Taiwan’s New President: the Inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen and Beijing’s Reaction

Steven Goldstein, Sophia Smith Professor of Government at Smith College and Director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop at the Fairbank Center, examines what comes next for Taiwan’s first female president and cross-strait relations.

Tsai Ing-wen’s inaugural address and Beijing’s reaction have done nothing more than to confirm what has been evident for the past few months: cross-strait relations are entering a period of stalemate.

The mainland’s position, reaffirmed in the post-inaugural statement of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, found that Tsai had failed to “explicitly recognize” the 1992 consensus and its “core meaning” that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China that had been the foundation for peaceful development in the past. This omission was said to represent an “incomplete test paper” (meiyou wancheng de dajuan 沒有完成的答卷).

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks in front of a crowd after her swearing-in in Taipei on Friday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

It has been clear for some time that Tsai would likely fail to pass the mainland’s test. The political realities in Taiwan, primarily those within Tsai’s own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as well as the broader base of public opinion, made it unlikely that these conditions would be met. Given these political constraints, her pre-inauguration statements simply recognized that the 1992 meetings were made possible by an agreement to set aside differences and seek common ground while pledging to maintain a peaceful status quo. Her inaugural address did little more to meet mainland demands.

Now that the stalemate has been confirmed by Tsai’s speech, the next move is Beijing’s. It must demonstrate its dissatisfaction with Tsai’s position, but how will it do so?

In its pre-inaugural statements, Beijing threatened a number of sanctions that would result from Tsai’s failure meet its conditions. These ranged from specifics, such as limiting Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, to suspending the cross-strait meetings of the past, to more general warnings that Beijing would oppose Taiwanese independence in “any form.”

In the early days of the Chen Shui-bian administration, the mainland spoke of listening to Chen’s words and watching his actions. However, in the view of many observers, Beijing had already made up its mind and very quickly abandoned any trust in Chen. Tsai Ing-wen is deeply distrusted by mainland commentators on Taiwan — in the view of some, even more so than had been the case with Chen. Will it behave similarly in the early days of the Tsai administration, or will it be restrained and look for possible avenues of constructive discussion? Beijing is not averse to pursuing ambiguous formulations (the example of the 1992 consensus is the best example) when it is seen as in their interest. Could this be an element in its response to Tsai’s administration? And what might Tsai’s reaction be?

Taiwan’s new President Tsai Ing-wen with her Vice-President Chen Chien-jen, right, during her inauguration ceremony CREDIT: AFP

There are clearly incentives for both sides to seek some basis for modus vivendi and to avoid a crisis. Good relations with the mainland are important to Taiwan. They are essential for Taiwan’s overall security; for the development of its economyits future in the emerging economic architecture in Asia; and its relationship with the United States. Beijing also has an interest in acting with restraint. Taiwan investment continues to be an important element in the mainland economy; there still appears to be hope that the mainland can win “the hearts and minds of the Chinese people; and finally, the impact on already complicated Sino-American relations must be considered by China’s leadership.

Still, the political constraints on either side’s changing positions are considerable. Reunification with Taiwan is a key element in Xi Jingping’s “China Dream.” What kind of “national rejuvenation” can be accomplished if Taiwan drifts away? The last three years of the Ma Ying-jeou administration revealed a Taiwan public that deeply distrusted his rapprochement with the mainland. Although Tsai seems to enjoy greater public trust in negotiating with the mainland, that deep distrust remains.

In the months ahead both sides of the Taiwan Strait must act with restraint in a continuingly fragile situation. Too sharp a reaction to a seemingly inevitable downturn in relations from either side could be met with a provocative response from the other, and that would lead to a quickly escalating crisis situation in an already tense East Asia.