Emboldened by her convincing election victory on 11 January, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen has called for “respect” from China, arguing that Beijing must accept her country’s independence. “We don’t have the need to declare ourselves an independent state, we are an independent country already,” she said in an interview with the BBC. “We call ourselves the Republic of China (Taiwan), we have a government, we have a military, and we have elections.” Tsai focused much of her election campaign on Chinese threats to Taiwanese sovereignty, championing a new law designed to prevent political interference by mainland operatives and casting her opponent, Han Kuo-Yu, as a Beijing sympathiser. The landslide election win has been widely perceived as a vindication of Tsai’s assertive stance, and her latest comments indicate that her electoral mandate has liberated her to speak more bluntly on cross-strait relations.
Just one year ago, in his first major speech on Taiwan, Xi Jinping emphatically declared the necessity of reunification, and although the election results – alongside Tsai’s proclamations – represent a serious setback to his ambitions, China appears set to double-down on its approach. In the aftermath of the election, Beijing readily reaffirmed the ‘One China’ policy, and analysts at the Lowy Institute argue that the “most likely scenario” is that China will “continue, and intensify, its aggressive behaviour towards Taiwan.” Moreover, Chinese media outlets have sought to delegitimise the election results. Xinhua, for example, has made unfounded allegations that Tsai used “dirty tricks” including vote-buying, and has levelled vague accusations against “Western political forces” for manipulating the electoral process in the island nation.
Bold as it may be, Tsai’s declaration is part of a delicate balancing act of resisting Chinese interference without escalating tensions. Critics have suggested that her latest comments are needlessly provocative, but at a time where Beijing is increasingly seeking to assert its authority throughout ‘Greater China’ – be that on the streets of Hong Kong or Taipei – the imperative for Taiwan to forge its own path is clear. By rejecting the ‘One China’ policy favoured by both Beijing and the Kuomintang (Taiwan’s main opposition party), Tsai has forestalled the prospect of formal reunification under ‘One Country, Two Systems.’ In addition, she has also sought to reduce the country’s reliance on the mainland by diversifying its economic and trade ties, a welcome move that complicates Beijing’s hopes for ‘reunification by stealth’ through facilitating economic dependency. At the same time, Tsai’s assertion that a declaration of independence is unnecessary – whilst disheartening to nationalists in her own party, and to the quarter of the Taiwanese population that would support such a move – is also wise. Xi has repeatedly warned that such an announcement would trigger a military response, and potentially lead to a full-scale invasion of the island.
Since taking office in 2016, this approach to cross-strait relations has marked a departure from previous Taiwanese administrations. Tsai’s Kuomintang predecessor, Ma Ying-Jeou, encouraged integration and closer ties with Beijing as a way to drive economic growth and ensure Taiwan’s security. Ma supported the 1992 Consensus, which has governed cross-strait relations for the last three decades, and which maintains that there is ‘One China’ – with the governments in Beijing and Taipei differing over who is its true representative. Though Tsai rejected the consensus when campaigning for the presidency in 2016, she presented a more moderate outlook than her party, the Democratic Progressives, have traditionally offered: she promised to prioritise peaceful relations, and claimed she was open to talks with CCP officials. However, against a backdrop of intensifying criticism of China’s role in Hong Kong – which has long been regarded as a model for how reunification could be applied in Taiwan – Tsai has been increasingly vocal in her opposition to Chinese influence over the last twelve months.
The situation in the special administrative region is both a stark reminder of what is at stake in preserving Taiwanese independence, but it also offers a warning as to Beijing’s ruthlessness in seeking to impose its authority. Whether Tsai’s increased assertiveness is the result of a transient political calculation or a permanent shift in her outlook will be a crucial question for Taiwan over the next four years.
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