Tsai Ing-wen offered a faint smile three years ago when a foreign visitor asked her if she was worried about Beijing’s military threat. “Of course. They will come straight to the Tamsui River to get me,” Taiwan’s president said, referring to Chinese plans to take over his country, which include capturing or killing its leaders.
After Tsai met with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last Wednesday, that scenario no longer seems so far-fetched. China responded to the trip by firing missiles at Taipei, scrambling fighter jets and simulating an assault on the island.
Beijing has accused Tsai of plotting Taiwan’s independence while Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, denounced her as an “unworthy scion” of the Chinese nation.
Tsai, however, is an unlikely target for such anger. Instead of a nationalist hothead, Taiwan’s first lady and first unmarried president is a soft-spoken 65-year-old who lives with her three dogs and two cats, and is a lawyer who cut her teeth helping to negotiate his country’s accession to World Trade. organization
Even now, after six years in power and as leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party, Tsai has changed little from her days as a trade bureaucrat. “She’s a political moron, always studying things in great detail herself,” said a former aide.
Senior officials who have worked with Tsai said she avoided making rash decisions by seeking advice from a wide range of bureaucrats and scholars on any major policy.
“At party headquarters, when we were preparing bills for the legislature, what I questioned most was whether we had consulted enough people who disagreed with us,” recalled an official who worked closely with Tsai during your time as president of the DPP between 2008 and 2012. “If there is a key principle for her, it is balance.”
This approach has also dominated Tsai’s Chinese policy. When he began his first term in 2016, he sought to bridge the gap between China’s growing determination to bring the island closer and the Taiwanese public’s desire to remain an independent democracy.
In her opening speech, Tsai took a look back at semi-official talks in 1992 that had led to a period of cross-strait economic exchange. The new president said both sides “must value and maintain” the fruits of interaction and negotiations.
But when Tsai refused to accept China’s claim to Taiwan, Beijing cut off regular communication with Taipei.
The Chinese Communist Party sees her as the architect of separatist policies since 1999, when Taiwan’s then-president Lee Teng-hui described ties with Beijing as “special state-to-state relations.”
Tsai had chaired an advisory group “for the strengthening of the sovereign status of the Republic of China,” Taiwan’s official name. But according to Chang Jung-feng, then Lee’s national security aide, Tsai was not behind the policy.
Beijing’s suspicion deepened after Tsai headed China’s cabinet-level political body under Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP chairman, who oversaw a rapid deterioration in ties with Beijing after she in 2003 began a independence course
Still, foreign diplomats and political analysts were adamant that Tsai represented the safest option for Taiwan.
After Chen’s chaotic second term, Tsai made the big leap from bureaucracy to electoral politics to lead the DPP. The role didn’t come naturally to her, and she often seemed stiff when addressing the crowd.
But he won election in 2016 following a wave of public discontent over growing economic integration with China under Ma Ying-jeou, Chen’s successor from the more pro-Beijing Kuomintang party.
“She is the leader Taiwan needed. Taiwan’s situation is so difficult that a ‘normal’ politician often falls short in addressing it,” said Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at Davidson College in Carolina of the North, who described Tsai as moderate, cautious, thoughtful and cautious.
This caution has been the trademark of his leadership. Taking over from Ma, Tsai concluded that Taiwan had grown too economically dependent on China. But he also moved away from the anti-China policies that Chen had pursued.
Administration officials said the president was well aware of Taiwan’s vulnerability. “She is focused on preserving what we have: our democracy, our sovereignty, our way of life,” said one DPP politician.
“He decided to achieve this, we had to clearly define Taiwan’s geographical and geopolitical role,” he said.
“She believes that our security can only be enhanced when we are indispensable: economically as a key node in global supply chains and politically as a member of a community of democracies.”
For Tsai, the benefits of hosting the first US House speaker in Taiwan in 25 years outweighed the risk of Chinese retaliation.
As Chinese fighter jets roar over the Taiwan Strait, some may question their judgment. As one Western diplomat said of Tsai: “It’s hard to see how she can improve Taiwan’s security from here. This is her biggest challenge yet.”
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