I first met Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 1999, when I was Acting Director of AIT, as Darryl Johnson had just left and Ray Burghardt had not yet arrived. She was a young aide for then-President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). President Lee just had enunciated a new theory, which came to be known as the “state-to-state” principle, in an interview with a German newspaper. Beijing had predictably gone berserk and was trying to get Washington to come down heavily on President Lee. In the midst of all this, Tsai and I met to discuss the situation. I took a liking to this studious and quiet woman, who had an impressive educational background, including study in London and at Cornell. I later invited her to my home on Song Jiang Road.
Not long after our first one-on-one session, Tsai told me she was taking a break and flying to London for a visit. I asked her what she planned to do in that fantastic world city; take in the sights, perhaps visit some museums. To my surprise, Madame Tsai told me she was most looking forward to crawling through the city’s bookstores! That image of the hardcore scholar has stuck with me all these years.
When Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) unexpectedly gained the Presidency in 2000 after a tightly contested three-way race, Ms. Tsai became his Director of Mainland Affairs. It was only after this that she formally joined the DPP. I returned to Taipei as AIT Director in 2007, at which point she had become Vice Premier under Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), toward the latter stages of Chen’s second term. With the return to power of the KMT under Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in early 2008, Ms. Tsai became DPP Chairwoman, later losing the 2012 presidential race to incumbent Ma in a fairly close contest. Then in 2016, Tsai was elected President in a landslide victory, accompanied for the first time by a DPP majority in the legislature. I was honored to be part of the US delegation to her inauguration. Madame Tsai was resoundingly reelected in 2020, and her party currently enjoys a legislative majority in the Legislative Yuan.
Tsai has made history in many respects, notably becoming the first female leader in the island-state’s long history. She has nurtured a continuing strong economy, while ratcheting back cross-strait relations from their earlier peak under President Ma. Much of the fault here lies with Xi Jinping (習近平), who has forsaken moderate steps to ease cross-strait tensions in favor of a more muscular and bullying approach to the island-state. Tsai’s support for the high-tech sector has buffered Taiwan through recent global economic difficulties, even as she has turned aside the threats and blandishments of Xi’s authoritarian regime.
Unlike the autocratic Xi, President Tsai will step down from office after her second term ends in 2024. She will carry with her an admirable record of sustaining Taiwan economically through the global Covid crisis, navigating the treacherous waters of cross-strait relations, and maintaining enduring bilateral ties with the island’s main defender, the United States. America can be proud of this plucky leader, who enjoys solid US connections through her education and her frequent visits over the years.
Though Taiwan continues to face the slow hemorrhage of “diplomatic allies” as Beijing targets the dwindling number of states enjoying formal diplomatic relations, Tsai has bolstered unofficial ties with important friends. Taipei’s ties with Tokyo have been growing. Ms. Tsai has skillfully used transit stops in the US to meet friends and supporters. Taipei also enjoys close links to neighboring states like Vietnam, India, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines — the list goes on.
I have no doubt this impressive leader will continue to play a prominent role in Taiwan politics following her two-term presidency. Having been fortunate to watch her spectacular political trajectory over the past 25 years, I look forward to tracking her future contributions to Taiwan’s development in the years to come.
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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