A Tale of Two Visits and the Importance of Taiwanese Politics

The visit of Taiwan’s current President Tsai Ing-wen to the US made headlines across the Western media, although to a lesser degree than Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan eight months earlier. In the occasion dubbed as a “stopover meeting,” President Tsai met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy,  made a speech at the Hudson Institute, and another speech at the Ronald Reagan Library. Although the details of the visit will be discussed later, the talking points of the speeches are the business-as-usual messaging: shared values, democratic success, and strengthening US-Taiwan economic ties.

There is another meeting in the same timeframe that has been severely overlooked by Western media though, that is former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to mainland China. President Ma—Tsai’s immediate predecessor—is visiting China with a very different message, which is one of peace, cross-border exchange, and preserving the status quo. It would be foolish not to consider the timing and messaging of these two visits as something intentional. It would also be a wasted opportunity to understand better the issue of Taiwan, not from the US or Chinese lens, but from Taiwan’s own perspective and domestic politics.

Taking Stock of the Two Visits

President Tsai’s visit to the US is certainly not the first, although likely to be the last as president. The visit was also fairly uneventful with only two actual stoppings: one in New York at the Hudson Library to receive an award and another one in California at the Ronald Reagan Library to meet with Kevin McCarthy. President Tsai did not meet any officials from the Biden Administration nor did she visit Washington D.C., and that is probably by design.

Looking back, Taiwan-US relations have got closer under President Tsai, but that happen especially with one side of the aisle, with Republicans. On Tsai’s initiative, both before and after she became president, she had mostly met Republican lawmakers. She met John McCain in 2015 and 2016, was congratulated by phone by President Trump in 2020, and met Kevin McCarthy in 2023. The only time a Democratic-led delegation met Tsai directly was Nancy Pelosi’s visit in 2022, and that’s on Pelosi’s initiative.

The reasons for this are not yet known, but it’s important to note that generally, Republicans are more hawkish on China. During the Trump administration, at least two breakthroughs were achieved, namely the Taiwan Travel Act of 2018 and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019. However, apart from the two legislations, no major policy shift was made, nor did it seem to be something intended. The move can only be interpreted as signaling closer US-Taiwan relations.

On the other hand, ex-President Ma’s visit to mainland China is a historic first for a Taiwanese leader. The visit also extends a much longer 12 days to tour at least five Chinese cities with a sizeable 35-person delegation. Similar to Tsai’s visit, Ma also avoided visiting Beijing and meeting with high-level Communist Party officials. The highest-level official that Ma met is Song Tao, the Head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council.

Rather strikingly, Ma’s visit narrated a different vision of Taiwan-Chinese relations than Tsai. President Ma advocated for the two sides to maintain exchanges and avoid war. “It is your choice to choose between peace and war for our future,” was among the first thing that Ma said when he landed back in Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport.

Ma’s visit is highly symbolic and intellectual. Among others, Ma visited the museum of Sun Yat-sen and reminded the massacres of the Sino-Japanese war. From these common experiences, Ma tried to frame Taiwan-Chinese dynamics as “both being China”.

Looking Past Black-White Narratives on Taiwan

These conflicting narratives might surprise mainstream observers of Taiwanese foreign policy, but not those who are also aware of Taiwanese politics. Ma Ying-Jeou stems from the Kuomintang Party (KMT), which traditionally favors close ties with China, while Tsai Ing-wen came from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which leans towards Taiwan’s independence from China. Zhu Zhiqun, an International Relations Professor at Bucknell University, said that the divergent plans of Ma and Tsai represent the two major parties’ different visions for Taiwan’s future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ma’s mainland visit instigated a response from President Tsai, which said that the former president’s theory “belongs to the 1970s, not 2023” and that the ultimate aim in handling cross-strait relations is to “ensure the free and democratic lifestyle of the Taiwanese people.” The two parties have frequently traded insults before, accusing the other as out of touch with public opinion.

This diversity of view opens the Taiwan black box. Taiwan is not fully against China as usually pictured by the US, nor does it feel as part of China as presented by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). More often, the preferred position of the Taiwanese people is somewhere in the middle.

This position is constantly shifting, and is usually gauged through opinion polling of Taiwanese people’s perception of mainland China through various metrics. In recent years, polling after polling presented an increase of unfavorable views towards China. This is in line with the global opinion that is also becoming more unfavorable towards China, both because of increasing Chinese assertiveness and harsher rhetoric from Western countries. However, the foreign policy realization of those views might not be as simple.

There is no shortage of observers that said this trend will bode well for the DPP in the ballot box. However, recent local elections in late 2022 have resulted in a major loss for DPP, which bet high on their foreign policies. This was mainly due to dissatisfaction with DPP’s domestic policy, especially its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and a slowing economy. Foreign observers tend to overestimate the impact of foreign policy issues on Taiwanese elections, overlooking domestic bread-and-butter issues that also matter. The interplay between domestic and international issues, not only either one of them, will eventually decide who will win in 2024, and whose foreign policy vision will be implemented.

Strategic Implications

While Tsai’s visit is part of the increasingly close US-Taiwan relationship, Ma’s visit marks something different, both for China and Taiwan. The decision from Beijing to approve Ma’s visit is a tacit recognition of his importance in cross-strait relations, said Lu Yeh-chung, a professor of fiplomacy from National Chengchi University.

Ma’s visit played handily to the hand of the dovish faction in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It shows that there are significant voices from the self-governing island that favors peace and the preservation of the status quo. His visit might also help Xi Jinping, which hold increasing expectation to integrate Taiwan, even if it means using force. This visit is might incentivize the CCP to dial back their pressure against Taiwan because not all Taiwanese are die-hard for independence. Peaceful reunification remains on the table.

At the same time, however, the CCP is also engaging in escalation with Taiwan. As Tsai conducted her stopovers in the US, and after a visit from Macron and Von der Leyen to Beijing, China again conducted military drills around Taiwan. From China’s perspective, this is an appropriate response to Tsai’s visit, as there can be no escalation from the other side that can go unpunished. Increased escalation, and eventually war, remains a likely pathway.

Meanwhile, the US could only increase engagement with Taiwan if its ruling government intends to do so. An increase in economic and military cooperation has to come from both sides. If either side is reluctant to do so, closer US-Taiwan relations would not be possible.

The future development of cross-strait relations, and even US-China rivalry, rests significantly in the domestic development of Taiwanese politics. Different Taiwanese foreign policy might not decisively change the path of the current global rivalry, but it could make a different development and alter the timeline. The world should pay attention to the competing foreign policy visions, as well as domestic dynamics, in Taiwan building up to the 2024 election.

Ikhlas Tawazun
Ikhlas Tawazun
Ikhlas Tawazun, a graduate of International Relations from the University of Indonesia and Editor-in-Chief of Kontekstual