New Taiwan president will try to square the circle

May 09, 2016 09:53
Tsai Ying-wen has said she will not declare independence nor provoke Beijing. Photo: Reuters

On May 20, Tsai Ying-wen takes office as the second president of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan since the end of Japanese rule in 1945.

Most of the 6.9 million who voted for her in January want the island to be, if not independent, separate from China and want her to stop or slow down the integration with the mainland that was the main result of the eight years of the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou.

For Tsai, this will be an enormous challenge, greater than for the last DPP president Chen Shui-bian, who took office with a similar mandate in 2000.

In those 16 years, the economic, military and diplomatic power of China has grown existentially.

Its military budget last year was US$147 billion, the second largest in the world, and 10 times the 2000 figure. So has its economic and diplomatic clout grown in the world.

One outcome has been Taiwan’s growing isolation – it has diplomatic relations with only 22 countries; most are ready to switch to Beijing which can offer more aid and loans.

Beijing excludes Taiwan not only from international political fora but also non-political ones, such as the steel committee of the OECD, because its members do not dare to offend China.

In addition, thanks in part to Ma’s policy – Taiwan’s economic dependence on the mainland has increased. It accounts for 40 percent of its tourists and 40 percent of its exports.

Now a new and even more dangerous threat has arisen – the election of President Donald Trump and a possible American retreat from Asia.

In late March, he told the New York Times that he would consider withdrawing the US from Japan and South Korea, the cornerstone of American policy in Asia since 1945.

Taiwan depends on the US for supply of advanced weapons; Beijing constantly calls for an end to these sales.

For the people of Taiwan, a Trump presidency raises the nightmare scenario – the US abandons it in the name of isolationism and in favor of its economic interests in the mainland.

Tsai faces her first test in the wording of the inauguration speech on May 20.

Last week the People’s Daily said that the 1992 consensus was the common political foundation for cross-straits ties.

Without it, the status quo would not exist and an "ice age for bilateral ties" and "cold peace" will follow, it said.

But former DPP prime minister Frank Hsieh, who is to be Taiwan’s top representative in Japan, said last week the DPP did not recognize this consensus.

Beijing holds many cards in its battle with the DPP. Diplomats say that Taipei only retained its 22 allies because Beijing allowed it as a favor to Ma and his pro-mainland policies.

In March this year, Beijing set up relations with Gambia, which had recognized Taiwan for 18 years. It was a warning of what it can do.

Another card it holds is the one million Taiwan people who are long-term residents of the mainland. It is the largest destination for overseas Taiwan investment.

According to figures from the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office, there were between 2000 and 2010 more than 28,000 disputes involving rights and interests of Taiwan investors, of which only 15 were resolved.

Taiwan people there are treated as mainland citizens, with no consular protection; in case of disputes, their government can do almost nothing to help them.

The recent sending of Taiwan people suspected of telephone fraud from Kenya to the mainland is evidence of Beijing extending its authority over them outside the national borders.

Against this power is the mandate which Tsai received from her electors – slow the integration with the mainland and prevent the "Hongkongization" of Taiwan.

In her favor is a long experience with cross-straits affairs and an intellectual personality different to that of Chen Shui-bian.

During her key visit to Washington last year after receiving the DPP nomination, she impressed officials of the US State Department and other agencies with her moderation and command of the issues.

She will not declare independence nor provoke Beijing.

She will work to maintain the status quo and not sign major agreements with the mainland, as the Ma government did.

She will seek to contain the hard-line elements within the DPP that wish, for example, to demolish the giant memorial to former leader Chiang Kai-shek in the center of Taipei and remove other symbols of his 30 years in power.

To balance the interests of her party and her electorate against the increasing impatience and ambition of Beijing is a task that would test King Solomon.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.