Tsai Ing-wen, the leader who brought Taiwan closer to the US, bows out

<span>Outgoing Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, who became its first female president in 2016.</span><span>Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA</span>
Outgoing Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, who became its first female president in 2016.Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

In a riot of yellow braids, glitter and spandex, garnished with a huge yellow water lily, Taiwan’s latest global celebrity danced her heart out for the island’s diminutive, softly spoken president, whose mild manners belie her outsized legacy.

Tsai Ing-wen, 67, stepped down as Taiwan’s president on Monday. Before handing over the keys, on Wednesday she welcomed Taiwan’s most famous drag queen, Nymphia Wind, for a live performance in the presidential office. After sashaying to Lady Gaga’s Marry the Night, Nymphia Wind, who recently won the 16th season of the US reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, thanked Tsai for “all these years of making Taiwan the first in so many things”.

Tsai took office as the first female president in 2016. Since then, Taiwan has become the first place in Asia to legalise gay marriage. Government statistics suggest that it is doing better than anywhere else in Asia in terms of gender equality. Her first term saw increases in the minimum wage and a boost in funding for childcare.

But Tsai’s biggest legacy will be her cultivation of Taiwan’s rising prominence on the world stage, fostering closer relations with the US, even while losing formal diplomatic allies and navigating a tricky relationship with China.

In a social media post on Sunday evening, her final night as president, Tsai thanked Taiwan’s people for giving her eight years in office.

“I walked into the Presidential Office with the belief of reform,” she said.

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“Although there were many challenges and tests in the process, we have all witnessed Taiwan’s progress and changes under the belief of making the country better. Thank you all for working with me to create many firsts for Taiwan, allowing freedom, democracy, fairness, justice, respect and tolerance to take root in this land, writing history for Taiwan, and promoting the country’s overall development.

“I have said that my term will end on [20 May], but our country will continue to move forward. If I had to leave a message to Taiwan, I would say that I hope Taiwan is a united Taiwan.”

In January, Tsai helped see in an unprecedented third term for the Democratic Progressive party (DPP), the political outfit detested by Beijing that promotes a Taiwanese identity that is separate from China. The victory of her deputy, Lai Ching-te, who won 40% of the presidential vote, was seen as a sign of Tsai’s popularity as much as Lai’s.

Lai’s victory “was a vote of confidence in Tsai Ing-wen’s preservation of stability and the preservation of the status quo in the cross-strait relationship,” said Bonnie Glaser, the managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund, a thinktank.

As president, Tsai has walked Taiwan along a delicate tightrope of trying to maintain stable relations with Beijing while also bolstering the tiny island’s support from Washington. During her tenure, Taiwan has been labelled by some analysts as “the most dangerous place on earth”.

That is because the Chinese Communist party, which has never ruled Taiwan, claims it as part of its territory, and has vowed to “re-unify” it with China, using force if necessary (many in Taiwan reject the language of “re-unify”, pointing out that the Republic of China – Taiwan’s formal name - and the People’s Republic of China have never been unified in the first place). The US provides Taiwan with defensive arms, but refuses to explicitly confirm if it would come to its military defence in the event of a Chinese attack, a deliberately vague policy that is known as “strategic ambiguity”.

In recent years there have been growing concerns that China may attempt to annex Taiwan sooner rather than later, with some predictions falling within the next five years.

Under Tsai, Taiwan’s defence spending has increased by an average of nearly 5% a year and military conscription for men has been extended from four months to one year, although some experts believe that Taiwan is still underprepared for an attack.

At times, Tsai has been accused of provoking Beijing. Soon after she took office, China cut off diplomatic communications with Taiwan, saying it was because of Tsai’s refusal to endorse the idea that Taiwan and China are part of one country.

In 2022, Tsai welcomed a visit from the then speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, prompting outrage from Beijing and an unprecedented show of military force around Taiwanese waters and airspace.

Glaser said that Taiwan “paid a very high price for that visit, because the short-term warm feelings … were followed by such a robust reaction from China, that continues to this day”.

But in general, Glaser said, Tsai “has not been provocative … [she] signalled very early on that she wanted to preserve stability”.

Tsai’s defenders say that she has demonstrated a steely resilience in the face of an increasingly belligerent neighbour. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has made it clear that he sees resolving “the Taiwan question” as part of his legacy. The mandate of the incoming president, Lai, is to forestall Xi’s desired outcome. Tsai may be remembered for laying the groundwork for that to be possible.