Experts are predicting a bumpy start to Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency as Taiwan’s new head of state — the first female head of an ethnic Chinese territory — squares up to the mainland. Fifty-nine year old Tsai, who won a landslide victory in January on a platform of boosting Taiwan’s separate identity from China, takes office Friday.
Tsai has said she will not seek to provoke Beijing — but China is deeply suspicious of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which until the 1990s publicly called for formal independence from the mainland. Beijing has said it would use force if Taiwan formally declared itself an independent state.
Beijing has claimed the island as part of its territory since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) fled there after losing China’s civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
After her election victory, Tsai promised to “maintain the status quo for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “ensure that no provocation or accidents take place.” But the former legal scholar, a graduate of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, also pledged to “defend Taiwan’s sovereignty,” and called for respect for the island’s “national identity and international space.”
That’s not an idea that goes down well with Beijing, which insists that any country it has diplomatic relations with cannot maintain formal ties with Taiwan. Subsequently, the island only has 21 diplomatic partners.
In recent days, Beijing has staged war games, including a simulated coastal landing exercise, off its south-eastern close, opposite Taiwan. Chinese officials said these were routine operations, but few in Taiwan doubt who they were aimed at. And one Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, recently published a survey showing that 85 percent of readers wanted reunification by force, preferably within five years.
“China has signaled that it will play hardball over Taiwan’s international space, and we’ve already seen a end to the diplomatic truce. The [country] won’t give Tsai an easy time,” Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, and former head of the French Research Centre on Contemporary China in Taipei, told International Business Times.
Cabestan said it marked a stark contrast with the era of outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou, a KMT stalwart who confirmed his party’s rapprochement with China’s Communists by negotiating a series of trade agreements, opening direct air and sea links for the first time since 1949, and even holding historic talks with China’s President Xi Jinping in November – the first meeting between the heads of the two sides since the end of the civil war.
Taiwan accuses China of abducting citizens Beijing is likely to put pressure on Tsai to express support for the “1992 consensus,” which forms the basis of China’s improved relations with the KMT in recent years, Cabestan suggested. The consensus refers to a meeting between representatives of the two sides at which they effectively agreed that Taiwan was and would remain a part of China, even if each side had a different definition of which party or government was the rightful one. This tacit understanding was seen as a guarantee that the island would not declare formal independence.
For Tsai to officially endorse the consensus, as Beijing has demanded, is not possible, experts say, as it would go against her party’s 1999 resolution that Taiwan is a separate nation-state. But Tsai has made some compromises in recent months, acknowledging the 1992 talks took place, Cabestan said – and he suggested she would try to choose a form of words in her inauguration speech that would not upset Beijing.
“She has established some channels of communication with China,” he said. “Intermediaries have informed Beijing of the wording of her inauguration speech.
And while Tsai served in government during the previous DPP presidency, from 2000-2008, a time of frosty relations with China, observers note that she did not push for independence during that period.
Tsai Ing-wen According to Cabestan, pragmatism is now the order of the day since economic ties between the island off China’s southeastern coast and the mainland are now so close that frosty pragmatism is more likely than outright confrontation.
“The DPP now is very different from in 2000,” he said, “it’s much more aware of the constraints, including economic dependence on China. They have to maintain stable relations with China. And Tsai’s political appointments so far show that the economy is a priority,” he said.
With trade between the two sides now worth an estimated $200 billion a year, and around a million Taiwanese people working on the mainland, even DPP officials from the island’s traditionally pro-independence south have personal links with the mainland, enabling Tsai to maintain party consensus for a pragmatic approach to China.
Nevertheless, the new administration is likely to seek to shift the island’s economic focus away from the mainland.
“Tsai will try her utmost to reduce economic dependency on China,” Cabestan suggested, with attempts to join the U.S. backed Trans Pacific Partnership trade group, and plans to bring more investment into Taiwan’s high technology industry, some of which has shifted to China in recent years. Rising labor costs in China could also encourage the return of some industry to Taiwan – while the government is also seeking to pass a free trade agreement with Japan. And Cabestan said Tsai may also seek to redraft a controversial service trade agreement with China – drawn up in 2013 but never passed, after public protests against it.
Beijing’s response, according to a number of observers, may be to downgrade regular meetings between the two sides from ministerial level to working level discussions, as during the previous DPP administration. There have also been predictions that China could ban mainland tour groups from visiting the island – some four million mainland visitors now visit Taiwan every year – to show its dissatisfaction.
But, as long as Tsai did not cross the red line of declaring formal independence, China is likely to keep this card in reserve, Cabestan said. Beijing is distracted by a host of other issues, such as tension with the U.S. in the South China Sea, and with Japan in the East China Sea. With Beijing aware that an overtly harsh line on Taiwan is likely to alienate many on the island, Chinese leadership is likely to be cautious : in the run up to the election in January, many Taiwanese voters decided to back Tsai following a controversy over a mainland performance ban on a teenage Taiwanese pop singer who was photographed with a Taiwanese flag. The Global Times, which published the poll showing public support for military action against Taiwan, was reportedly criticized by the central government.
South China Sea One Chinese expert on Taiwan, Liu Guoshen, dean of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, said, when Tsai was elected, “If she acts in a pragmatic way and seeks more common ground with the mainland, cross-straits relations will be likely to proceed.”
Cabestan said Beijing was more likely to use an “incremental strategy” to “make Taiwan more dependent on China, more linked to China, both economically and culturally.”
At the same time, he said, China would seek to emphasize that electing a KMT president in the island’s next elections in 2020 would guarantee a more stable future:
“Their strategy is to make sure that Tsai won’t be re-elected in four years’ time,” he said. “They want the KMT back in power. So they won’t give her any [diplomatic] gifts, they will keep pressure on – and they’ll stick by the KMT in the hope it will become credible again.”
It’s a strategy that may require a subtle approach from Beijing to succeed – with even KMT voters less than keen to reunify with a Communist China.
“They know they can’t threaten too much,” Cabestan said. ‘They want to win over and reach out to a lot of people in Taiwan society, such as the middle class. And for that they need to negotiate a fine line between criticizing Tsai and trying to weaken the DPP administration – and trying to win over more people to their side.”
Given the contradiction between likely moves by Tsai to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on China, and Beijing’s desire to encourage precisely the opposite, most observers say some tensions are inevitable under the new administration.
But Wu Jieh-min of the Academia Sinica in Taipei told IBT recently that he was “positive that there will be no imminent crisis, for tourism, trade or investment between the two sides.”
According to Cabestan, relations across the Taiwan straits will be “much more bumpy” than under Ma Ying-jeou, but not as bad as the decade that preceded his leadership.
Nevertheless, 67 years after the end of their civil war, the two sides are once again likely to find their diplomatic skills put to the test in the coming years.