An unlikely target of China’s rage: Taiwan’s softly spoken leader

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 right up the Tamsui River to get me,” Taiwan’s president said, referring to Chinese plans for taking her country, which include capturing or killing its leaders.

After Tsai met US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last Wednesday, that scenario no longer seems as far-fetched. China responded to the trip by firing missiles over 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 descendant” of the Chinese nation.

Tsai, though, is an unlikely target for such wrath. Rather than a nationalist hothead, Taiwan’s first female and its first unmarried president is a softly spoken 65-year-old who lives with her three dogs and two cats, and is a lawyer who cut her teeth helping negotiate her country’s accession to the 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 is a policy wonk, she always studies things in great detail herself,” said a former aide.

Senior officials who have worked with Tsai said she guarded against making rash decisions by seeking advice from a broad range of bureaucrats and scholars on any important policy.

“At party headquarters, when we were preparing bills for the legislature, the thing she would challenge me over the most was whether we had consulted enough people who don’t agree with us,” recalled an official who worked closely with Tsai during her time as DPP chair between 2008 and 2012. “If there is one key principle for her, it is balance.”

That approach has also dominated Tsai’s China policy. When she started her first term in 2016, she tried to bridge the gap between China’s growing determination to pull the island into its fold and the Taiwanese public’s desire to remain an independent democracy.

In her inaugural address, Tsai gave a nod to the semi-official talks in 1992 that had ushered in a period of economic exchange across the Taiwan Strait. The new president said that both “sides must cherish and sustain” the fruits of interaction and negotiations.

But when Tsai refused to accept China’s claim over 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 strengthening the sovereign state status of the Republic of China”, Taiwan’s official name. But according to Chang Jung-feng, then a national security aide to Lee, Tsai was not behind the policy.

Beijing’s suspicion deepened after Tsai headed the cabinet-level China policy body under Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president, who oversaw a rapid deterioration of ties with Beijing after he embarked on a pro-independence course from 2003.

Still, foreign diplomats and political analysts were adamant that Tsai represented the safest option for Taiwan.

After the chaotic second term of the firebrand Chen, Tsai made the big step from bureaucracy into electoral politics to head the DPP. The role did not come naturally to her, and she often came across as stiff when addressing crowds.

But she won the election in 2016 on a wave of public discontent over growing economic integration with China under Ma Ying-jeou, Chen’s successor from the more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party.

“She is the leader Taiwan needed. Taiwan’s situation is so difficult that a ‘normal’ politician will often fall short in addressing it,” said Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at Davidson College in North Carolina, who described Tsai as subdued, prudent, thoughtful and cautious.

That caution has been the trademark of her leadership. Taking over from Ma, Tsai concluded that Taiwan had grown too dependent economically on China. But she also steered clear of the anti-China policies Chen had pursued.

Administration officials said the president was keenly 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.

“She decided to achieve that, we needed to define Taiwan’s geographic and geopolitical role clearly,” he said.

“She thinks 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 her judgment. As a western diplomat said about Tsai: “It is hard to see how she can improve Taiwan’s security from here. This is her biggest challenge yet.”

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