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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Taiwan Leader's Balancing Act

Jungsil Kim

May 20, 2016

Taiwan inaugurated its new president, Tsai Ing-wen, on Friday. She's Taiwan's first-ever female president, and she's promising to maintain peaceful and stable relations with China.

Tsai gave an inaugural address that appears to be aimed at placating Beijing, while also protecting democracy.

Giant balloons floated through the sky as people from different ethnic groups paraded through the streets of central Taipei. Organizers wanted to show that a feeling of solidarity is binding the island together as it enters a new era.

Crowds gathered in front of the Presidential Palace to listen to their new leader map out a way forward.

"I declare to the people of Taiwan, I'm deeply committed to putting forward a wide range of reforms to create a better future," Tsai told the crowd.

Younger people are increasingly rejecting the pro-China policies of the previous Nationalist government. They identify as Taiwanese, not Chinese.

It was these voters who helped force the Nationalists from power in January's elections, giving Tsai's camp a strong grip on the legislature.

"I hope Taiwan will take its own steps internationally," said one young Taiwanese woman. "Taiwan is not part of China. We are independent."

"We are facing a wide range of economic problems which I'm sure she'll address, including social inequality," said an older Taiwanese man.

Many of Tsai's supporters hope she can keep China's influence in check. But leaders in Beijing are pressing her to recognize that Taiwan and the mainland belong together as "One China." So right from the start, Tsai has a tricky balancing act to manage.

The new president made no mention of the "One China" policy as she began her term. But she did appear willing to appease mainland leaders.

"In 1992, the 2 sides met and arrived at some consensus," Tsai said. "It was done in a spirit of mutual understanding and seeking common ground, while setting aside differences. I respect this historical fact."

Tsai also says she'll seek closer ties with the US and Japan. She can expect close scrutiny from Beijing as she goes down that path.


Professor Yasuhiro Matsuda, an expert on relations between Taiwan and China at the University of Tokyo, joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: So as expected, she didn't mention the "One China" principle. How do you think the speech was seen from Bejing particularly?

Matsuda: Yes, Tsai took a very tough stance in her speech, rejecting many of the demands made by China. But I think Tsai met China's minimum request on this point, only saying that she would respect the historical fact that both sides had talks about the issue in 1992. She said the same thing in December and in January, and she didn't add any compromises this time.

Beppu: Still, I think there's a nuance here. You mentioned about the 1992 consensus here. But she didn't directly say about the consensus. In fact, she said it's like a historical fact. So what's the nuance here?

Matsuda: If she had used "1992 consensus," it would have been a recognition of the "One China" principle. Beijing and Taipei have different interpretations of the "1992 consensus." China's position is that the 2 sides agreed that Taiwan and the mainland belong to "one China". But the Nationalist party's position is that the 2 sides seek "One China" but with a different interpretation of what that means. DPP's position is that Taiwan is an independent nation, never seeking "One China." They are extremely different. Having said so, it's safe to say that Tsai wanted to show at least some kind of considerations to Beijing in the speech.


Pressure From Mainland China

Relations with China were a key issue in January's presidential election.

Chinese leaders see Tsai as favoring independence for Taiwan. Her Democratic Progressive Party pledges independence for Taiwan in its platform, and has not accepted the "One China" principle.

For Tsai's part, she pledged to keep the status quo with China but warned her neighbor not to pressure Taiwan.

"The outcome of the election was an expression of the people's popular will. Pressure will only wreck the stability between Beijing and Taipei," Tsai said.

China's premier has been pressuring Tsai to adhere to the "One China" principle.

"We are committed to the political foundation of 'One China' and will adamantly oppose any separatist activities for an independent Taiwan," Li Keqiang said.

Chinese authorities are showing moves to pressure Taiwan's incoming government.

After Tsai was elected president, Beijing established diplomatic relations with Gambia, in West Africa. It's one of the few African nations that has had diplomatic ties with Taipei -- ties which Gambia cut 3 years ago.

Sources in China's tourism industry say China is restricting the number of its outbound travelers to Taiwan.

"Usually, we have groups of more than 30 people. Now there are only about 20 or so," says one Chinese tour conductor.

The sources say Chinese authorities instructed travel agents to cut down on available applications for permits to visit Taiwan. And last week, China's government was pressuring Tsai again.

"Ties between China and Taiwan are now at an important milestone. The ball is in the hands of the person in charge of Taiwan's new government," said Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesperson for China's Taiwan Affairs Office.


Beppu: So Professor Matsuda, there were pressures here. But do you think here were any kind of behind-the-scenes negotiations between Chinese officials and Tsai Ing-wen before the speech?

Matsuda: I think there have been negotiations since around June of last year, or even earlier. This is what led to Tsai's comments about recognizing the historical facts of 1992. Still, she did not make new concessions.

Beppu: Hearing today's speech, what other points did you think were interesting?

Matsuda: I was impressed that Tsai referred to Taiwan as "this country" many times. I think that her speech sent a strong message about the future of Taiwan.

Shibuya: What do you think will happen to relations between Taiwan and China?

Matsuda: Well, the Chinese side was not pleased with the speech. Still, Beijing won't be able to exert more pressure because Tsai was very careful with her wording. Nationalism is on the rise in both Taiwan and China. The Taiwanese government is no longer under the Nationalist Party, which had acted as a buffer between China and Taiwan. So I think the relationship between the 2 sides will become unstable. Tsai said that Taiwan will be less dependent on the Chinese economy, and instead seek to deepen economic relations with other Asian counties and the United States.

Shibuya: How will Taiwan's ties with Japan and the US be affected?

Matsuda: Taiwan is trying to strengthen relations with both countries. It is especially interested in stronger security ties with them. It is also interested in economic agreements such as the TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think Taiwanese officials will first try to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Japan, in order to get quicker economic results.