Taiwan’s new independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen tread carefully around the thorny issue of relations with China in her inaugural address Friday, emphasizing the importance of two decades of growing exchanges without mentioning the one-China policy fundamental to Beijing.
Tsai said in her speech that she respected the “joint acknowledgements and understandings” reached between the sides at a landmark 1992 meeting seen by China as underpinning all subsequent contacts and agreements. Taiwan, AP/UNB News Reported.
However, Tsai made no explicit mention of the concept that Taiwan is a part of China. Beijing claims the self-governing island as its own territory and says failing to endorse the one-China policy would destabilize relations.
Tsai called for Taipei and Beijing to “set aside the baggage of history, and engage in positive dialogue, for the benefit of the people on both sides.”
She said her administration would “work to maintain peace and stability” in relations between the sides. However, she added that Taiwan’s democratic system and the will of its 23 million people must be respected in the course of cross-strait dialogue.
The government of Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou repeatedly endorsed the one-China principle and what China calls the “’92 consensus.” During its eight years in power, Ma’s government reached a series of economic and civil agreements significantly increasing interactions between the two sides.
China maintains that Taiwan must unify with the mainland eventually, by force if necessary. However, Taiwanese public opinion is strongly against any sort of political union, instead favoring the status of de facto independence and robust social and economic interactions.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has said the issue of unification cannot be put off indefinitely and China’s military has conducted saber-rattling war games in recent days along the coastline facing Taiwan.
Without saying the term “92 consensus,” Tsai acknowledged the breakthrough importance of that year’s meeting after decades of bitter enmity dating from the civil war that split the island and the mainland in 1949.
“It was done in a spirit of mutual understanding and a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences. I respect this historical fact,” Tsai said.
A key element of the meeting was the “joint acknowledgement of setting aside differences to seek common ground,” Tsai said. That interpretation clashes with China’s insistence that the gathering’s most important outcome was a common acknowledgement that China and Taiwan are a single Chinese nation.
Tsai is Taiwan’s first female president and the first woman elected as head of state in Asia not related to a prominent male politician.
Much of her speech focused on reviving Taiwan’s high-tech, export-oriented economy, which is now in recession, and increasing opportunities for young people who largely blame Chinese competition for shrinking the pool of well-paying jobs. Strengthening the social safety net, educational reform and environmental protection were also themes.
Tsai’s inauguration was festive, with bands, folk artists and cheerleaders from Taiwan and abroad. Presentations on Taiwan’s history emphasized its original Austronesian aboriginal inhabitants and touched on Dutch and Japanese colonialism.
One segment took on a politically charged event, depicting the 1947 massacre of Taiwanese intellectuals by Nationalist troops from mainland China, an event that fuels nativist sentiments on the island. Actors portraying executed political prisoners fell to the ground in the plaza in front of the Presidential Office Building.
While Tsai faces challenges on several fronts, she will be aided by the DPP’s commanding majority in Taiwan’s parliament. The party’s landslide victory in the January polls was seen as a keen expression of concern that the island’s economy is under threat from the mainland’s economic juggernaut.
While Taiwan’s Nationalists favor unification, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party advocates formally establishing Taiwan as an independent nation.
China’s government had no immediate comment on Tsai’s speech, although officials there have said repeatedly that Beijing would be displeased if she failed to explicitly mention the one-China policy and “’92 consensus.”
Tsai’s omission of the two phrases will leave Beijing dissatisfied, although nor did she deliberately provoke Beijing by referring to Taiwan as an independent sovereign nation, said Li Fei, deputy director of the Taiwan Research Institute at China’s Xiamen University.
“This is a speech that can be accepted by the international community and endured by the mainland,” Li said, adding that Beijing will be watching what Tsai does in coming days as she forms her administration.
China has multiple ways of registering its dissatisfaction, including cutting exchanges and regular contacts, tightening the island’s diplomat isolation and barring Chinese tourists from visiting the island.
After Tsai’s election, China established formal diplomatic ties with the small African nation of Gambia, which had severed ties with Taiwan in 2013, ending an undeclared diplomatic truce between the sides that lasted almost eight years.
China may also block Taiwanese observers from attending the U.N. World Health Organization’s annual World Health Assembly in Geneva next week.
Taiwanese political scientist Shane Lee said he expected China to react, although not too strongly.
China will continue to “have a bit of this and that around the world
to make sure the new government gets the message China is not that happy,” said Lee, who teaches at Chang Jung Christian University in the southern city of Tainan.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said Beijing will see Tsai’s remarks as “continuing to be ambiguous.”
“You could read into it whatever you want to read into it,” Glaser said. “My guess is that the Chinese will choose to see this as insufficient.”