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At start of new term, Taiwan’s president calls for stability in China relations

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen leads the way to an inauguration ceremony in Taipei for her second term.
(Taiwan Presidential Office)

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called for stability in relations with China in her inaugural address Wednesday but said she would not accept Beijing’s political terms that would “downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo.”

Reelected by a landslide late last year, Tsai said relations with Beijing had reached a “historical turning point” and that “peace, parity, democracy and dialogue” should form the basis of contacts between the sides as a means to prevent intensifying antagonisms and differences.

Tsai said Taiwan also would work to increase its participation in international society, even as Beijing seeks to shut it out and to poach the allies of the self-governing island democracy China claims as its own territory.

“We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo,” Tsai told an audience at the baroque Taipei Guest House in the center of the capital.

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“One country, two systems” is the formula under which Hong Kong was given a significant measure of autonomy when it reverted to Chinese sovereignty from British rule in 1997. That system, however, has come under heightened strain as Beijing tries to tighten its grip on the city.

Tsai represents the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates Taiwan’s formal independence, something Beijing says it will use force to prevent.

Her election to a second four-year term came after the repression of last year’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong solidified public opinion in Taiwan against moves toward accepting rule by Beijing.

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The sides split amid civil war in 1949. Beijing has cut off ties with Tsai’s government over her refusal to accept its demand that she recognize the island as a part of China that eventually should be reunified with the mainland under the “one country, two systems” formula.

Beijing’s diplomats have prevented Taiwan from joining international gatherings such as the World Health Organization and have reduced its number of diplomatic allies to a handful while China’s military has increased patrols and exercises aimed at intimidating the island’s population.

In her speech, Tsai emphasized the need to boost national security, including against nontraditional threats such as cyber and “cognitive” warfare, defined partly by the use of disinformation on social media.

With a presidential campaign underway, the island democracy is struggling to deal with a Russian-style disinformation campaign coming from the mainland.

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Tsai, 63, is a former law professor and the only female leader in Asia in modern times to rise to the top without being part of a political dynasty.

Attending Wednesday’s speech were diplomats from Taiwan’s remaining 15 formal diplomatic allies and representatives of the U.S. and other major nations that maintain strong but informal ties with Taiwan. The U.S. is the island’s main source of military support against China’s military threats and a key advocate for its participation in international gatherings.

Prior to her address, congratulatory remarks from U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo were read out, which said that Tsai’s “courage and vision in leading Taiwan’s vibrant democracy is an inspiration to the region and the world.”

“The United States has long considered Taiwan a force for good in the world and a reliable partner,” Pompeo said in the statement. “We have a shared vision for the region — one that includes rule of law, transparency, prosperity and security for all.”

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The U.S. support comes amid rising frictions between Washington and Beijing over trade, technology and allegations about Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that began last year.

At the same time, Washington has increased military sales to the island of 23.6 millionk and Congress has passed legislation promoting closer political and economic ties.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Beijing expressed its “strong indignation and condemnation,” over Pompeo’s remarks, adding that the U.S. must “stop official exchange with Taiwan or improving real relations with Taiwan.”

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“China will take necessary measures against the above-mentioned wrong actions of the U.S. side, and the resulting consequences shall be borne by the U.S. side,” Zhao said.

Despite Beijing’s attempts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and vastly reduce the numbers of mainland Chinese tourists visiting the island, Tsai has overseen steady growth in Taiwan’s high-tech economy and enacted social reforms, including making the island the only democracy in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage.

But reforms, including reductions in civil service pensions, had sparked a backlash, and Tsai had appeared vulnerable to a challenge from the pro-China Nationalist Party candidate. But her support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in the face of an often-violent police response helped lift her poll figures.

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Many see China’s autocratic Communist Party as eroding Hong Kong’s civil liberties, and Taiwanese voters have strongly rejected any moves toward political accommodation with Beijing.

Poll results released by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center last week found that 66% of island residents viewed themselves as Taiwanese, 28% as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and 4% as just Chinese. The telephone poll of 1,562 people, conducted last fall, had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Among respondents younger than 30, fully 83% said they didn’t consider themselves Chinese.

Another 2.3% of Taiwan’s people are members of indigenous groups who are not ethnically Chinese.

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A Japanese colony for 50 years, Taiwan was handed to China in 1945 but split again from the mainland when Mao Zedong’s Communists swept to power on the mainland in 1949. The rival Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan, which lies 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait from China’s east coast.


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