently confront Beijing’s aggressive stance. For example, the 2022 visit by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not only strengthened the relationship between Taiwan and the United States but also showcased Taiwan’s significant role in international politics. This visit, to some extent, bolstered Taiwan’s confidence and firmness in its stance against Beijing.

Lai Ching-te’s Own Foreign Policy Direction

Prior to his inauguration on May 20, President-elect Lai – who also served as Tsai’s vice president – remarked on many occasions that he would follow in Tsai’s footsteps on national security and foreign affairs.

At the DPP’s Central Executive Committee meeting on April 24, for instance, Lai emphasized that there is an “unchanged commitment and goodwill” to work with China, so long as the two sides conducted relations on mutually equal and respectful terms.

Lai’s intention to continue Tsai’s policy directions is also reflected in his appointments for his national security team. He kept many of Tsai’s trusted advisers and veteran Cabinet members, including appointing Foreign Minister Joseph Wu as secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC) and former NSC Secretary-General Wellington Koo as minister of national defense.

On May 1, at the DPP Standing Committee meeting, Lai stated that his Cabinet picks are experienced and “will continue President Tsai’s steady, responsible, and reliable international policies.”

Lai’s inaugural speech on May 20 will likely encompass Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, the country’s most important ally. Experts also await his plans for the New Southbound Policy as well as domestic issues like energy, housing prices, and low wages that would inevitably affect his room for complex foreign policy maneuvers.

Importantly, however, Lai must reassure his international audiences that he will maintain the status quo Tsai leaves behind. He has rigorously asserted that he will do so, staying within the guidelines Tsai has set. The expectation is that he will use the Republic of China (Taiwan) in his speech. While Lai did indeed once describe himself as a “pragmatic Taiwan independence worker,” he always references the fundamental DPP position that Taiwan is already independent and thus there is no need to declare independence.

At the beginning of his presidency, Lai will inevitably need to balance domestic forces and foreign policy priorities delicately. His inaugural speech will not only be a promise to the people of Taiwan about his dedication to protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty but also a reassurance to the international community, particularly the United States, that he would pursue that promise responsibly. 

The U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship is complex. Having been vice president to Tsai Ing-wen for the past four years, Lai is likely cognizant of the nuances required to keep this relationship stable. If he chooses to carry on Tsai’s approach – as he has vowed to do throughout his presidential campaign – his policies will likely lean toward defending the status quo and avoid actions that might inadvertently exacerbate tensions across the Taiwan Strait. 

That said, even if Lai does follow Tsai’s approach to a tee, China will likely find ways to test Lai at the beginning of his presidency. One should expect small provocations on the part of the Chinese Communist Party as a means to probe Lai’s crisis management skills and red lines. It will require patience and deft policy maneuvers to keep the peace, a daunting task for any Taiwanese leader.