For years, officials in Washington — which is legally bound to provide Taiwan with defense equipment and services — viewed Tsai with skepticism, if not outright concern.
Now, the political calculus may be shifting at a time when the United States is stepping up its global competition against Beijing.
Her Democratic Progressive Party does not recognize a “one-China” framework that Beijing considers inviolable, and it leans toward declaring formal independence from China — a provocative move that would potentially spark a devastating conflict that also pulls in the United States.
But the Washington of today — with a Trump administration staffed by China hawks in several key positions — has warmed to a woman who is anathema to Beijing.
And that, analysts say, may have been the message Tsai sought to convey when she sat down with CNN to portray her democratic island as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism.
“Her decision to tell CNN she was running for reelection baffled a lot of Taiwanese,” said Yen Chen-shen, a political analyst at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “But she was trying to get America’s support, and let Taiwanese know: America supports her.”
Taiwanese voters will have to choose between continuing with Tsai or backing one of several contenders from the Kuomintang opposition party, which seeks a detente with Beijing.
Since electing Tsai in 2016, the island of 24 million people has been caught in the vise of a Chinese economic and diplomatic pressure campaign designed to punish Tsai’s party.
Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the year with a significant speech that amounted to an ultimatum. Acknowledge there is only “one China” and come to the table for unification talks, Xi suggested, or wither.
Xi warned that China — which has an estimated 1,500 missiles pointed at Taiwan — prefers to peacefully absorb the island, which split from China amid civil war in 1949. But he said it would not rule out using military force.
Speaking to reporters last week, Tsai maintained that Taiwan wanted an “independent existence” and said it should seek allies abroad to counter its giant neighbor rather than appease it.
“We want a flourishing economy, we want security, but we also want democracy,” she said. “A president, aside from being responsible for maintaining the homeland’s security, also should push Taiwan toward the international world, and let generations of Taiwanese have the freedom of self-determination.”
Her pitch, however, may not get much traction.
Tsai’s party was dealt heavy defeats in local elections in November, and Tsai is lagging behind potential challengers who favor closer ties to China, according to opinion polls by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center and Shih Hsin University.
Her chief opponents are Eric Chu and Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT), and Ko Wen-je, the independent mayor of Taipei.
The KMT’s chair, Wu Den-yih, has said his party will seek a peace treaty with Beijing if it wins the presidency next January. Ko, the independent candidate, has urged Taiwan to not ruffle China’s feathers — or get too cozy with the United States.
A robber can’t go to the bank and steal money “without worrying about the police,” Ko said, in an apparent reference to Taiwan getting help from Washington.
Several candidates are beating a path to the U.S. capital, a traditional step for Taiwanese contenders to show they have American support. Ko, the independent, plans to visit Washington in March.
The KMT’s Chu took a whirlwind tour through California last week and is expected to later visit the East Coast. Another potential KMT candidate, former president Ma Ying-jeou, is to visit Washington in April.
But the United States appears to be “warming up to Tsai’s [party] because of its new competition policy toward China,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
U.S. officials don’t want the party “to start troubles, but they also think they might be a more willing partner to help challenge China,” Zhang added.
A month after his 2016 election win, President-elect Trump took a congratulatory call from Tsai, breaking with decades of diplomatic tradition that prevented direct contact between the leaders.
His administration also signed a bill last year allowing high-level U.S. officials to visit Taiwan. Days later, State Department official Alex Wong traveled to Taipei to deliver a speech that irked Beijing. Days after last November’s election in Taiwan, U.S. Navy warships steamed through the Taiwan Strait.
“There is more discussion in the government about Taiwan than ever before on a range of issues, from economic to defense to diplomatic,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. officials are open to deepening trade ties with Taiwan, although it’s not clear that Tsai has the domestic political capital to close deals, Glaser added.
Taiwan’s campaign season will play out under a cloud of high tension.
“China is getting impatient about lack of progress on Taiwan, and there are plenty of indicators of that, in the rhetorical arena but also in terms of ongoing military preparations and pressures put on Taiwan internationally,” said Jonathan Sullivan of Britain’s University of Nottingham.
Xi has expressed reluctance to let what he calls the “Taiwan problem” be “passed down from generation to generation” and has framed the assertion of Chinese territorial claims as central to his mission of restoring China’s national greatness.
The Chinese leader has ushered along a vast military modernization campaign aimed at taking Taiwan, encircled the island with bombers and ships in displays of force, and urged his commanders to prepare for combat.
U.S. defense intelligence officials said last month they were concerned that the Chinese military’s upgrades were approaching the point where its commanders may tell Xi that they are confident they could successfully invade Taiwan.
In an editorial last week, the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper warned Tsai against “wicked tricks” on the campaign trail — referring to the possibility that she might stoke pro-independence fervor to win votes.
“If she does, we have to respond and attack this kind of arrogant aggression,” the editorial said. “We have to work hard to increasingly establish boundaries on Taiwan’s electoral activities. As China’s power rises, we increasingly have the tools to do that, and we must dare to use those tools.”
An earlier version of this story omitted details of U.S. defense obligations to Taiwan.