KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — Tsai Ing-wen is on the move. The presidential front-runner steps off a train, scoots up an escalator and cruises down the stairs to her motorcade, leaving a gaggle of guards in her wake.
It’s days until Taiwan’s Jan. 16 election, the final stretch of a presidential race that she’s dominated from the start, a race that has left the ruling party scrambling — a race that she will probably win.
If she does, she will become Taiwan’s first female president, making history and taking her place at the heart of East Asian affairs as Taiwan, the United States and the rest of the world grapple with China under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
How does that feel?
Her car zooms forward.
“Okay,” she says.
Steely calm is part of what propelled the bookish former trade negotiator, 59, to the top of Taiwanese politics — but it also has sparked worry in Taipei, Washington and Beijing.
Her supporters in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which has traditionally leaned toward independence, appreciate her understated manner, trusting the woman they call “Dr. Tsai” (she has a PhD) or “Little Ing” (an affectionate nickname), to revitalize the economy and maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
To the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), Tsai’s “status quo” platform is alarmingly vague. President Ma Ying-jeou made closer China ties a cornerstone, opening flights, tourism and trade. In November, he met Xi in Singapore, the first such meeting since the end of the Chinese Civil War more than six decades ago. They insinuate that a vote for Tsai is a threat to cross-strait peace.
Washington is not sure what to think. The United States and Taiwan are old friends and unofficial allies.
But the United States also wants to engage China and has been wary of anything, or anyone, that might rock the boat.
When Tsai first ran for president in 2012, she was brushed aside by Washington. Now, with China ties cooling and a U.S. election around the corner, she may get a warmer welcome.
That won’t please the People’s Republic. China’s ruling Communist Party still insists that Taiwan, a thriving democracy, is the province that got away. It wants Tsai to come around to the idea of “one China,” a framework, negotiated in 1992, that allows both sides to recognize that there is one China without specifying what that means.
Failure to do so could lead to a collapse in ties, a Chinese official warned last month. “The ship of cross-strait peaceful development will encounter terrifying waves or could even capsize,” he said.
On her way to a speech at a temple last week, reviewing cue cards tucked in the palm of her hand, Tsai played down Beijing’s bluster. “So far, they are calm, but in a campaign, you don’t rule out any possibilities; we are very careful about this,” she said.
In Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, authoritarian China plays a complicated role — as Tsai well knows.
After completing her doctorate at the London School of Economics and working in trade, she cut her teeth on Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. Her 2012 presidential bid focused on bread-and-butter issues instead of Beijing.
That strategy may have cost her the presidency in 2012, but it seems to be working now. Hours after speeding through Kaohsiung, Tsai addressed a crowd of thousands in the city of Pingtung without once mentioning China or Beijing.
Under Ma, the KMT made cross-strait ties the priority, promising that closer political and economic links would bolster Taiwan’s economic prospects. In a Nov. 17 interview with The Washington Post, the party’s presidential candidate, Eric Chu, stood by that program: “On cross-straits, we did the right thing,” he said.
“The Sunflower Movement was, in a way, about the nature of the relationship with China, about things going too far and too fast,” said William A. Stanton, a career diplomat who served as de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan from 2009 to 2012 and now heads the Center for Asia Policy at Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University.
It was also about quality of life and social justice, Stanton said. “Tsai, from an election point of view, is emphasizing the issues that are most important to people: How am I going to rent a house? Where am I going to get a job?”
There is a sense in both camps that to enliven the economy, Taiwan must lessen its dependence on Beijing. “China’s economy is becoming competitive, not complementary, to ours,” said Lin Chuan, a former finance minister who is now a close adviser to Tsai.
The prospect of a Tsai presidency raises interesting questions for Washington.
In its early efforts to engage China, the Obama White House benefited from Ma’s policy of rapprochement.
When Tsai visited Washington in the run-up to the 2012 polls, she got burned. An unnamed Obama administration source took concerns about her to the Financial Times, telling the paper there were “distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations.”
She has since made a major effort to improve her standing stateside. In a six-city tour last summer, she explained her platform in private meetings, a commentary in the Wall Street Journal and a closely watched foreign policy speech. “People in Washington, D.C., had more time to sit down with me this time,” she said.
It helps that the White House is more ready to listen.
“Back in 2012, most people in Washington were willing to give China the benefit of the doubt,” said J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and a senior officer at Tsai’s Thinking Taiwan Foundation.
“Fast-forward four years, you’ve got the South China Sea, a crackdown on civil liberties, publishers going missing, the tone in Washington has changed and that inevitably makes them much more receptive to a Taiwan that wants to position itself as distinct,” he said.
The wild card: Beijing.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about how Xi Jinping will handle Tsai Ing-wen,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In meetings with foreign counterparts, Chinese officials warn of consequences if Tsai wins, Glaser said.
Yet Beijing seems to be holding its rhetorical fire, steering clear of direct public attacks on her. “I think the Chinese are leaving some doors open,” said Stanton, the former diplomat.
As her motorcade pulled up to the temple and the crowd cheered for Little Ing, she seemed focused on taking things step by step: get out the vote, win a majority, get a team ready.
“After all the excitement during the campaign, of course the first thing we want is to get people to calm down,” she said.
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.