Here in Washington, D.C., the Taiwanese-American community is heavily sympathetic to the Democratic Progressive Party. The rivalry for the DPP upcoming presidential nomination has evenly divided them, with many dissatisfied that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has not moved more decisively for Taiwan’s independence, and others who worry that former Premier William Lai (賴清德) underestimates the toleration of the American government for Taiwan. Some friends ask me whom I support, but good friends know I am solidly on President Tsai’s side.
Sometimes, I joke to friends that in the 1950s Tsai Ing-wen and I were childhood neighbors (青梅竹馬) among the orchid gardens, tangerine orchards and bamboo groves of old Grass Mountain (草山) and Yangmingshan (陽明山) high above Taipei’s city smog.
Of course, my regard is much more practical. I knew her reputation as a tough trade negotiator in the 1990s, a National Chengchi University law professor whose impeccable English and mastery of international trade policy made her a top advisor both to Taiwan’s central bank and to the Ministry of Economic Affairs as Taipei prepared for trade talks. During Taiwan’s negotiations with the US “working party” delegation in the World Trade Organization, I was told by a friend, she chided one of her American counterparts after the fact on the weaknesses of the U.S. negotiating strategy and made suggestions on what the U.S. team could have done more effectively.
Tsai Ing-wen, with a doctorate from the London School of Economics, a law degree from Cornell University, her legal training at National Taiwan University and her professorships in international law at Chengchi and Soochow Universities was, in the 1990s, Taiwan’s leading authority of sovereignty and the law of nations. In 1998, Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) surveyed Taiwan’s talent pool and selected Dr. Tsai to lead the most important legal team Taiwan has ever had: “The Task Force to Strengthen the sovereign national status of the Republic of China” (強化中華民國主權國家地位小組). Within the year, her task force of young Taiwanese international lawyers of intellectual virtuosity had researched scores of case studies from divided Germany to the Yugoslavian wars, from the newly independent Soviet states to Palestine and Israel. They crafted a position for Taiwan’s sovereignty, based on West Germany’s “Ostpolitik” two-states doctrine which Chancellor Willi Brandt crafted in the 1970s. Moreover, it was a legal position that the United States should accept — eventually. But it needed to be introduced in stages. And Dr. Tsai outlined an elegant, stage-by-stage process which could be built upon the universal legal principle that “sovereignty resides in the people” (主權在民).
Dr. Tsai’s research study outlined stages of constitutional revisions, legal reforms, changing Article Four of the Republic of China Constitution to define its territorial jurisdiction cleverly to “the jurisdictions in which this constitution is in effect” (為本憲法有效實施地區). It also recommended dumping all legal structures based on “The Free Areas,” the “Taiwan Area,” the “Mainland Area,” and start by amending all national security, nationality and copyright laws to refer only to “The Republic of China” and “The People’s Republic.” Indeed, all legislation should be revised, section by section, to excise anachronistic references to the Taiwan and mainland “areas.”
At the same time, foreign ministry and diplomatic instruments should follow suit to use the national names “ROC” and “PRC.” In future foreign affairs texts, terms like “equal political entities” must give way to the normal diplomatic terminology of “sovereign states.” The “National Unification Guidelines” would be “Cross Strait Guidelines;” and “unification” changed to “ultimate conclusion.” There would be no more “One China is the ROC,” nor even “One China;” no more talk of “a divided nation” or “one country, two governments” or “One China, separate interpretations,” and certainly no “Taiwan and the mainland both are parts of China.” Over time, all these ideas would disappear.
But the key, Dr. Tsai stressed, was that it had to be planned systematically, and implemented in a staged calendar over an extended timeframe. By the late 1990s, fully twenty years ago, Taipei’s political environment was at a turning point. President Lee Teng-hui still controlled the “Nationalist Party” but bold changes in ideology would destabilize the party’s legitimacy. Dr. Tsai worked with the Party’s traditionalists to buy into Willi Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” vision of a “special state-to-state relationship” between Taipei and Beijing. It was a process calibrated to ease the reluctant KMT Old Guard on to President Lee’s track, or at least to minimize their resistance until a sovereign, independent Taiwan could become the mainstream principle.
The rest is history. President Lee embraced the ideas of Dr. Tsai’s task force. In fact, Germany’s “Ostpolitik” vision captured his imagination so much that when Germany’s national radio agency “Deutsche Welle” sought an interview with him in July 1999, President Lee decided to preview his “special state-to-state relationship” formula for an international audience. President Lee reasoned that China could not object because, after all, the “Two Germanys” were reunited after twenty years of “mutually non-subordinate” (互不隸屬) relations between sovereign states. Unfortunately, in July 1999, “special state-to-state relations” was more than international diplomatic markets could bear. Dr. Tsai’s vision of a stage-by-stage implementation was short-circuited.
In the twenty years since, through three distinct Taiwan presidential administrations including her own, Dr. Tsai Ing-wen’s vision is now back on track. And she has been a part of it every step of the way; under Presidents Lee and Chen Shuibian (陳水扁); under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as leader of the opposition; and today as Taiwan’s president. With the skill of a judo wrestler, she has maneuvered China’s powerful military and naval aggressiveness to Taiwan’s advantage. In 2016, she carefully planned her overtures to the new American president-elect: carefully if Secretary Hillary Clinton had won, boldly if Mr. Donald Trump won. With the Trump victory, she moved quickly, reassured by Mr. Trump’s advisors that the new administration would welcome the opportunity for a change of America’s strategic passivity in the Indo-Pacific.
In the two years since President Trump’s inauguration, President Tsai has strengthened America’s trust, security cooperation and general goodwill toward Taiwan to an extent I never believed possible. America’s diplomats and strategists see President Tsai as the most reliable, sound and intelligent colleague they have ever had in Taiwan as they build a new Indo-Pacific security partnerships. More than any American administration since Reagan’s, top Trump Administration leaders, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, sing Taiwan’s praises in public. But the substance of President Tsai’s new relationship with the United States must remain unseen.
Former Premier William Lai, too, is a capable and organized statesman in his own right. I have met him only once, and he impressed me deeply. But as much as I like him and support his vision for Taiwan, I do not have faith that he can achieve half so much as President Tsai can.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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