Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is a remarkably talented person. However, don’t take my word for it. It is a view secretly shared by US diplomats in Taipei whose job it is to gather intelligence on Taiwanese politics.
As a long-retired diplomat who once wrote (and read) US diplomatic cables from Taipei, I confess a guilty pleasure in reading the classified assessments from the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) via that dastardly source, WikiLeaks. We old-school foreign service officers took great pride in our writing skills and I am gratified that the tradition still thrives in the AIT.
So, while the WikiLeaks release of secret US Department of State (and AIT) reports is indeed horrifying, illegal and unwarranted, it supplies powerful good reading. And, while WikiLeaks telegrams from the AIT have embarrassed many politicians in Taiwan, Tsai is not one of them.
The earliest WikiLeaks cables to assess Tsai’s career date from January 2006 when she was named vice premier. They are all very positive.
Although a lawyer by education, the AIT said Tsai “subsequently acquired impressive economic experience” as a trade policy official.
“Tsai is viewed as extremely capable and very persuasive” and, as all US officials who have dealt with her can attest, “she is a tenacious negotiator.” Tsai, who for five years had been the top China policy minister in the Cabinet, would have “more influence on cross-Strait issues than any previous vice premier,” the AIT said.
Describing the vice premier for the benefit of Washington’s officialdom, an AIT’s cable said: “[Tsai] is a savvy insider on formulating and implementing policy,” and “we expect her to be consistently well informed on issues and very clear about the policy positions.”
In a separate analysis, the AIT outlined her stance toward China thus: “With a background in international trade law, she has always been a strong proponent of Taiwan’s insistence that China must show respect for Taiwan before there is any substantial relaxation of cross-Strait ties, either political or economic. Nonetheless, she has supported some limited opening, including the mini-three links that allow direct transportation between Taiwan’s offshore islands and the PRC [People’s Republic of China].”
When Tsai departed the vice premiership in 2007, the AIT lamented that her successor lacked Tsai’s “extensive economic background.” When she was chosen to chair the DPP, then-AIT deputy director Robert Wang, predicted that “a clean and efficient professional, Tsai Ing-wen will definitely burnish the DPP’s image and most probably improve its performance.”
As she finished her first year as the DPP chairperson, then-AIT director Stephen Young marveled that she had easily overcome the challenges that were radicalizing the DPP with her “moderate and cautious approach,” and that she moved swiftly to revamp the party’s divisive primary system and to centralize the nomination of candidates. She “tends to be low-key and businesslike,” but “she is firm in her decisions and quite demanding of her staff,” Young said. This was all the more remarkable because, Young said, she was “not really excited about politics.”
In another message, Young described her as a “thoughtful and a strong manager,” and praised her “moderate and soft spoken personality, as well as her academic and professional qualifications.” Young added that “her low-key personality may also disarm her competitors, who would do well not to underestimate” her.