When Taiwan inaugurates Tsai Ing-wen as the self-ruled island’s first female president today, she’ll confront major challenges including navigating increasingly fractious relations with Beijing and rejuvenating the flagging economy.
Beijing has responded to the January election of Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party by intensifying pressure on Taiwan with military exercises, diplomatic moves and cross-border deportations and prosecutions. At home, Tsai faces an economy that has fallen into a recession as exports have dropped due to sluggish demand from China and elsewhere.
“The challenges are enormous and I think that she does not underestimate them,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. With declining economic growth and exports, “it is a difficult time, and China is not making it any easier, of course,” Glaser said.
Tsai’s election served as a resounding rejection by voters of the China-friendly party that has led Taiwan for eight years. The polls, which also gave the DPP its first parliamentary majority, were also seen as an expression of concern that the island’s economy is under threat from the Chinese mainland’s economic juggernaut.
Beijing has warned that delicate relations between the sides would be destabilized unless Tsai explicitly endorses Beijing’s stance that the island and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation, which it calls the “’92 Consensus.” Tsai has avoided doing so, but has promised not to pursue changes to the current status of de facto independence.
Tsai’s inauguration speech will be closely watched for remarks on relations with the mainland. Analysts say she’s unlikely to deliver any surprises, neither deliberately antagonizing Beijing nor wholly satisfying its demands.
“China’s got a wide range of retaliatory measures waiting for Taiwan,” said Alexander Huang, a strategic studies expert at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “I believe Dr. Tsai understands that and she will not step on the tripwire and cause trouble.”
Regardless, experts say, Beijing will continue asserting its demand that Tsai’s administration endorse its “one-China” principle and may take further action if the demand remains unmet.
“Since she won’t say exactly what Beijing wants to hear about the 1992 consensus, a testy admonition from the Chinese leadership is sure to follow,” said Professor John Ciorciari, a University of Michigan professor who follows Taiwan politics.
Zhu Weidong, deputy director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, depicts the stakes for Tsai more starkly: “It is impossible for the mainland to get along with a party or a leader that doesn’t recognize the one-China policy or seeks to split the country.”
Zhu and some other analysts predict that Beijing could cut existing exchanges and regular contacts between the sides if it is dissatisfied with the new administration’s policies toward cross-strait relations. That could send relations back to the tense situation that existed under the last DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, who was the target of relentless rhetorical attacks by Beijing.
“There will be no so-called cold peace, but will definitely be a fresh confrontation,” Zhu said. “In that case, the domestic and international situation for Taiwan will only get more and more difficult.”
Since Tsai’s election in January, China has made moves seen by analysts as cranking up the pressure. In March, China established formal diplomatic ties with the small African nation of Gambia, which had severed ties with Taiwan in 2013, ending the undeclared diplomatic truce between the sides that had endured for almost eight years.
The sides split amid civil war in 1949 and China has long sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically by preventing it from maintaining formal ties with most countries or membership in international organizations such as the United Nations. The timing of China’s diplomatic move with Gambia sparked speculation that it was possible retaliation over the election.
In the past several weeks, China has pressured Kenya and Malaysia to deport Taiwanese fraud suspects to the mainland for prosecution, moves that Taiwan’s government has protested. Some saw the deportations as China’s move to assert its claim to sovereignty over the island, but Beijing says they’re necessary in order to deal with criminal suspects targeting its own citizens.
In the same vein, China has sought to marginalize Taiwan’s participation in international arenas. In April, a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s steel committee ejected a Taiwanese delegation after China complained.
The most immediate indication of China’s approach to the Tsai administration will come days after her inauguration, when Taiwanese observers are due to attend the U.N. World Health Organization’s annual World Health Assembly in Geneva. China has said Taiwan’s participation is dependent on its recognition of the ‘92 consensus.
“If Tsai fails to recognize the ‘92 consensus and one-China principle, there will be no room left for Taiwan’s diplomacy,” said Li Fei, deputy director of the Taiwan Research Institute of China’s Xiamen University.
Relations with China also play into Tsai’s challenges in revitalizing the Taiwanese economy, which is heavily dependent on trade with the mainland.
Tsai is going to try to “maintain a modicum of normal relations with the other side and hope that she can convince the Chinese to limit the harm that they may inflict on Taiwan’s economy,” Glaser said.
By taking a hard line, the Chinese government risks further alienating the Taiwanese public, who already feel bullied by China and deprived of their due place in international society.
Sean King, senior vice president with consulting firm Park Strategies in New York and Taipei, said, “In some ways, Beijing’s hard line only reaffirms for many Taiwanese their choice to have voted for Tsai.
“Taiwanese want to peacefully coexist with mainland China, travel and do business there, but don’t see themselves as part of it,” King said. Gillian Wong, Beijing, AP