In this year’s National Day address, I told the people of Taiwan that Taiwan is facing a complex regional landscape and unprecedented challenges. I’ve noticed that some international media reported on the Taiwanese people’s calmness and not becoming anxious in the face of challenges. I think this can be a good starting point for our conversation today:
The story of Taiwan is one of resilience. Recent PLA military activities have made people outside ask why Taiwanese people remain calm and business goes on as usual. It's not that Taiwanese people are not sensitive to the much intensified military activities of the PLA. In fact, we are calm but alert. It is because the Taiwanese people have never been short of challenges and crises, political or otherwise, in the past seven decades since the end of World War II.
For instance, the attempted Chinese military invasion of Kinmen in 1958, loss of UN membership and most of our diplomatic allies in the 1970s, 38 years of rule under martial law, the missile crisis in 1996, and the financial crisis in 1997. We also survived the SARS epidemic in 2003, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Taiwan has again and again come through challenges. At the same time, we have progressed from poverty to prosperity, and advanced from authoritarianism to democracy. The history of Taiwan tells us that if we are firm and believe in ourselves, we will definitely find our own path to survive and thrive. And this is the resilience of Taiwan.
While we are under increasing threats from China, our economy continues to grow at a very impressive rate and is rated by international institutions to be one of the most competitive economies in the world. We have a strong high-tech industry, a high-caliber and globalized workforce, and an open, transparent, and healthy market.
We have actually proven to the world that we are not only surviving well, we are also an indispensable part of the global economy and supply chain.
We want to be an active participant and a helpful force to the world; and of course, we need the support of the world for the continued survival and prosperity of Taiwan. Democracy and freedom is our way of life, and how we make friends and connect with the world.
We are faced with China’s military expansion in the Taiwan Strait and in the region every day. China has never abandoned its military ambition toward Taiwan. I want to emphasize that Taiwan will not bend to pressure, nor will it turn adventurist. But if our democracy and way of life are threatened, Taiwan will do whatever it takes to defend itself.
We will continue to increase our self-defense capabilities and asymmetric warfare capabilities as well. Taiwan is also prepared to work with regional actors to ensure regional peace, stability, and prosperous development.
However, a bigger challenge comes from the disinformation, infiltration, and other tactics deployed by external forces to polarize Taiwan’s society. This is a major challenge that Taiwan faces every day. As external forces attempt to use Taiwan’s democratic system to disrupt Taiwan’s democratic way of life, the Taiwanese people have become more aware and capable in responding to such corrosive behavior. We have experiences which we would like to share with other countries faced with such intrusions. However, I want to say that this challenge will not end soon. It will last as long as China’s ambition is there.
When authoritarian regimes demonstrate expansionist intentions, democratic countries should come together to safeguard their shared values. Taiwan stands on the front lines of the global democratic community.
Taiwan is also a secure and reliable partner in global supply chains, and a trustworthy partner in international trade.
Taiwan is situated in a critical position, as we all embark on the endeavor to protect our common interests and defend our shared values. I believe the world cannot do without Taiwan, a force for good.
Q: You said something at the temple yesterday. That democracy is messy but it is worth defending. And I thought that was really, really important, because here in Taiwan democracy is messy. People have brawls in the parliament. You are the opposite of that. You are just so prepared and precise. And yet you are defending this system at the time that it is truly under attack. What is your message to the world?
A: People have doubts about democratic systems, because sometimes it can create chaos and democratic institutions may not be as efficient as you want them to be. Democratic processes may be tedious, but the experience we have is that despite all of these things you want to be critical about, a democratic system is still the best.
Q: Do you feel democracy is under attack?
A: Here it is. Every day there are so many disinformation campaigns going on here. People carry out all these campaigns with different intentions. But essentially they want to disrupt the government.
Q: Where is disinformation coming from?
A: From all the sources, externally and internally.
Q: Is it from China? From mainland China?
A: Some of the attacks are from China.
Q: Do you think the purpose is to create doubt in your government?
A: Yes, and create doubt in democracy.
Q: You have one of the most free and open internet systems in the whole world. Does that make you more vulnerable to the source of these attacks?
A: To a certain extent, that is right. There is so much information flowing around on the internet, and people are so used to going on the internet to receive information to read news. Sometimes some information is not checked or confirmed by people with authority or credible people. If you are not fast enough to make clarifications or correct whatever mistake, you are concerned that people may be misled.
Q: Your government’s response to disinformation has not been to censor it or to shut down, but actually to become more transparent.
A: Yes, and this is what we have learned from the COVID-19 exercise. We set up a command center which gives a news brief every day. They have sat down and answered all of the questions from the press or the general public. They want to clarify everything that needs to be clarified so that people will not be misled.
問：一個2,300萬人口的小島如何抵禦一個15億人口、軍事花費是臺灣 15 倍的威權政體？
Q: How does a small island of 23 million people defend itself against one and a half billion people of an authoritarian regime that spends 15 times than what you do in defense?
A: I think the most important thing is the will of the people here and their belief in democracy. The will to defend our democratic freedom and democratic way of life. This is something all Taiwanese believe in, which is worthwhile defending.
Q: When you say people participate in the democratic process, do you mean enlisting in the military?
A: In every aspect. It is important for them to participate in the democratic process, so that they can get their voice heard. Their opinions matter in a democratic process. Also, if people have the will to defend Taiwan, many polls suggest that the younger generation think that they have an obligation to defend it as a soldier or as an important member of society, to defend Taiwan’s democracy.
Q: But you are phasing out conscription. Some have said that Taiwan will have to essentially be a garrison state and spend so much more on defense and actually engaging China in a sort of military escalation. You talked about the relaxed mood and the fact that Taiwan people are vigilant but they go on with their lives. Do you think the people of Taiwan are aware of what could happen if Beijing decided this is when they are taking back what they think is theirs?
A: But as I have said, we are not relaxed about the situation now. In fact, people are sensitive enough to know the seriousness of this threat. But we are calm and very alert to the situation. Because we have gone through so many challenges and crises in the past. People are generally very resilient now, and they believe in what we can do and believe in the values that are considered very valuable to us.
Q: Is Taiwan more safe today than it was when you became President in 2016?
A: Depending on how you define it. If it is the threat from China, it is increasing every day. But there is increasing awareness of the situation we are in. And a will is generating now that we will have to be more united and prepared to defend whatever we have now. This is important. You need people to know where we are—what we are in—and get prepared for whatever may happen in the future. Also, the international community now is more aware of the situation in Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait. We see more and more support from the international community, which is very important and encouraging to people in Taiwan. It makes them feel more confident. When we do what we can, the people outside will come to our aid.
Q: What is the role of the US?
A: The US has been our largest market for Taiwanese products. And almost our only source where we can acquire military weapons to defend ourselves. They also provide support to Taiwan so that we will be able to become an international actor or regional actor and less isolated.
Q: Does that support include sending some US service members to help to train Taiwanese troops?
A: Yes, we have a wide range of cooperation with the US aiming at increasing our defense capability.
Q: How many US service members are deployed in Taiwan right now?
A: Not as many as people thought.
Q: Is it a couple of dozen like the reports yesterday?
A: Let’s not be precise.
Q: The fact that this information got out, do you think it is helpful in your relationship with the mainland? Were you concerned then or now that it has been reported?
A: Well, there are a lot of reports, some are facts but some are not quite correct. You have so much information around. Decision makers who are responsible for making the right decision should not be affected by any single piece of information.
Q: The United States is looking for ways to try to expand Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations. Do you support those discussions? Would you like a greater role at the UN for Taiwan?
A: Of course, that has been a position that is supported by all the political parties here. We want to have an opportunity to be a meaningful participant in the UN system.
Q: Do you worry about what China’s reaction would be as you take these steps, as these doors are opened? Do you worry that there could be a backlash?
A: No. I think that it is a situation where we have expressed our hope that we want to be part of the UN system, and China has their story to tell, and it is for the international community to judge.
Q: When President Biden said last week that the US has the commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack, some have said that it takes away some of the impact of long-standing strategic ambiguity, which has helped maintain stability over the last decades. Did you have that concern when you heard those remarks?
A: People have different interpretations of what President Biden has said. But as I said, we are in the situation where your decision is not going to be based on a single piece of information—a decision must take into account all the situations and also all the factors, and then you make the right decision for your people.
Q: Do you have faith that the United States would defend Taiwan if the mainland were to try to move on Taiwan?
A: I do have faith given the long-term relationship that we have with the US, and also the support of the people of the US as well as the Congress and the administration, which has been very helpful.
Q: You are the leader of the island. As things stand, you said it is a priority to defend the island.
A: Let me tell you that if we have the will to defend ourselves and we put in all sorts of efforts, then we can defend ourselves. I think people would come to our aid, and that is a very important determining factor in deciding whether the PLA would succeed in its invasion.
Q: Does that include Japan, which is now putting missiles on an island near Taiwan, with troops to follow in the coming months?
A: Taiwan is not alone, because we are a democracy. We respect freedom. We are peace lovers. We share values with most of the countries in the region. Geographically, we are of strategic importance as well, so I think countries in the region have a common interest to make sure that Taiwan is safe.
Q: What happens if Taiwan’s democracy is taken over? What would be the consequences for not just Taiwan, but for the world at large?
A: First of all, for the region: the people in the region would be concerned that their own democracy is going to be ruined because they could see the situation in Taiwan. And also, people would be concerned whether they would be subjected to any source of constraint from external sources and therefore be unable to make decisions for themselves.
Q: You have actually written that Taiwan represents the fight of the future of democracy, and that it could actually change the world order depending on what happens here.
A: Yes. I think we are a beacon of some sort. Here 23 million people try hard every day to protect themselves and protect our democracy and make sure that people have the kind of freedom they deserve. This is what other people want to have as well. So, if we fail, that means that people that believe in these values would doubt whether these values are worth fighting for.
Q: What do you make of Xi Jinping?
A: Xi Jinping is the leader of a very large country. Unfortunately, it is not a democratic country, at least for the moment. It is not going to be an easy job to run a country of that size. But it is the leader’s decision as to what sort of system would be best for running a country of that size. But what is important also is the leader’s view as to what sort of relationship a country of that size wants to have with the rest of the region and the rest of the world. Does Xi want to have a peaceful relationship with everybody in the region or in the world? Or does Xi want to be in a dominant position so that everybody listens to him, listens to China, and does not necessarily like China? So, it is a matter of choice. I am sure many people would say, “We would like to have a peaceful relationship with the rest of the world and the rest of the region,” and that includes Taiwan.
Q: Are you interested in speaking with President Xi? Would you like to have more communication?
A: More communication would be helpful. That would reduce misunderstanding, avoid misunderstanding. We would be able to know each other better, and we have said it again and again that we want to have a dialogue with China, and this is the best way to avoid misunderstanding, miscalculation, and misjudgment in the management of cross-strait relations.
Q: Your predecessor did meet with President Xi. Why do you think the communication has really gone sour since 2016?
A: I think the situation has changed a lot, and China’s plan towards the region is very different from before. It is more ambitious, more expansionist, and therefore things that were acceptable to them then may not be acceptable to them now.
Q: What do you think it is going to take to get that communication line back open?
A: I think it requires the efforts of all the parties concerned, and we have said again and again that a dialogue is very important and that we want to have a peaceful relationship with China. Therefore, we would like to be patient, and so we have been maintaining the status quo as the core of our policy, meaning that we are patient. And we want to have a meaningful exchange with China so that we can together explore the possibilities of reducing the differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and hopefully, eventually, be able to find a path to resolve all these differences.
Q: Do you believe that the “one China policy” in any form would be acceptable for the people of Taiwan?
A: Well, there are all kinds of “one China policies.” The US has its own “one China policy,” but China has the “one China principle” as demonstrated in Hong Kong, and that makes “one country, two systems” meaningless.
Q: So, you don’t believe that China’s “one country, two systems” would actually be delivered here in Taiwan?
A: It is the issue of credibility, and the Taiwanese people have said clearly that they do not accept “one country, two systems” as the formula that can resolve cross-strait issues.
Q: And that was the key issue that caused you to win reelection by a large number. Now the tensions are escalating; you have military incursions and disinformation. What is your strategy to make sure Taiwan remains being Taiwan for the rest of your term and beyond?
A: We have to perform well with good governance, so that people will have faith in democracy. We have to be effective in running the country and get the economy going.
Q: Fastest growing in 2020.
A: Yes, that’s right, and this is exactly what we are trying to tell people—that a democratic country or government can be effective in addressing all sorts of difficulties that we are faced with. Secondly, we have to expedite our military reform, so that we have the ability to defend ourselves, given the size of Taiwan compared to the size of the PRC. Developing asymmetric capabilities is the key for us. Thirdly, I think what is most important is that we are faced with rapid global change, and therefore every country is facing the issue that some people cannot survive in the time of rapid change. As a result, you have to provide care and help these people. So, what I want to do in the next two and a half years is to continue with my effort to improve all the care systems so that elders and the disadvantaged and young people will be better taken care of, so that young people can have a social security net. With this in place, they can become more competitive and willing to try new things.
Q: You mentioned how Taiwan may not have a lot of formal diplomatic allies but does have a lot of friends, and you also have a lot who want chips made in Taiwan. How does the semiconductor industry factor into your goals in terms of getting support globally?
A: The semiconductor industry is the leading industry here. It represents the ability of Taiwan to produce products that are critical for global development. And that requires a good industrial base, good infrastructure, and abundant supplies of talent. On the one hand, the semiconductor industry has proven to the world that they are very important, and it also demonstrates what Taiwan can achieve, that we have a good industrial base and abundant supplies of talent.
Q: Do the tensions with the mainland threaten the supply chain in any way?
A: Yes, the threat is there, but it is still manageable at this moment. The world looks at the semiconductor industry as something they should help and protect. China must also consider that it also wants semiconductors from Taiwan.
Q: Do you ever think about the realistic possibility of war and that Taiwan would be the target?
A: Well, as a leader, you cannot exclude any possibilities. As a leader, you have to prepare for any contingency.
Q: So how prepared is Taiwan today?
A: We are making ourselves ready. We are trying to be stronger in every aspect, including military capabilities and getting international support, as well as sharing values with other countries so that they understand the importance of Taiwan.
Q: How are you preparing for the threats from climate change, and also difficulties with energy production?
A: This is a serious challenge for Taiwan as well as for other countries. Taiwan has a large industrial sector, which requires a lot of electricity supply and water. While we are making plans to meet the requirement of net zero by 2050, we also have to make sure industries have enough water and electricity supply to operate. So it is going to be a very difficult challenge for us, but we have to draw, refine, and execute a plan to meet these challenges. It is a matter of refining the plan and executing the plan at a speed that is required for us to meet the 2050 deadline.
Q: You are the leader of one of the most progressive societies in Asia. You support indigenous people and LGBTQ+ people. This is the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. What motivates your support of minorities and willingness to embrace their differences?
A: I have done all this with the help of young people because they believe in these values. They want to achieve this level of equality. When the DPP started this campaign for marriage equality, we were under a lot of pressure because people were against us for religious and other reasons. We almost had a political crisis. But it is the young people who are very persistent. They are the force behind me. Eventually we had the support of the grand justices, who issued a constitutional interpretation to tell people that this is what to do. And then we had a referendum that some saw as a defeat to us, but eventually we passed the legislation that provides marriage equality. It is a very difficult process, but looking back, I think it is worthwhile.
Q: When you look and think about your legacy, you still have plenty of time left, but when people look back at your two terms, what do you want them to most remember about your time as the leader of Taiwan?
A: I hope they will remember me as someone who makes utmost effort to protect this place, make this place more secure, more resilient, and people more united.
Q: Do you believe that you are moving closer to that goal now?
A: We are moving toward the that direction, and I hope we can move at a faster speed.
Q: As you do not have to worry about reelection, what is your biggest remaining goal that you have not done yet?
A: As to what I want to achieve as the President of this country, I have laid out a plan in 2016 when I became the President. We are implementing the plan and modifying the plan when necessary, so we are moving toward the plan. But we have to move faster to those goals. Essentially, I want to do the following: expedite our military reform so that we can better protect our country; and secondly, we want to make Taiwan better connected with the world, and therefore we want to make friends with shared values. We already have international support, a lot of support already, but we want more. Thirdly, I want to build a stronger consensus among our people here. Taiwan is an immigration society, people came to Taiwan in different times and have different memories from the past. The way we try to avoid the society being divided by external influence is to generate consensus here in a democratic way, so that people will be more united and resilient.
And as I said, we have to make sure that all our care systems are in place, so that we have a complete social safety net. The other thing on which we have to move faster is the energy area since we have the challenge of net zero by 2050, and therefore we have to move fast in that direction. We have to move fast in carbon emission reduction and carry out industrial restructuring and transition. And increase the ability to respond to natural disasters originating from climate change and extreme weather.
Essentially, making this place more resilient—in terms of the will of the people to overcome difficulties, the strength of our military and economy, and the resilience of infrastructure—is what I want to do for the rest of my term.
Q: Do you believe that it is possible for democratic Taiwan and authoritarian China to coexist peacefully, or does one side need to make concessions?
A: This is probably the most challenging issue for the people here in Taiwan and for people in China, or even for the people in the world. Although we have differences in political systems, we can still sit down and talk about our differences and make arrangements so that we would be able to coexist peacefully. I think it is the expectation of the people here, and I hope it is the expectation for the people in China, as well as people in the region.
Q: Do you have a message for Xi?
A: I would encourage him to have more dialogue with the government and the people here in Taiwan to get a better feel what it is like in Taiwan. And of course, we will do more to communicate with China.
Q: Any other message to your friends around the world? Or anything else that is important that you want to say?
A: The existence of Taiwan is very important to the region and to the world. While we are trying to make ourselves stronger to protect ourselves, we also need the help of the world. It is meaningful to support Taiwan.
Q: Why should the world care about Taiwan?
A: We need Taiwan to show that democracy works. We need Taiwan to show that with the help of the international community, even a small party can survive while under threat from a bigger party.
Q: How to modernize the military and build asymmetric capabilities? What are the specific steps to achieve that?
A: We are a smaller place than China, so we need to use our resources more efficiently. We are focusing on weapons that are mobile and lethal as well. This is an area of emphasis in our military reform. We have this military tradition, a system that was developed and inherited from China, which was designed to protect a big piece of land. And the way you protect a big piece of land is very different from protecting a small island. So we have to change the traditional thinking of how the military should be structured.
Q: I was reading something about the porcupine strategy…
A: That is the thought.
Q: Is Taiwan’s strategy to try to defend for a period of time until you get help from other countries?
A: We definitely want to defend ourselves as long as we can, but let me reiterate -- it is important that we have the support from our friends and also like-minded countries.
Q: Do you believe the US and Japan would come to Taiwan’s aid?
A: One way or another.
Q: Do you think we are caught up in an arms race in the region right now?
A: I think the best way to address this issue is for all the parties to sit down and talk about how we are going to deal with each other peacefully in this region.
Q: Would you like Taiwan to be the central part of that discussion?