Government & Military

Tsai Ing-Wen

The woman who thrust Taiwan back to the center of U.S.-China relations.

President, Republic of China (Taiwan)

The president of Taiwan had been on Beijing’s bad side even before she took office in May 2016. After all, Tsai Ing-wen leads the self-governing island’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); Beijing, which considers Taiwan an inviolable part of China, has long viewed the DPP as favoring independence from the mainland. In June, a Chinese diplomat announced that Beijing had suspended high-level communication mechanisms between Beijing and Taipei because of Tsai’s refusal in her inauguration speech to explicitly endorse the “one China principle,” enshrined in a 1992 consensus, that had allowed both Beijing and Taipei a face-saving way to claim that each speaks for all of China. A steady torrent of Chinese state-run media quickly issued forth that portrayed Tsai as nearly unhinged.

And that was before December 2016, when Tsai made a scheduled phone call to congratulate the U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Such direct contact between the Taiwanese and U.S. presidents had not happened since Washington and Beijing established diplomatic relations in 1979. It was a coup for Taiwan, which views U.S. support as a vital bulwark against the mainland. China was apoplectic at the breach of unspoken protocol, calling it a “little trick” of Tsai’s; Trump was first unapologetic, vowing to revisit the “One China principle,” before reversing course and recognizing the policy, which Beijing considers sacrosanct. Taiwan, once receding to the backburner, has leapt anew to the forefront of the U.S.-China relationship.

(Photo credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

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