Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen faces challenges from all sides when she bids to defend her presidency in next year’s election, with rivals from the opposition Kuomintang party throwing down the gauntlet and a former subordinate also seeking to challenge her.

Tsai faces a test in the otherwise pro forma Democratic Progressive Party primary from former premier William Lai, who has refused to rally behind the president and made no bones about his own ambition, after a falling-out with Tsai earlier this year about who should bear responsibility for the DPP’s thumping in November’s regional elections.

Tsai may also be ditched by hardcore advocates of the DPP, as many lament that she has failed to move Taiwan decisively toward independence.

Yet while some see Tsai’s odds of being reelected as on the wane, John Tkacik, a former senior US foreign-service officer posted in both Taipei and Beijing during his career, noted that sources in the State Department have suggested that Washington would still back Tsai in the 2020 presidential race.

Tkacik, now director of the Future Asia Project at the Virginia-based think tank International Assessment and Strategy Center, said US diplomats and strategists see Tsai as the most reliable, sound and intelligent colleague they have ever worked with in Taiwan. And this is a time when the US is seeking to build new Indo-Pacific security partnerships.

He said Tsai had strengthened Washington’s trust and general goodwill to a new level, more than any US administration since Ronald Reagan’s, with top Trump administration officials including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo all singing Taiwan’s praises in public.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with US President-elect Donald Trump at her office in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo: Reuters/Taiwan Presidential Office handout
A file photo shows Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaking on the phone with US President-elect Donald Trump in December 2016. Photo: Reuters/Taiwan Presidential Office
President Tsai Ing-wen tours a replica of the Oval Office during the Ronald Reagan administration in Los Angeles in August 2018. Photo: Handout

Tsai’s track record

Tkacik also argued in his column in Taiwanese papers that Tsai’s past track record before becoming president of the self-governed island – as a trade negotiator and later a top legal adviser in the 1990s – make a strong case to convince Washington that another four years for Tsai would be in its best interest.

He revealed that Tsai once pointed out the weaknesses of her US counterparts’ negotiating strategy and made suggestions on how the US team could do better.

Tsai was at that time a law professor at the National Chengchi University, whose mastery of international trade policy made her a top adviser to Taiwan’s central bank and the Ministry of Economic Affairs as Taipei prepared for trade talks with the US delegation in the World Trade Organization.

Crafted state-to-state relationship

Tsai’s official resume shows that, as a pundit in sovereignty and the law of nations with degrees from the National Taiwan University, Cornell and the London School of Economics, she was subsequently selected by then-president Lee Teng-hui in 1998 to head a top legal team to strengthen Taiwan’s status as a sovereign state.

It is said that Tsai proposed to Lee a position for Taiwan’s sovereignty based on West Germany’s two-states doctrine by the then-Chancellor Willi Brandt. Her research outlined gradual stages of constitutional revisions and legal reforms to revise or weed out anachronistic references to “reunification” or “One China” to make way for a “special state-to-state relationship” between Taipei and Beijing.

Lee adopted Tsai’s plan for a process calibrated to ease the reluctant KMT old guard and pro-Beijing factions and minimize their resistance until a sovereign, independent Taiwan could become the mainstream principle, according to Tkacik.

With Tsai’s assistance, Lee first touted the “special state-to-state relationship” formula with “mutually non-subordinate” relations between Taipei and Beijing, during an interview with the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle in July 1999.

Now Tsai’s vision for “special state-to-state relationship” is back on track during her presidency, as she maneuvers China’s military intimidation to Taiwan’s advantage and aligns the island with Donald Trump’s bid to change America’s strategic passivity in the Indo-Pacific, Tkacik said.