Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen shows practical approach

Inauguration address crafted to appease core supporters but also leave room for improvement in cross-strait relations – although Beijing will not have been pleased with it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 11:36pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 11:36pm

All ears were finely tuned to Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration address to see if she mentioned the “1992 consensus” with the mainland embracing the understanding that there is only one China, subject to each side having its own interpretation of what constitutes China. She did and she didn’t. She expressed “respect” for the historical fact that there were negotiations in 1992 that arrived at various joint acknowledgements and understandings while setting aside differences, and pledged to maintain stable cross-strait ties. But she stopped short of explicitly mentioning the “1992 consensus” that Beijing has said is vital for future relations.

Beijing expresses dissatisfaction after Taiwan’s new President Tsai Ing-wen swaps ‘consensus’ for ‘historic fact’

It was a subtle and carefully crafted accommodation of core supporters of her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, also designed not to provoke Beijing and to leave room for improvement in cross-strait relations. Beijing, however, will not be pleased. Indeed it has already said Tsai did not go far enough. She did say both sides must cherish and sustain the results of more than 20 years of cross-strait negotiation and interaction, which by implication includes the closer ties forged under her Kuomintang predecessor Ma Ying-jeou. It is to be hoped that this is enough to serve as a basis for an improvement in relations.

Tsai may have committed to maintain existing links and people-to-people exchanges and outlined plans for expanding economic ties with the Asia Pacific area. But in stopping short of supporting the 1992 consensus to appease core supporters on the cross-strait issue, she may be doing them no favours.

Plenty of economic challenges ahead for Taiwan’s new president

Taiwan needs to develop ties with the mainland, rather than looking to a region committed to economic relations with the mainland. If Beijing reacts negatively and cross-strait ties deteriorate there could be serious economic and political implications.

Ultimately, Tsai’s biggest challenge is how to revive and rejuvenate the economy and restore hope to young people. The structure of her address left no doubt that she well knows this, with sub-sections like “building a better country for the younger generation”, “transforming economic structures” “strengthening the social safety net”, and “social fairness and justice” all coming before cross-strait relations.

Tsai must understand that an aggressive stand on cross-strait relations will leave Taiwan divided – the undoing of former DPP president Chen Shui-bian. The priorities conveyed by her address indicate a practical politician, not too driven by ideology. That is what Taiwan needs now.