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Opinion If you like betting on embattled underdogs, this leader is worth a look

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen listens to questions at Suao naval station, northeast of Taiwan, on April 13.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen listens to questions at Suao naval station, northeast of Taiwan, on April 13. (Chiang Ying-Ying/AP)
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TAIPEI, Taiwan

If you like betting on embattled underdogs, President Tsai Ing-wen is worth a look. She’s tempting the wrath of her powerful neighbor in mainland China by arguing that Taiwan must maintain its own open culture, democratic values and, yes, its sovereignty.

Tsai speaks the careful language of a Cornell University-educated lawyer. But her low-key message of self-determination makes her something of a rebel in an Asia where China’s autocratic President Xi Jinping is an increasingly dominant presence.

Tsai’s modest demand is to preserve the status quo in Taiwan — namely, the ambiguous formula that allows Taipei and Beijing to agree that there is one China, and that Taiwan is part of it, but allows them, while waiting for an eventual “peaceful settlement,” to go their semi-separate ways.

Like nearly every Taiwanese I met during a visit here this week, Tsai affirmed this “status quo.” Never has the bland phrase sounded so luminous. To the Taiwanese, it means freedom and a kind of quasi-independence, so that the island continues to benefit from its cultural and economic ties with a rising China but isn’t subjugated by Beijing’s authoritarian political system.

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Tsai describes herself as a “balancer” in a world where Taiwan is caught between two battling giants, China and the United States. She explains Taiwan’s dilemma: “China is here, and the U.S. is far away. When you have a big neighbor, you have a reality to face. People here like the U.S. because it’s a democracy and it’s affluent. On security issues, we work with democracies such as the U.S. And on trade, we still consider China an equally important partner.”

Not exactly revolutionary stuff, but as the trade war intensifies between Washington and Beijing, it’s getting harder for the pragmatic balancers to keep their footing. Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party have faced a barrage of criticism from Beijing since her election in 2016, including what her advisers say was a calculated effort to meddle in last month’s local elections, which Tsai’s party lost badly to a pro-Beijing slate.

Tsai blames that recent political defeat on domestic issues that “are not universally popular” — such as pension and labor-law reform, and same-sex marriage — rather than on the great game between Beijing and Washington.

The real political test will come in Taiwan’s 2020 presidential elections, when many predict Beijing will push for a more China-friendly government. Security officials here have prepared a detailed fact sheet showing how Beijing directs money, social media and political action to back pro-China candidates.

Argues Tsai: “People will be more mindful of Chinese influence [after last month’s local elections], and they will be more careful. This is a test of the maturity of Taiwanese democracy. This is about sovereignty, and whether we want to bow to China.”

Taiwan’s deeper problem is that U.S.-China engagement, launched by a 1972 communique and its ambiguous language on Taiwan, is giving way to a new strategic consensus that China and the United States are headed for “competitive coexistence,” as Jake Sullivan, Hillary Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser in 2016, describes it. My fear is that in this more combative world, typified by Tuesday’s news that the Trump administration will condemn China for its hacking and economic espionage, there may be less space for Taiwan’s straddle — and more pressure on Taipei to accept Beijing’s line.

A senior Taiwanese official explains what he fears is ahead: “Xi is a disciple of Sun Tzu’s line: to win a war without launching a battle. That is what Xi is trying to do with Taiwan. He’s aiming at a 2014 Crimea solution, by using hybrid tactics against Taiwan.”

What can the United States do to help Taiwan, whose plucky spirit is impossible not to admire? One thing is simply to pay more attention to the island, which exists in a kind of political netherworld. That was one purpose of the bipartisan trip here this week, organized by the German Marshall Fund and led by Sullivan, which I accompanied. (I’m a German Marshall Fund trustee.)

What else makes sense, if you’re betting on the underdog? The United States should think about signing a free-trade agreement with Taiwan, which could encourage other countries to do the same. Hopefully, China won’t seek a military confrontation. “I don’t think Xi is there yet,” said Tsai. “He thinks there are other ways to attain the same objective.”

Sometimes just treading water is the best strategy. As Tan Sun Chen, head of a government-linked think tank here called the Prospect Foundation, told us: “ ‘Status quo’ is a major word. It means we get to preserve our country. If we say ‘independence,’ that goes too far.” That sense of balance has allowed Taiwan to survive.

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