Democracy requires smooth transitions of power between parties from across the political spectrum.
This throws up a problem for Taiwan, as the biggest political variable for the self-ruled island is the communist leadership across the strait.
Because of this, many observers see the transitional period surrounding Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency as risky even though her first six months in office have passed, for the most part, smoothly.
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The political dilemma facing Tsai, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, is that Beijing wants her to recognise its cherished “one China” principle – an agreement reached by both sides in the so-called 1992 consensus that the island and the mainland comprise one sovereign state, but leaves open to interpretation the nature of that state.
Beijing sees agreement on the principle as the precondition for cross-strait peace, but Tsai has so far skirted the issue.
The academic-turned-leader won a landslide election in January, in which the island’s public voted against closer ties with the mainland and turned their backs on the unification-leaning Kuomintang (KMT) – the party that agreed to the 1992 consensus.
Tsai’s presidency has brought to an end a period of unprecedented rapprochement with Beijing that took place under her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, of the KMT. Relations between Beijing and Taipei have grown increasingly frosty since then.
Tsai’s challenges as president have so far included a flood that crippled the island’s main airport, labour protests, rows over personnel appointments and a ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague that classified Taiping Island in the South China Sea as a rock, meaning Taiwan can no longer claim an exclusive economic zone around it.
Beijing’s reaction to Tsai’s victory has been to ramp up pressure on her administration by cutting off communication and exchanges with Taipei.
Even before Tsai assumed her post in March, Beijing had moved to isolate Taipei by resuming diplomatic relations with Gambia, Taiwan’s former ally.
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It has sought to isolate the island even more by having its representatives barred from international gatherings and blocking the island from participating in international agencies. In September, following a request by Beijing, an assembly of a United Nations aviation agency failed to invite Taipei to participate.
Analysts see the recent row between Beijing and Singapore over the impounding of the city state’s military vehicles in Hong Kong as Beijing’s way of stepping up pressure on foreign nations to cut off official communications with Taiwan.
Beijing has discouraged mainland tourists from visiting Taiwan since a ban on them doing so was lifted a decade ago (though the number has quadrupled from 1 million in 2008 to 4 million last year).
Given this background, Tsai has been walking a tightrope between the island’s localist sentiment and the mainland’s nationalistic mentality, believing that maintaining the status quo is her best policy.
The challenge for Tsai is that she needs to heed public sentiment and please her key supporters from the pro-independence, or “green”, camp in Taiwanese politics, while trying not to provoke her political rivals on the mainland.
While it has deployed more than 1,500 missiles aimed at Taiwan, Beijing has refrained from the military adventurism of the mid-1990s and early years of the new millennium – periods that saw the People’s Liberation Army fire missiles into waters surrounding Taiwan in reaction to the rising calls for independence.
While both governments are suspicious of each other, the general public on both sides overwhelmingly support stability and cross-strait peace, seeing it as in their best interests.
As politics is an art of compromise, it is also about negotiating consensus and cooperation between rivals. Both Beijing and Taipei should understand that workable political solutions should eschew ideologues and take elements from both sides.
They should also realise that politics is “the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best”, as suggested by Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck. ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s