BEIJING — Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in as Taiwan’s first female president on Friday and she called for economic revitalization at home and alluded, briefly and carefully, to the challenge of dealing with Beijing.
Taiwan’s new president faces a tough task: balancing the demands of the Taiwanese people who elected her and the realities of regional politics. Addressing a crowd of local supporters and guests from 59 countries, Tsai hinted at the challenges ahead. “The path forward is not a smooth one,” she said.
Despite the fact that Taiwan is a vibrant, thriving democracy, China’s ruling Communist Party still insists it is the province that got away.
Beijing wants Tsai to accept 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. Beijing calls this the 1992 “consensus,” but many Tsai supporters deny consensus was reached.
In her closely-watched speech, Tsai took a cautious line, saying that she “respects” the 1992 meetings as “historical fact,” but not venturing further — a strategy unlikely to satisfy Beijing.
What was perhaps most striking about Tsai’s speech was its focus on domestic issues over geopolitical concerns.
This makes sense. Tsai was elected in February following a year-long campaign bolstered by the near-implosion of the outgoing Kuomintang (KMT) government led by Ma Ying-jeou, whose policy of cross-strait rapprochement failed to deliver sustained economic benefit and alienated many Taiwanese.
In her remarks, Tsai put Taiwan and Taiwan’s economy front and center, promising to pursue multilateral and bilateral trade relations rather than focusing on a single market — she means China — as Taiwan has done in the past. She also vowed to protect labor rights, raise wages and protect the environment — calls that should resonate well with the people who elected her.
Moving forward, the new president will need to tread carefully, balancing her plans for economic revival and the always-present questions of ties to China and, to a lesser degree, the U.S.
Tsai, a U.S. and UK-educated former trade negotiator, campaigned on bread and butter issues and has promised to revitalize Taiwan’s economy. To please voters, that’s what she will need to do.
But Taiwan’s economic picture is complicated — GDP is shrinking, for one — and often constrained by international affairs.
Tsai’s rise was powered to some extent by the 2014 Sunflower movement. In March of that year, anger over how the government was handling a trade pact with China boiled over into the occupation of Taiwan’s legislature. Long after they were dispersed, their call for greater transparency and autonomy lingered, setting the stage for Tsai’s successful campaign.
Many young people are worried about the future. They argue that eight years of rapprochement did little to create good jobs or make housing more affordable. They want the island’s economy to be thriving but more independent and are wary of any policy that ties Taiwan’s fate to people or policies across the strait.
Tsai’s approach on this will be tested quickly. The first item on the legislative agenda is a “supervisory” bill that requires Taiwan’s government to get legislative go-ahead before, during and after talks with Beijing. Under the proposed rules, they can’t sign agreements with the People’s Republic without all three stages of approval.
The legislation is seen by Tsai’s supporters as the antidote to what they saw as a closed-door approach to cross-strait policy. But the bill has already been criticized by Taiwanese business groups and by Beijing. In March, Chinese officials said the People’s Republic would “resolutely oppose” any plan to “put up man-made blocks.”
The new president will then need to decide how to proceed on the trade pact that sparked the 2012 protests in the first place — a delicate question for a trade buff who needs to bolster the economy without alienating supporters on the left.
Washington and Beijing will be watching her early moves closely.
The U.S. and Taiwan are old friends and unofficial allies. But the U.S. also want and needs to engage China. Over the last eight years, Washington has been wary of anything that might rock the boat.
When Tsai campaigned for president in 2012, she was brushed aside by the White House. She has since pushed hard to ease fears stateside, reiterating her cross-strait “status quo” stance. With Sino-U.S. ties cooling and a presidential election in the U.S., she may get a warmer welcome going forward.
China, though, has been anything but welcoming. The Chinese side uses several different strategies to signal its displeasure and over the course of the campaign they made their skepticism more than clear warning, again and again, about the consequences of moves they don’t like.
In recent weeks, China pressured both Kenya and Malaysia to deport Taiwanese suspects in fraud cases to the Chinese mainland, a move that many saw as a move to assert sovereignty, but Beijing insisted was a matter of due course.
China has also taken steps to curb Taiwan’s participation in international affairs. In March, China established formal diplomatic ties with Gambia, ending an eight year old, informal “diplomatic truce.” In April, Taiwan’s delegation to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s steel committee was given the boot after China complained.
And there could be a similar showdown at the upcoming World Health Organization’s annual summit in Geneva, where Taiwanese observers are supposed to attend. China has said their participation is predicated on Tsai acknowledging the 1992 consensus — meaning they may well be excluded.
Beijing this week held large-scale war games on its Taiwan-facing coast.
Chinese officials and academics have also warned, repeatedly if vaguely, of an economic toll should Tsai refuses to fall in line.
Wang Jianmin, a research fellow with the Taiwan Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said a return to the kind of “frosty” cross-strait ties of the past would “constrain economic development,” leaving Tsai’s government “doomed to fail.”
However, there are doubts if Beijing will move beyond rhetoric, war games and the diplomatic dance. China sees Taiwan as an integral part of its territory and aims to “reunify.” As such, they have an interest in deepening, not destroying, ties to Taiwan’s business community, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist from Hong Kong’s Baptist University.
“China’s strategy is not to make Taiwan more isolated from China, but more dependent on China. They have to walk a fine line there,” he said.
Indeed, while China’s foreign ministry and Party-controlled papers cast cross-strait relations as something to be won or lost by Taipei, many China-Taiwan watchers see Beijing, not Taipei, as the wild card right now.
They emphasize that Tsai has been consistent on the question of cross-strait ties sticking with her “status quo” formulation through the campaign, her election, and the inauguration, while Beijing has been less clear, publicly, about how it plans to proceed.
“It’s the mainland that established relations with Gambia, it’s the mainland that arrested Taiwanese in Malaysia … and it’s China that has been issuing rhetorical threats,” 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.
“What happens next is going to depend on China.”
Liu Liu reported from Beijing.