Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen gave an address for National Day – essentially Taiwan’s version of the Fourth of July – on Wednesday unsparingly critical of China without being overtly confrontational. The key element of the speech was an appeal to the free world for protection from China’s increasingly predatorial approach to the island.
Tsai’s speech was entitled “Democratic Taiwan Lights Up the World.” She urged her audience to consider the recent “dramatic changes in the international political and economic situation,” which she saw as defined by Chinese aggression met by pushback from the United States and its Asian allies:
The US-China trade dispute has led to a restructuring of the global industrial division of labor, with repercussions for the existing economic and trade order.
Accordingly, Indo-Pacific region dynamics and cross-strait relations have also become more complex. The international community is concerned about China’s attempts to challenge the regional status quo. As Taiwan is on the frontline of the Western Pacific, we are naturally subject to tremendous pressure.
For some time now, China’s unilateral diplomatic offensive and military coercion have not only harmed cross-strait relations. They have also seriously challenged the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Tsai explicitly rejected taking a “confrontational stance” against China, but also dismissed advice that Taiwan should “give in and compromise.” Instead, she asked the world to send a message to China that Taiwan is here to stay and interested only in stability and peaceful, prosperous trade:
As the entire world is dealing with the expansion of Chinese influence, the government that I am leading will show the world Taiwan’s strength and resilience. The best way to defend Taiwan is to make it indispensable and irreplaceable to the world.
The people of Taiwan will never accept any attempt by external forces to unilaterally change the cross-strait status quo. And the international community will never approve of and support the violation of universal values.
So once again, I am calling on the authorities in Beijing, as a responsible major power, to play a positive role in the region and the world, instead of being a source of conflict.
Tsai’s appeal directly contradicts China’s strategy of methodically picking off Taiwan’s allies to isolate the island, an approach that has been distressingly successful since Tsai took office. China has worked to convince younger Taiwanese that autonomy is more trouble than it is worth while demonstrating its growing military prowess and signaling the amount of independence talk Beijing is willing to tolerate without violent action is diminishing. The Taiwanese president listed “diplomatic pressure, social infiltration, and economic security” as key elements of the threat to her country.
Tsai is trying to flip the script by showing Beijing that Taiwan is valuable to the free world and crushing it would not be worth the high price China would pay.
“We will continue to make Taiwan stronger, and irreplaceable in the global community. This is Taiwan’s niche for sustainable survival,” she said.
“In facing changing international circumstances, our strategic choice is clear, and that is to staunchly defend freedom, democracy, and the market economy. These fundamental values have been important foundations in helping Taiwan become a model of Asian democracy and develop a strong economy,” she declared.
Tsai expressed her appreciation to the U.S. Congress for passing “many Taiwan-friendly legislative bills” and spoke highly of Vice President Mike Pence’s condemnation of Chinese tactics in a recent speech that infuriated Beijing.
The Wall Street Journal noted on Wednesday that Taiwanese media picked up on this portion of Tsai’s address to compare her speech to Pence’s remarks, which have in turn been compared to the “Iron Curtain speech Sir Winston Churchill delivered at the dawn of the Cold War.
As for China’s reaction, state-run media has “largely avoided covering it” aside from posting a few unflattering photos of Tsai on social media, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Chinese government offered no official response to the speech.
Tsai’s thoughts on “preventing foreign powers from infiltrating and subverting our society” dovetailed with accusations of election meddling leveled at China by the Trump White House:
We are determined to defend the values of Taiwan’s diverse democracy. But if another country takes advantage of our society’s freedom to infiltrate society and create chaos, we absolutely will not sit by idly, and will take any and all preventive measures necessary.
Whether it be disseminating disinformation, illegally obtaining scientific and technical intelligence, maliciously damaging the information security system, intervening in the election process, or interfering with government operations, if there is irrefutable evidence of crime, the perpetrators will suffer serious consequences.
After laying out plans to improve Taiwan’s infrastructure, increase its military power, and create a more stable environment for commerce, Tsai concluded by saluting the keepers of Taiwan’s 36 lighthouses and portraying the entire nation as a lighthouse standing against the dark sea of oppression surrounding it:
Taiwan itself is a beacon. Our democratic transition once illuminated our own path through the darkness, and remains a beacon in the night for those who long for democracy. So to all of our friends who are pursuing democracy in Hong Kong, in mainland China, and around the world: You can always look to Taiwan, because Taiwan’s democracy lights up the world.
When the world really sees the beauty of Taiwan, Taiwan will never be alone. I want to tell all of our international friends that we have the courage to persevere on our path.
Much like the United States, Taiwan is preparing for local elections in November that will set the stage for the 2020 presidential contest. Observers say it will be the largest and perhaps most important midterm election Taiwan has ever held, with some 11,000 officials on the ballot.
China is putting a lot of pressure on Taiwanese to make them see Tsai’s election as a grave mistake and her ouster as the key to restoring peaceable relations. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party is seen as slipping against the rival Kuomintang party, although the DPP still holds a commanding position and not all of its critics are comfortable with KMT.