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Taiwan’s Evolving Role in the Global Order: U.S.-Taiwan Relations and Expectations for President Tsai’s Second Term

Date & Time

May. 21, 2020
9:00am – 10:30am ET


Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in on May 21 to begin her second term as President of Taiwan. Her first term saw a significant shift in cross-strait relations on the one hand, and enhanced relations with the United States on the other. While Beijing acted quickly to further narrow Taiwan's international space and expanded PLA capabilities and operations in the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan, Taipei sought to bolster its unofficial relationship with Washington and change its approach to defense with a renewed emphasis on asymmetry and indigenous arms development. The Asia Program hosted discussion on the challenges as well as opportunities facing President Tsai over the next four years, and how changes in the global order and U.S.-China relations will impact the unofficial U.S.-Taiwan relationship.


Selected Quotes


"We have a lot of confidence in our young democracy.  Remember, Taiwan’s 24 years of directly elected presidents in the democratic fashion is still less than the time Taiwan had been under martial law, that was 38 years actually.  We have fought so hard for our democratic liberties that it is not easy or perhaps even impossible for us to relinquish it.  Yet for the coronavirus we did, we have.  This is because we know we can get our democracy back any time.  The lesson to be learned here is not just that Taiwan has successfully fended off COVID-19 but that Taiwan has demonstrated that we’ll do whatever it takes to protect our democratic way of life."

"At the start of this year, Taiwan’s defense ministry lost eight senior officers in a tragic when a Blackhawk helicopter crash in the mountains.  Our Chief of General Staff, General Shen Yi-Ming, was one of the officers who perished.  Many in this morning’s audience knew General Shen.  His team had been on their way to visit troops at a base in Northeastern Taiwan.  The Lunar New Year was approaching and General Chen and the team were going to wish the soldiers a happy New Year and thank them for their work protecting the country… I could have never imagined the outpouring of grief and sympathy that emerged across our nation over the Blackhawk accident.  The people, normal Taiwanese citizens actually were lined up along the streets to watch and salute the funeral procession for the eight officers.  You knew then the public understood the sacrifice of the military profession.  This is significant because you have to remember that it wasn’t so long ago in Taiwan’s history that our military played a part in an authoritarian regime when the island under martial law but the image of Taiwan’s military has changed drastically."  

"Defending a nation is not just about military strategy, tactics, training, and hard work to execute them.  An equally important asset, if not more important, is the people’s commitment to defend their way of life and their willingness to support and work with men and women in their armed forces.  These stories are more than telling the Taiwanese are committed and willing."

"Strengthening Taiwan’s defense is more than dollars and cents obviously. Like counterparts around the world, we have needed to become leaner, yet be more effective with limited resources. Hence we have more to be done to develop asymmetric capabilities to effectively execute the overall defense concept in the second term of the current administration."

"This cognitive warfare is an international problem. It isn’t an issue that affecting only the two sides of the Taiwanese Strait, or only between two former cold-war adversaries; it isn’t just a U.S.-Sino issue either. It affects superpowers and middle powers and has affected how we tackle vital global issues like human rights and for example the current pandemic."


"But my point here is not to evaluate those but to simply say there are, the policy agenda in the U.S.-China relationship is very robust, very diverse, and if it’s not handled well it could lead to systemic instability."

"I think Trump’s China policy increasingly is becoming disconnected from the mainstream U.S. policy community.  So you talk to mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats and they’re very concerned about the trajectory of the relationship.  They’re concerned about this regime-change approach, they’re very concerned about the decoupling agenda.  They’re very concerned about the demonization of China, the sort of blaming China for COVID.  But I see the disconnect not just in the policy community because of coronavirus, there’s a diversity of views in the United States as there should be, but more and more from the business community.  And the business community as frustrated as they are with China, their strategies toward China are very much focused on what I call risk mitigation or de-risking.  They’re not really interested in decoupling and where the administration clearly is.  And what they want is sort of guardrails around the relationship, they don’t want confrontation.  And while there may be some diversification from concentration of manufacturing in China there are very few companies that want to leave China completely."

"But the really important point is, in an environment of increased U.S.-China tensions and frictions, Chinese military modernization, COVID, and Chinese coercion against Taiwan, it is really tempting for American politicians to use Taiwan sort of as a tool, as a ploy part of its broader pushback against China. And I think that that’s incredibly dangerous. I think it doesn’t work, and it would ultimately end up undermining all the goals that we have for supporting democracy and self-determination for Taiwan, freedom from coercion, its ability to shape its own economic future, and of course, promoting Taiwan’s role on the international stage."


"So the typical MO of Beijing’s information operations had been largely focused on amplifying positive narratives about the CCP and the party state and to suppress negative and unwanted content.  That was done through a variety of different means, some of it from you know, kicking out journalists as we’ve seen over the past few months, investing in media outlets to ensure that they don’t actually produce anything that’s negative about the party state.  Or in some cases on indigenous Chinese platforms actually using algorithmic suppression methods to suppress unwanted content outside of China’s borders and that’s in particular been the case with TikTok."

"…because Taiwan is no stranger to this activity I actually think there’s a lot that the U.S. and democratic countries around the world can learn from Taiwan’s response over the past few years and in the COVID crisis…One is the focus on resilience.  There really has been this understanding, as Dr. Lin mentioned, of the importance of this whole of nation or whole of society approach to not stopping the activity but really reducing its effectiveness.  The second is the importance of transparency, responsiveness, and an affirmative information strategy including the use of social media which he mentioned, you know President Tsai has certainly been aggressive in her use of and understanding of.  And of course you know Audrey Tang has also been very, very resourceful in terms of thinking about how the government can much more assertively harness social media platforms to get out that affirmative truthful and transparent message which I think is so critical."  


"There needs to be a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose on both sides, U.S. and Taiwan, here because I do think the security environment is getting more dangerous and the risks are increasing and even the potential for conflict is increasing.  I think that’s true for a number of reasons, number one I think the Chinese are starting to reconcile the policy approaches and the outcomes that they expected with the outcomes they’re actually getting.  The CCP’s approach to Taiwan has failed not by my measure but by their own measure.  They have destroyed any remaining constituency for a future One China… This is a result of PRC’s failed policies, an overly coercive military policy that have destroyed a pathway for what they would like to call a peaceful reunification.  So it’s very difficult to see a resinofication of Taiwan through peaceful means."

"I think also the Chinese might be under-appreciating the growing importance of Taiwan in thinking of the U.S. strategists and in the U.S. defense enterprise right now.  Given the mindset of great power competition, given the goal of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, Taiwan increasingly looks like an Asia Fulda Gap rather than a sort of one-off issue where we have concern and affinity for Taiwan as a fellow democracy and admire their progress and reform. This is really about the U.S. and like-minded partners ability to keep the entire Indo-pacific free and open."


"So we know from past experience that asymmetric really is a broad term and there’s a broad array of arguments into what is and what isn’t asymmetric…As the president clearly laid out, there is a terminology here and that terminology is mobility, it’s capabilities that can effectively counter what the other side is fielding, and it’s really non-traditional.  So that’s not a criteria that the president has made and I think that’s really important going forward."  

"So [Tsai] reiterated several things, peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue.  And these four terms will continue to underpin her cross-strait policy.  And she emphasized especially again that Taiwan will not accept the One China, Two System framework.  So in short, the administration will continue to hold firm to the position that it really seeks to coexist with the other side in a way that is consistent with and recognizes the free and open society that Taiwan has become."


About the Speakers

Chen-wei Lin is the CEO of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research. He has also served as a senior advisor in the National Security Council, R.O.C., under two administrations and was a core member of Taiwan’s representative office in Japan. He has taught as a professor at Hokkaido University Public Policy School and Tokoha University. Dr Lin received his PhD from The University of Tokyo and is fluent in Mandarin, English and Japanese.

Vincent Chao is the Director of the Political Division at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States. Previously, he served as chief of staff to Taiwan’s Foreign Minister and held senior positions at the Office of the President and National Security Council.

Evan Medeiros is the Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies in the School of Foreign Service and the Cling Family Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-China Studies at Georgetown University. He previously served for six years on the staff of the National Security Council as Director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia - and then as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asia. In the latter role, he served as President Obama's top advisor on the Asia-Pacific and was responsible for coordinating U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific across the areas of diplomacy, defense policy, economic policy, and intelligence. Prior to joining the White House, he worked for seven years as a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. From 2007-2008, he also served as policy advisor to Secretary Hank Paulson working on the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue at the Treasury Department.

Laura Rosenberger  is director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Before she joined GMF, she was foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America, where she coordinated development of the campaign’s national security policies, messaging, and strategy.  Prior to that, she served in a range of positions at the State Department and the White House’s National Security Council (NSC). As chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and earlier as then-Deputy National Security Advisor Blinken’s senior advisor, she counseled on the full range of national security policy. In her role at the NSC, she also managed the interagency Deputies Committee, the U.S. government’s senior-level interagency decision-making forum on our country’s most pressing national security issues.  She received her master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution from American University’s School of International Service, and received her bachelors’ degrees with honors from Penn State University’s Schreyer Honors College in sociology, psychology, and women’s studies.

Randall G. Schriver is Chairman of the Board at The Project 2049 Institute. Most recently, he served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs. Prior to his confirmation as Assistant Secretary, he was a founding partner of Armitage International LLC. He was also a founder of the Project 2049 Institute, and served as President and CEO. Previously, Mr. Schriver served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. From 2001 to 2003, he served as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of State. From 1994 to 1998, he worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, including as the senior official responsible for the day-to-day management of U.S. bilateral relations with the People's Liberation Army and the bilateral security and military relationships with Taiwan. Prior to his civilian service, he served as an active duty Navy Intelligence Officer from 1989 to 1991, including a deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. After active duty, he served in the Navy Reserves for nine years, including as Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an attaché at U.S. Embassy Beijing and U.S. Embassy Ulaanbaatar. Mr. Schriver received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Williams College and a Master of Arts degree from Harvard University.

Abraham M. Denmark is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He holds a joint appointment as a senior fellow at the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Prior to joining the Wilson Center, he served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia. Previously, he worked as senior vice president for political and security affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research. He was also a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and held several positions in the U.S. intelligence community. He has authored dozens of articles and edited several books on the Asia-Pacific and U.S. national security.

Keynote Speaker

Chen-wei Lin

CEO, Institute for National Defense and Security Research


Randy Schriver

Chairman, Project 2049 Institute
GEP - Laura Rosenberger

Laura Rosenberger

 Senior Director for China and Taiwan, National Security Council
Headshot of Evan Medeiros

Evan Medeiros

Penner Family Chair in Asian Studies and the Cling Family Senior Fellow in US-China Relations, Georgetown University

Hosted By

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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