Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen(蔡英文) is making an overseas visit to the UK and Germany in her capacity of the party’s official presidential candidate.
In Taiwan’s electoral politics, foreign visits always have domestic implications. Contrary to her predecessors’ decisions to visit the US, Tsai specifically chose Europe as first stop. The main purpose of the trip, according to Tsai’s spokesperson Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), is to discuss her nuclear-free and green energy policies following the German government’s decision to shut down its nuclear power plants.
In London, Tsai is expected to elaborate on her cross-strait and foreign policy blueprints by connecting Taiwan’s position to regional and global security strategies.
Previous presidential candidates, including former president Chen Shui-bian(陳水扁), former DPP candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), as well as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), all made trips to Washington in the early part of their campaigns.
As China has had a huge mistrust of DPP leaders, Tsai’s trip abroad is a delicate issue, largely because of possible interference from Beijing. However, Beijing could be making a mistake if it tries to pressure Germany or the UK into blocking Tsai’s visits. Such obstructive measures would only boost Tsai’s campaign.
Next January’s presidential election will be held two months earlier than is the norm, so Tsai’s visit to the US is strategically proposed for September.
Tsai can make the best use of her trip to the US and probably score points if she portrays herself as a potential national leader with a comprehensive understanding of the triangular relationship between Washington, Taipei and Beijing.
Tsai has built up a reputation as a “professional negotiator” since she consulted with the former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government on participation in the WTO and gained experience as a national security and cross-strait policy adviser to both former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen. This has deepened the public’s impression of her having a more international vision than her DPP predecessors. Her trip to Washington will be a plus to her campaign.
Nevertheless, Tsai will meet tremendous challenges on her way to the US as the Washington establishment will want all the details of her cross-strait policy. Tsai and the DPP have already renounced the use of the so-called “1992 consensus” as the political basis for future dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
However, if the DPP is to regain power, Tsai will have come up with either a more persuasive rationale behind what is currently an ambiguous position or explain an alternative scenario for possible DPP-CCP talks in the future.
Also, Tsai faces a huge political hurdle to “re-brand” the DPP’s “troublemaker” image in US-China relations. Although such an image is mostly twisted and politicized, Tsai will have to present herself as a responsible and consistent DPP leader who can bridge ideological divisions with her US counterparts. On cross-strait and foreign policy, Tsai has no room to be ambiguous. She must demonstrate clear vision.
Since Tsai’s team has targeted mostly domestic issues — such as the widening gap between the rich and the poor, nuclear programs, food safety and government efficiency — as key campaign agenda, it is expected that Tsai will discuss her cross-strait policy in a safe way without illustrating a methodology in too much detail.