In 2009, the AIT said Ma was “becoming known as the ‘stay at home’ president [who] looked particularly ineffective when several of his key picks for high office were rejected by the Legislative Yuan, despite the fact that his own party controlled a 3/4 majority,” and “even though he is President, Ma lacks firm control over the KMT apparatus.”
In another backhanded compliment, the AIT said “with uncharacteristic boldness, [President Ma] is pushing forward vigorously on cross-Strait initiatives, counting on Beijing to cooperate and raise no political difficulties.” Even when the AIT portrayed Ma as “grateful for US expressions of support,” the AIT still said: “However, Ma still seems indecisive and risk averse when it comes to dealing with issues beyond his expertise.”
In the wake of the August 2009 Typhoon Morakot tragedy, the AIT sourly observed that “now, many people will be inclined to credit his previous [and future] blunders less to inexperience than to incompetence.” The AIT added that “political analysts agree that no one wants to see Ma recover [from the typhoon scandal] more than China’s leaders, who have found in the president an eager partner in improving cross-Strait ties.” By February last year, the AIT said Ma needed to “improve the image of his administration as woefully lacking communication skills.”
Of course, an incumbent president attracts far more criticism than a challenger, even in foreign diplomatic reports, but US officials in Taipei have dealt with both Ma and Tsai for decades and still the contrast between them in these official reports is startling.
US officials at different levels have watched Tsai for 20 years, first as a trade negotiator, then as a member of former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) braintrust. And as chair of the MAC during the first Chen administration, Tsai (like Ma, she has a doctorate in law) visited Washington frequently, having direct talks with very senior US officials, including top Department of State and White House officials. Former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, according to newspaper reports, was a particularly frequent interlocutor.
It is not my place to speak for them, but in those years, I never heard from them anything but the most effusive praise of Tsai’s communication skills, her warm interpersonal traits, her intellect, her “tenacious” negotiating style and her genuine likeability. And the AIT’s high assessment of her leadership abilities and her political vision is apparent from the reports available through WikiLeaks.
For the past decade I, too, have followed closely Tsai’s career. I hosted an Asia-hands lunch for her exactly 10 years ago in Washington on Dec. 13, 2001, and have met her on official calls and privately innumerable times since. I even had a chance to chat briefly with her during her visit to Washington in September and can attest that she impressed everyone who met her on Capitol Hill and at the State Department.
Everyone, that is, with the possible exception of an anonymous White House official who immediately phoned the Financial Times to say that “she left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.”