Tsai Ing-wen's interview with TIME Magazine

Exclusive: TIME Meets Taiwan Presidential Hopefuls Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen

Read more: http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2011/11/25/exclusive-time-meets-taiwan-presidential-hopefuls-ma-ying-jeou-and-tsai-ing-wen/#ixzz1ezEoQtMs

Posted by TIME.com Friday, November 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm

This is a guest post from Asia Editor Zoher Abdoolcarim.

The presidency of Taiwan is an underrated yet critical job whose impact extends beyond the shores of the island. Taiwan is regarded by Beijing as a renegade province that must return to the mainland, by force if necessary. Indeed, China has, by some estimates, nearly 2,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan. Washington is obliged, through Congress's 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, to help arm the island—a commitment that brings the U.S. into potential conflict with China. During Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's first four-year term, however, relations between Taipei and Beijing have been the warmest since the Nationalists lost to the Communists in 1949 and decamped to Taiwan. The two governments abide by the notion of “one China,” the definition of which they deliberately leave vague so as to reduce bilateral tension. Ma, 61, has developed reciprocal trade, investment and banking ties with the mainland. Academic and cultural exchanges have become commonplace. An average of 3200 Chinese tourists visit Taiwan daily. There are now even direct flights between cities on both sides of the strait.

Yet, as Taiwan gears up for its Jan. 14 presidential election, Ma—leader of the Grand Old Party of Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT)—is struggling to keep power. His China policy has brought stability to Taiwan. The economy rebounded in 2010 with GDP growth of 10.8% after shrinking in 2009, and is forecast to grow 4.5% this year. Inflation is under 2% and unemployment just a tick over 4%. These are figures that any Western country today would die for. But many Taiwan citizens think Ma has sold out the island to China, pandered to the establishment, particularly big business, and devoted insufficient attention to income inequality. That's why voter polls have Ma in a statistical dead heat with his chief opponent Tsai Ing-wen, 55, head of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. When led by former president Chen Shui-bian, the DPP defied Beijing by advocating independence. Under Tsai, the DPP has moderated its China stance; it has also tackled internal party corruption, and focused on the grassroots, especially livelihood, issues, thereby boosting its popularity.

Though Ma and Tsai are rivals, they have much in common: both are confident, articulate, well-traveled and well-educated (he has a doctorate from Harvard, she from LSE)—traits any electorate anywhere would want in its leaders. Beijing, however, views Tsai as, at worst, unfriendly to the mainland and, at best, an unknown quantity over cross-strait relations. The U.S. says it respects Taiwan's democracy and the voice of its people. But Washington is also wary about Tsai and the possibility that the U.S. may be dragged in if she picks a fight with Beijing if elected. In short, like Beijing, Washington prefers that the status quo.

TIME's Zoher Abdoolcarim and Natalie Tso spoke recently with Ma and Tsai in separate interviews in Taipei about the presidential race and the triangle that is China, Taiwan and the U.S. Here are some highlights:

Tsai Ing-wen

TIME: Why should you be elected?

Tsai: Because I am the better leader ... I want to make a difference. The way the government conducts its business has to be changed. The leader has to be someone who has that sort of determination, and we do not see this kind of determination in the current president.

Given that Taiwan has not suffered any great disaster, the incumbent would normally have the advantage. But the polls are very close. Why?

He is not enjoying this advantage. People are not happy with the way government resources are being distributed. The wealth gap is bothering a lot of people. People want a fairer government, a fairer president to reallocate the resources of the government. The No. 1 problem people are facing is looking for a job that he or she likes. The president is apparently very proud of what he has done in the cross-strait area, but there are lots of people who are unhappy with how he conducts business in this area too.

How would you handle cross-strait relations differently?

[Ma] believes that the way to rescue the economy here is to get closer to China. He wants to get concessions, he wants to get benefits from China, and so he fools himself to accept the political conditions set by the Chinese. China knows it very well, and while they are giving all these concessions to us, they want something in return. If we want to have peaceful relations with China, that is fine. But if the way you keep peace and stability in a relationship is to move Taiwan closer and closer to China while China is still a very much an authoritarian regime—it is not a democracy yet, not a decent market economy—there are a lot of risks involved. A lot of people are concerned that we are moving so close and so quickly to China that we would at some point pass the point of no return, meaning the only way, the only option is to be with China in the future rather than being on our own. Many people here still want to have that option open because they haven't made up their mind yet. As a democracy, the leader cannot make this vital decision for the people.

Do you accept that engagement with China is essential for Taiwan, as it is for any government, economy or society anywhere?

We should have a normal relationship with them; by normal I mean we follow international rules and use multilateral frameworks to form our relationship in trade and economic areas. We treat China as a normal trading and economic partner.

The U.S. seems to prefer, in terms of its relations with Beijing, the status quo: Ma. What is the sense you got when you recently went to Washington D.C.?

My sense is that, of course, there are some people in the government in Washington D.C. who have a certain preference, but I was told, repeatedly, by different agencies of the U.S. government that this is not their official position.

You have been a head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. The Chinese know you, and you know them. Do the Chinese have a more sophisticated understanding now of the complexities in Taiwan than before?

They have a better understanding of what we are and what we are after, but it is still not enough. Sometimes they have difficulty interpreting the events here correctly. And sometimes they would tend to use the interpretation by the KMT's politicians or supporters.

How important is the U.S. relationship to you?

It is a very, very important factor. We need the market there, the technology, the business network. Politically, of course, the U.S., despite the flaws in its systems, is still a democracy—we like to associate with democracies. And strategically, the U.S. is a counter-balance to China, a rising China that is not yet a democracy. We are not facing China alone; we are facing China together with a lot of other people in the region.

-With reporting from Natalie Tso