Former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui sat down for an interview with Sankei Shimbun Yasuto Tanaka on November 17 to discuss what Donald Trump’s presidency means for East Asia and to reflect on President Tsai Ing-wen’s term to this point and offer his thoughts on what she needs to do be successful.
President Lee was the first Taiwanese president to be born on the island. He is known at home for realizing the democratization of Taiwan from within the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT), and in diplomatic matters for strengthening the standing of Taiwan among the international community.
On Donald Trump
[Editor’s note: Because this interview was conducted before President-elect Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai on December 2, the following comments do not consider the phone call or the attendant fallout]
Yasuto Tanaka: Republican Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election—what are your thoughts?
Lee Teng-hui: Because he has not been explicit about the direction in which he will take the United States, it is still not clear how the Asia-Pacific order will change. If America is going to take the road of isolationism, then, at the same time, Japan will become increasingly indispensable. On the diplomatic front, the United States, also, is expecting Japan to play a bigger role in Asia. Japan should understand this.
It appears as though the United States under the Obama administration was searching for a way to cooperate as a “new America” with an increasingly multipolar world. With the ascendancy of Trump, who is the champion of a revived “strong America,” it is not clear in which direction the United States will go. If we admit this uncertainty, then it becomes all the more important for Japan and Taiwan to work closely together.
[In Japan,] there has already been an authorization of the exercise of rights of collective self-defense, and the maintenance of the legal system of security guarantees has been advanced. If Trump is touting ‘America first-ism’, then Japan should take advantage of the opportunity and make constitutional reform a reality—a subject which Japan, until now, has been too bashful to broach with the United States.
Tanaka: What are the implications for Taiwan?
Lee: Mr. Trump has never said anything explicit about what his policy towards Taiwan will be, so at the present time that is not clear. It is not a mistaken approach for Taiwan to work with Japan and the United States in order to resist China.
On President Tsai Ing-wen
Tanaka: President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration will mark a half-year in office on November 20. What is your assessment of her so far?
Lee: I had high hopes for her, thinking that she was quite a capable person, but when I look at the recent state of affairs I can see where she is making mistakes. Her approval rating was at 69.9 percent in May but has sunk to 40.6 percent, and may continue to fall even lower.
Tanaka: The Tsai administration claims to be maintaining the status quo in its policy towards China—What does it mean to maintain the status quo? What does it signify that maintenance of the status quo is the goal of both the Democratic Progressive Party and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?
Lee: I don’t think she understands this. This policy is divorced from the way that the people of Taiwan think. This is precisely why her approval rating continues to drop. This is completely different from the reform of Taiwan. It is a way of thinking which fears China.
Taiwan is Taiwan, and China is China. In 1999, I told a German broadcasting company that the relationship between Taiwan and China is a special state-to-state relationship. Taiwan is not ‘Chinese territory’.
After I entered the presidential elections in 1988, I considered how to “normalize” the country by making Taiwan into an independent nation. The president is directly elected by the people. Since they elected me, I was obliged to normalize the country step by step. The reforms must be carried forward step by step, (including as to) whether the goal should be Taiwanese independence. We must respond to situations with the resolve to deal with whatever might happen between Taiwan and the CCP, even if this takes time. Tsai does not fully appreciate this.
Tanaka: Do you have any advice for the Tsai administration for handling the relationship with China?
Lee: She is going to put the Kuomintang (KMT) out of existence. To tell you the truth, I felt sorry for (KMT party chairperson) Hung Hsiu-chu when I watched her meet with Xi Jinping. The chairperson of the KMD, which had been so powerful in the past, goes to China and says nothing in response to “one China.” Well, I guess it is quite difficult for the KMT to get ahead. My view is that the KMT cannot survive in Taiwan.
Tanaka: The Tsai administration seems to be reorienting its foreign policy towards Southeast Asia as a way of freeing Taiwan from reliance on China.
Lee: This is called the “new southwards policy.” Me, I don’t understand what they hope to accomplish with this. During my time, under the “advance south policy,” we formed organizations of Taiwanese businesspeople everywhere and put a headquarters to this end in Taipei, doing all sorts of different things.
The fact is that Tsai should go visit those places, like the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. She hasn’t yet since she is still focused on domestic affairs. Is Taiwan able to offer something to Southeast Asia? If we don’t offer them anything, then we won’t get anywhere with them, no matter how much talking we do. The important thing is to develop along with them, while continuing to provide them with what we can offer.
Tanaka: The Tsai administration has said that it places a premium on its relationship with Japan. How do you evaluate this?
Lee: She must take care of the problem with the ban on importing products from Fukushima and the four neighboring prefectures. The relationship with Japan is of the highest importance but it’s growing entirely too tepid. It will deteriorate if the two countries drift apart.
Tsai says that the Senkaku Islands “belong to Taiwan.” Already, she is mistaken in saying just this. There are very many people in the Democratic Progressive Party who think as Tsai thinks. They have a baseless way of thinking which holds that the Senkaku Islands are a part of Yilan County (in northeastern Taiwan). However, I believe that the average people of both countries, beyond their leaders, have extremely close interactions.
Tanaka: If you were to give President Tsai advice about handling relations with Japan, what would it be?
Lee: Go meet with Prime Minister Abe. She must strengthen the relationship between Japan and Taiwan and think about how to change Taiwanese production.
Tanaka: What is your assessment of how she’s managed the domestic situation in Taiwan?
Lee: She is trying to do too much. Judicial reform has been half-hearted. The reform of the pension system is extremely complicated, and no concrete proposals have been made yet. She cannot make a resolute decision on the issue of workers’ holidays. This is not the way to win the admiration and devotion of the people. She is rather lacking in decisiveness and courage.
Tanaka: What does she need to do to improve?
Lee: She doesn’t have enough people. There is nobody who can really work. She has no subordinates who are willing to pitch in and give her their utmost effort. The Democratic Progressive Party is a factional gathering which is extremely complex. The question will be whether they can move forward in obedience to the orders she gives them.
Yasuto Tanaka is Taipei bureau chief for the Sankei Shimbun