President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on July 21 concluded her 12-day trip to diplomatic allies in the Caribbean. Tsai and her delegation bookended her state visits to Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Lucia—four of Taiwan’s 17 official diplomatic allies—with high-profile stopovers in New York City and Denver, Colorado, where she made various remarks emphasizing Taiwan’s determination to resist pressure from Beijing and its commitment to democracy. While publicized in the visited countries and in Taiwan, the state visits were a side show for the stopovers in the two US cities. President Tsai has made 10 public transits through the United States so far during her administration, where, as Tsai contended, US authorities showed greater flexibility and afforded her more time to interact with various groups than in the past.
While in New York on a two-day transit, Tsai met with several UN envoys from Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), Taiwan’s representative office in the city. During the meeting, Tsai called on Taiwan’s allies to continue to voice their support for Taiwan’s “meaningful” participation in various UN bodies, such as Interpol, the World Health Assembly (WHA), and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Since 2016, Beijing has used its influence at the UN to block Taiwan’s efforts to join annual meetings as an observer, despite various efforts behind the scenes by the US and other major democracies, as well as Taiwan’s official allies at the world body, to ensure Taiwanese representatives can participate. As one precondition for not blocking Taiwan’s participation, Beijing has demanded the Tsai government recognize “one China” and the so-called “1992 Consensus.” In Denver, Tsai became only the second head of a foreign state to visit the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did so in 1990. Tsai also visited the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). After touching down, Tsai had a meeting with US Senator Cory Gardner, where they discussed arms sales to Taiwan, cross-Strait and regional security issues, the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong and “fake news.” Tsai also met Colorado Governor Jared Polis, with whom she discussed renewable energy in Colorado, as well as cooperation in the fields of culture and education. Tsai also had a banquet with the expatriate Taiwanese community, also attended by Gardner, Polis, AIT Chairman Jim Moriarty and US Representative Doug Lamborn (see below).
The Democracy Battleground
One of the highlights of Tsai’s stay in New York was her rousing 16-minute address at Columbia University, during which she called on the international community to support Taiwan’s efforts to make a place for itself amid growing pressure by China and to understand its many accomplishments in democratization. “History tells us that democracies are strongest when united, and weakest when divided,” Tsai said. “Without Taiwan, the international coalition of like-minded countries will lose a crucial link in working to ensure our values are passed on to the next generation.”
During a dinner hosted by TECO, Freedom House president Michael J. Abramowitz lauded Taiwan’s “exemplary democracy,” saying, “Taiwan stands in a select group of new democracies which have continued to improve their free institutions and challenge the global slide towards populism, illiberalism, and autocracy.”
“President Tsai,” he said, “on behalf of Freedom House, I want to express how deeply moved we are to have you with us in the United States. You have one of the world’s toughest jobs. You must lead a democratic society with different factions and interest groups. And you must endure the relentless pressure from a powerful neighbor, a country with a massive economy and sophisticated military capacity, which regards your democratic freedoms—by way of the extraordinary contrast they present—as an existential threat to its own regime of control, regimentation, and censorship.”
Earlier in the day, Tsai also made remarks during the US-Taiwan Business Summit, which was also attended by Michael Splinter, the chairman of the board of Nasdaq, and Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council. A large delegation of Taiwanese businesspeople and investors accompanied Tsai on the trip.
During her stopover in Denver—the first visit by an incumbent Taiwanese president to the state of Colorado—Tsai told an informal audience that the January 2020 elections would represent a “choice of value system and way of life” and be a determinant turning point as to the sustainability of freedom and democracy in Taiwan.
The previous day, also in Denver, Tsai told a gathering of more than 700 overseas Taiwanese that Taiwan “will not succumb to pressure and will continue to safeguard its freedom, democracy, and sovereignty” amid signs that Beijing is ramping up the pressure on Taiwan and an escalating crackdown in neighboring Hong Kong. For his part, Gardner, who authored the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) of 2018, said that “As China continues its aggressive campaign to delegitimize Taiwan, it’s important for the United States to reaffirm our support for the people of Taiwan and maintain our strong friendship.”
The highly favorable rhetoric, and Tsai’s commitment to democratic ideals, were all part of the battleground that has been shaping up in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, in which Tsai’s principal opponent will be Daniel Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the Kuomintang (KMT), who is regarded as Beijing’s favorite. The high-level support by various members of the US government and, as we saw, the flexibility afforded to the Taiwanese delegation by Washington, sent a strong signal of US support for President Tsai and her efforts since 2016, possibly as close as we could get to the US government expressing its preferences in the upcoming election.
Ironically, while experts on democracy promotion like Abramowitz were celebrating Taiwan’s democratic accomplishment and the Tsai administration’s commitment to those ideals, the KMT, along with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲)—who has yet announced whether he will enter the presidential race—along with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing, have launched a series of attacks on Tsai’s governance, accusing her administration of undermining democracy and creating an authoritarian regime. In an address at the “Distance between Taiwan and Democracy” (台灣與民主的距離研討會) on July 14, former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) even claimed that the Tsai administration was “worse than the Hong Kong government,” a hyperbole that is unlikely to have much traction outside Beijing and hardened Han supporters. The seminar was hosted by the Fair Winds Foundation (長風基金會), an organization created by former premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), who in recent years has also launched a series of attacks on Taiwan’s democracy—including at a lecture in Hong Kong in February 2017.
Tsai’s stopovers also attracted protests—a handful in Denver, and a more substantial group in New York City—by the local chapters of pro-Beijing, United Front-linked organizations in the US. Chief among them were the National Association for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (NACPU, 全美中國和平統一促進聯合會), the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Unification, New York chapter (CCPPR, 紐約中國和平統一促進會), and the American East Chinese Association (美東華人社團聯合總會). All three organizations, which accused Tsai of separatism stirring tensions in the Taiwan Strait with her visit, were involved in a “Cross-Strait Development Forum” (兩岸和平發展論壇) held in New York City in December 2017, where representatives from Taiwan’s China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨) and New Party (新黨) were present. The protests in New York resulted in a few clashes and reported injuries.
Prior to Tsai’s trip, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing complained to Washington about Tsai’s US stopovers, saying this could damage Sino-American ties. In the current environment, those complaints were brushed off by officials in Washington. A number of Western media also unwittingly played along and reinforced Beijing’s rhetoric, with references in their headlines to the “first-class treatment” reserved Tsai risking to “infuriate” Beijing.
While not “groundbreaking,” Tsai’s unusually long stopovers in the US and the high-level access given her in the two states was in line with the incremental approach adopted by the two countries, substantive yet calibrated enough, and still within the bounds of the US’ “One-China” policy, that the contacts would not undermine the cross-Strait balance. The strong emphasis on democracy by both Tsai and her American counterparts also underscored the extent to which such values are shared by her administration and the US, and their determination to work together to defend those against authoritarian influence and backsliding. Such signs of support were also important for Tsai, who will be seeking re-election in the January elections.
The main point: President Tsai’s first state visit to Taiwan’s Caribbean allies was overshadowed by lengthy stopovers in New York City and Denver, where Taiwan’s democracy was the main feature, setting the scene for the 2020 elections—which Tsai and others claim will be a battle for values and Taiwan’s future direction.