President Tsai Ing-wen was interviewed by Time magazine in October 2019, and a report based on this interview was published on January 9, 2020. President Tsai answered questions regarding international conditions, Taiwan-US relations, and cross-strait relations.
A translation of the interview follows:
Q: You made a phone call to then President-elect Trump soon after his election victory, which contributed to a diplomatic incident and a cooling of relations. Do you regret that decision now to call President Trump?
A: I think that the call was a very natural thing. It is very normal for us to offer congratulations to a newly elected leader of a friendly country.
So I think in terms of the changes we have seen in cross-strait relations, the root of the problem is China's growing strategic ambitions in the region, as well as the conflict between the United States and China in the region. Coupled with that are the recent developments in Hong Kong.
When China deals with regional or international issues, the so-called "Taiwan problem" becomes part of it. Cross-strait relations, then, have evolved into a regional issue and even a global issue.
Q: I definitely see that and President Trump, in his negotiations with China, has said that anything is on the table, including the US recognition of the "one China policy." Donald Trump has a reputation as the master dealmaker, and a good negotiator. Do you worry that he might trade backing for Taiwan for a trade deal or some sort of other deal with the People's Republic?
A: First of all, I would like to clarify that the United States' "one China policy" and China's "one China principle" are two different things.
We are seeing an overall bipartisan consensus on support for Taiwan across Congress and in the executive branch.
Supporting Taiwan is about more than trade and economics, though, it is about freedom, democracy, and regional strategy.
Of course, we will continue to pay very close attention to the ongoing negotiations between the US and China. However, we are confident that US support for Taiwan in the executive and legislative branches is the strongest it has ever been.
Q: OK. China's regional, international clout continues to grow, both in bilateral relations with trading partners and in international organizations. How great a threat to the liberal democratic order is Beijing's rise?
A: For quite some time, it has become increasingly clear that China's regional and global ambitions are growing, and they intend to use their economic clout to support their political expansionist ambitions.
We are also witnessing China's direct and indirect attempts to sway the minds of decision-makers in nations around the world.
Q: You recently greenlit the purchase of more than US$2 billion worth of arms from the United States. You must believe that the threat of invasion from the PRC is real and great.
A: China's military capacity is still growing and China harbors expansionist intentions. I think that this is something other countries in the region outside of Taiwan have also noticed, and this worries them.
So we need to modernize some of our old defensive weapons and military equipment. On the other hand, we also want our military to be able to effectively respond to contemporary military conflicts or challenges we face.
Q: Over your first term, seven diplomatic allies have stopped recognizing the government of Taipei and switched to Beijing. Do you fear total diplomatic isolation is on the horizon?
A: Actually, our diplomatic allies are part of our overall diplomacy. We also engage in cooperation with major and democratic nations, and enjoy strong trade and investment ties with many countries. There are also many countries that share the same values with us, and our growing consensus with these countries has led to increasing cooperation.
I believe that many of our allies are still supporting Taiwan because they share the same values with us, and they will not be swayed by China's economic inducements.
Q: In January, President Xi Jinping (習近平) made an offer, or suggestion, of a system for "one country, two systems" for Taiwan. And currently, now, in Hong Kong, there are fierce protests against an erosion of "one country, two systems" in the territory. Obviously, the Taiwan and Hong Kong situations are very different, but do you believe that what's happening in Hong Kong at the moment is a message for the people of Taiwan that they cannot trust an offer made by the Beijing government?
A: When Chairman Xi proposed the "one country, two systems" model for Taiwan at the beginning of this year, Taiwanese society actually responded with strong resistance. That is to say, the Taiwanese people will not accept the so-called "one country, two systems" model.
In addition to the infeasibility of the "one country, two systems" model, another important point is whether China can be trusted.
Developments in Hong Kong beginning in March or April have shown that China's commitment to Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" model has come into question. And this has, of course, negatively affected the Taiwanese people's trust in China.
Q: But at the same time, it seems that the troubles in Hong Kong have coincided with a boost of popularity for yourself going into your reelection campaign. Is it fair to say that you have inadvertently benefited from the Hong Kong protests?
A: I don't think we should interpret this situation as whether or not any specific candidate has benefited or suffered from the developments in Hong Kong.
I think we should approach it like this: Seeing these developments in Hong Kong, the Taiwanese people will feel the need for a leader who can stand firm, insist on what has to be insisted upon, and clearly express the Taiwanese people's will.
Q: It seems like the election campaign here has been hit with a torrent of fake news and populist rhetoric, which has engulfed the world—from the UK and US, and many other places as well. How dangerous do you believe the rise of populism and fake news and the influence of malevolent powers in the media are for liberal democracy?
A: Indeed, the rise of disinformation and populism have brought about great challenges to leaders and governments around the world, and we felt this very strongly in the local elections last year, which were very much impacted by populism and disinformation.
However, after the elections, we took a long, hard look, and decided we needed to strengthen government communication with the public. So we started to deploy social media platforms and we focused on rapid response to stop the circulation of misinformation. We are also trying to use easily understandable language—or even pictures—in our communication with the public so that messages can be disseminated in a clear and rapid manner.
And I would say that populism and disinformation are interconnected. The dissemination of disinformation intensifies populism. And populism in turn affects people's decisions when they choose what information to believe in.
So in the face of this issue, the maturity of our democratic society here in Taiwan becomes a deciding factor. After the last election, our people started to feel that, indeed, there are some matters affecting our society and challenging our democratic system. We are also seeing more people willing to assist the government in clarifying disinformation. And I think that public involvement and participation in our efforts to counter disinformation is very important to Taiwanese society and democracy.
Q: It seems that the Taiwan people want both better relations with Beijing and China, and also to maintain their autonomy and sovereignty and way of life here. Given the antipathy with which Beijing treats your party, can you truly say that you are the best person to deliver that?
A: Indeed, the Taiwanese people naturally want to pursue both goals. However, if we cannot have both, I am sure the Taiwanese people would choose to ensure that our democracy and freedom are not affected, and that we can maintain our sovereignty, because this is what is most important to them.
But if we want to maintain relations with China, we need to be sufficiently confident and capable to sit down and talk with China, and find a way to improve relations that is acceptable for both sides.
So I think the real question here is whether or not Taiwan's society is united enough, and whether or not we have the capability. That way when we negotiate with China, we will be able to find a solution that is acceptable to both parties.
Of course, Beijing would like to see a divided Taiwan, to see Taiwan's economy and development stall, to create a better foothold for Beijing to influence cross-strait relations.
However, when it comes to Taiwan's sovereignty, democracy, and freedom, I think the people are mostly in agreement.
And we have continued to make progress during my time in office in terms of economic and social developments.
Q: Speaking of the social, under your administration, Taiwan became the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. What does that tell the world about the people of Taiwan?
A: Taiwan is essentially an ethnic Chinese society, so we follow some conservative traditions of the ethnic Chinese community. However, we are also a society of immigrants. So at the same time, you can see the openness and inclusiveness of our immigrant society.
When we encounter a new issue like same-sex marriage, our society undergoes a great deal of debate and even struggle. People from different generations, different faiths, and different values systems will all have different opinions on such matters.
So our society debated this issue for two to three years. After this rather painful process, we were able to reach a solution to this issue which, generally speaking, was acceptable to most of society. So I think that this shows that Taiwan is an open and inclusive society, and that this is a rather mature democracy.
Q: With changes which are happening in Hong Kong, and the erosion of freedoms there, do you feel there's a chance for Taiwan to benefit economically by being a base for foreign companies wanting to invest in the China region, media who want to be based in Taipei and stay in the orbit of greater China?
A: Indeed, due to the US-China trade war and developments in Hong Kong, we are seeing some investments coming into to Taiwan, especially those from Taiwanese businesses that were originally operating in China. From January 2019 to today, we have received over NT$600 billion worth of applications from Taiwanese businesses looking to invest here.
Many orders are now also turning to Taiwan. Taiwan is the most secure place to manufacture next-generation ICT applications and equipment, as well as high-end and advanced technology products.
So this is why more foreign businesses are investing in Taiwan, and we are also seeing more new innovative startups in Taiwan.
Taiwan probably ranks near the top in Asia for freedom of speech. This is one of the freest places in Asia, and it is a great environment for the media.
Taiwan is also a comfortable place to live, and we welcome international media to use Taiwan as a regional base where they can enjoy a comfortable life, freedom, and the government's respect for media operations here.