After just two weeks on the job, Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ing-wen is already breaking with the foreign policy of her pro-Beijing predecessor. Bloomberg reports:
On her first full day in office on May 23, Tsai created a mechanism with Japan to settle maritime disputes, signaling possible warmer ties with Japan, which also has territorial disputes with China. Her cabinet said it would work directly with Japan to resolve differences over fishing rights in waters near the Japanese reef of Okinotori, rather than taking a “legal approach.”
Also on May 23, Premier Lin Chuan issued an order dropping criminal charges against 126 protesters who broke into the cabinet headquarters in 2014 to demonstrate against a trade pact with Beijing. The same day, when confirming the appointment of the island’s new representative to the U.S., Tsai used the title “ambassador” rather than “representative” — terminology that will rankle China because “ambassador” connotes that Taiwan is a country, not a Chinese province as Beijing insists.
Although she’d often spoken about taking a new attitude toward China on the campaign trail, it wasn’t certain that Ing-wen would turn her Beijing-at-arms-length politics into policy. Taiwan’s economic dependence on the mainland and Tsai’s vow to honor public support for the status quo were expected to temper Tsai’s ambitions and the ambitions of some of her ardent supporters.
Yet Tsai doesn’t seem particularly risk-averse so far. Her decision to strengthen ties with Japan built on relations she had been developing even before she became president, when she angered Beijing by visiting Tokyo and meeting with Japanese officials. Tsai no doubt has her eye on Japan’s improving military capabilities, which could be a lifeline for Taiwan as the capabilities of its own military fall behind. But she’s also interested in finding new destinations for Taiwan’s exports. That focus on economics has led her to announce a “New Go South” policy aimed at strengthening ties with Southeast Asian nations, in part by addressing their concerns about the South China Sea.
The United States will have to figure out how to manage an emboldened Taiwan and an angry China. The U.S. has been the final guarantor against PLA invasion since the fifties, and recent years have seen repeated affirmations of this relationship, from cyber security cooperation to arms deals. With Taiwan’s new “ambassador” coming to town, Washington is under pressure to signal where it stands as the decades-long conflict between Taipei and Beijing escalates.