With Taiwan’s 2020 general elections a mere ten months away and the promise of a close race for the presidency, the Tsai Ing-wen administration faces a series of challenges that will need to be addressed promptly and efficiently. A stinging defeat in local elections in late November last year helped highlight a few blind spots that need to be addressed if President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is to regain the confidence of voters whose enthusiasm has dwindled since 2016. Setting the right tone for Taiwan’s international engagements will be of those issues.
Global Engagement an Election Issue?
Although there will be some overlap between the issues that influenced voter behavior in November and those that maydrive electoral decisions come January 2020—the economy being a perennial candidate—votes will also be cast over matters that pertain to Taiwan’s engagement with the international community and, by rebound, with China. Previous presidential elections suggest that cross-Strait relations will again be a political battleground, pitting the Tsai administration’s more careful approach and global engagement strategy against the opposition, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), which seeks a deepened engagement based upon recognition of the so-called “1992 Consensus” to include the possibility of signing a peace treaty with Beijing.
One of the fundamental approaches of the Tsai government’s foreign policy has been a decoupling of Taiwan from the Chinese economy through trade diversification, chief among them through the New Southbound Policy that seek to deepen economic and people-to-people engagements with 18 countries through the Indo-Pacific region. Besides that, the loss of a handful of official diplomatic allies from Beijing’s retaliatory response to President Tsai’s firm stance on sovereignty, with the possibility of more to come in 2019, has compelled Taipei to seek closer relationships with a number of significant economies and democracies worldwide. A steady, predictable, and responsible approach to cross-Strait relations and international engagement by the Tsai administration has, in turn, encouraged foreign partners to deepen their ties with Taiwan. This desire was furthermore exacerbated by the growing worldwide skepticism about the impact of a resurgent China on the values and institutions of the liberal world order.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that countries which have become more sensitive to the potentially corrosive effects of Chinese “sharp power”—the United States, Australia, EU members, and Canada, among others—have demonstrated a willingness to re-evaluate their longstanding, and often overly cautious, engagement with Taiwan. Thus, careful policymaking on the Tsai government’s part, added to an international context that was more conducive to forging constructive ties with democratic Taiwan, has been beneficial to the island-nation, even if most of that bilateral and multilateral engagement has had to occur behind closed doors.
As Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states in its report to the legislature last week, Taiwan remains committed to sharing its experience of dealing with Chinese belligerence with like-minded countries worldwide. Besides addressing a number of local issues that are bound to affect voter decisions next January, demonstrating clear continued success on the international front will be a crucial variable determining whether Tsai can be elected to a second term or not. It is undeniable, given the opposition’s more China-focused priorities, that the level of international engagement Taiwan has enjoyed since 2016 would experience a drawdown should Tsai not be re-elected. As mentioned earlier, the Tsai administration’s more internationalist policy has—rightly so—hewed to a pragmatic line rather than maximum publicity, which has reassured allies who may be loath to attract too much attention from Beijing.
Rounds of Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF) events between Taiwan and the United States, which in October of last year resulted in a visit to Taiwan by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby, initiatives with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, and this week’s religious freedom forum in Taipei, are prominent examples of visible cooperation between the US and Taiwan (GCTF was launched in 2014 under the Ma Ying-jeou administration), and a handful of other countries have expressed interest in replicating this successful model.
Yet, more deliverables will be needed to convince the Taiwanese public that the continuation of such a global engagement policy is in their—and their nation’s—interest, and that such an approach can sufficiently compensate for the losses experienced as a result of Beijing’s retaliatory practices.
Recommendations for a Renewed Global Engagement Strategy
Besides striving for better coordination between the Presidential Office and the various branches of government, government-sponsored NGOs, and civil society that are involved in bilateral and multilateral initiatives, the administration must also establish a proper foreign communication mechanism—at the Presidential Office—to deal with the external environment. So far, the Presidential Office’s handling of foreign news has been mostly reactive. In the coming year, and with Beijing and President Tsai’s opponents likely to assail her foreign and cross-Strait policy, a proper external communication team and strategy at the Presidential Office will need to proactively engage in external relationsso as to shape the narrative rather than yield that field to Tsai’s opponents. Such a unit would also be in a better position than individual agencies, to publicize, when appropriate, Taiwan’s engagement with foreign partners.
Additionally, the Tsai administration will need to do everything in its power to maximize the effectiveness of the government agencies and other entities that are involved in bilateral and multilateral engagement. This will involve making difficult political decisions and getting rid of the dead wood that for far too long has been countenanced in the system. Given its precarious position, Taiwan cannot afford to waste resources, time, and money by looking the other way when officials and senior management at state-sponsored institutions do not meet requirements or focus their activities on self-serving initiatives that do not dovetail with government aims. Political appointments and concessions meant to placate factions and entitled “elders” are understandable, but at this point—and with time possibly running out—the Tsai administration will need to risk angering certain factions, and do what is necessary to expunge mediocrity and self-serving individuals from the system. Retaining them is unacceptable, and is unfair to those who strive with dedication to serve their country. This will require real, if not ruthless leadership on the part of a president who, facing tremendous odds in the coming elections, may finally distance herself from a tendency to make concessions to her critics in the green, or pro-DPP, camp.
Hiring rules at state-sponsored institutions should also be revised so as to make it easier for the said organizations to hire foreign talent and thereby further deepen Taiwan’s ties with the international community. Although strict rules on nationality are perfectly sensible for government agencies, it makes no sense for think tanks to abide by such regulations, which more often than not are applied for the purpose of protectionism. With proper leadership, those are a few hurdles that could quickly be addressed. The benefits to Taiwan’s ability to engage and properly communicate with global partners would be felt almost immediately and help to set the tone for future engagements. Established practices and institutions would also have the additional benefit of making it more difficult for a future administration to completely shut down relationships with other countries. For example, after the DPP was voted out of office in 2008, some of its legacies, such as the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), continued to operate despite initial concerns that the institution may be abolished.
The above recommendations are not utilitarian. While better coordination and greater engagement would no doubt help the Tsai administration in its re-election bid next year, the establishment of stronger foundations for global engagement is good for the nation as a whole. And with luck, a future government would retain some of those.
The main point: Global engagement has been one of the pillars of the Tsai Ing-wen administration. With the 2020 elections approaching, the government needs to deepen such interactions and maximize the benefits for Taiwan. In order to do so, it will have to make some tough political decisions.