Taiwanese voters re-elected incumbent Tsai Ing-wen on Saturday by a landslide, renewing her mandate to keep holding off the island’s long-time military rival, China, after a year of fast-changing threats.
But the 63-year-old U.S.-educated law scholar’s approach to China over the next four years might depart from her first four. Shortly after winning the election with more than 57% of the vote, Tsai suggested her government would speak with angry officials in Beijing if they don't treat Taiwan as an equal partner.
"As president, I must handle relations with China according to popular opinion, and I will do my utmost to break the stalemate and improve cross-Strait relations,” Tsai told a news conference outside her Taipei campaign headquarters after receiving more than 8 million votes."
So, I’d like to appeal to leaders in Beijing to respect Taiwanese people’s opinion and consensus for peace and equal treatment,” she said. “Then we can set up a sustainable as well as a healthy communication mechanism that is able to meet expectations for people’s welfare.”
Resumption of dialogue would ease a festering military flashpoint in Asia. China maintains the world’s third strongest military and has not ruled out use of force, if eventually needed, to capture Taiwan.
The government in Beijing considers Taiwan part of its own territory that must eventually unify with China. Taiwanese said in surveys last year they prefer today’s democratic autonomy over unification. The two sides have been self-ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to the island and re-based their government here.
Events in 2019 further hardened many people’s views against China, endearing them instead to Tsai as someone who won’t engage Beijing on its terms: that both sides come to the table as parts of one country.
A year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech advocating that China rule Taiwan under a “one country, two systems” model that’s supposed to allow a measure of local autonomy. Beijing has ruled Hong Kong that way since 1997, but the former British colony was hit by months of anti-China protests last year. Also in 2019 China sailed aircraft carriers near Taiwan twice and within a week persuaded two Taiwanese diplomatic allies to break ties in favor of Beijing.
Chen Li-chin, a 43-year-old mother from suburban Taipei, decided to vote for Tsai because the president shows willingness to resist China.
"To safeguard Taiwan’s democracy and that’s the most important thing the government can do,” she said. “In comparing candidates on this issue, it’s Tsai Ing-wen. We can still carry on cooperative relations state to state (with Beijing) as long as China doesn’t take Taiwan to be part of its own country.”
The two sides never spoke formally in Tsai’s first four years. She irritated Beijing last year particularly by rejecting “one country, two systems.”
Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor from Tamkang University in Taiwan, believes Tsai is already working on ways to start talks. “I think both sides will do something gradually, but they need to do it quietly before it surfaces to the public eye,” he said. “I think they probably are doing it already.”
Beijing may drop its “one China” condition for dialogue if Tsai’s government makes a concession in return, one Washington-based scholar said last month.
But other analysts expect Tsai to make no change from the past four years, which would mean sidelining Beijing in favor of stronger ties with other countries to boost Taiwan’s international standing.
Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told a news conference Thursday his government would try to deepen relations with Europe, Japan and the United States if Tsai was re-elected.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo congratulated Tsai on Saturday and lauded Taiwan’s democratic process. “Under her leadership, we hope Taiwan will continue to serve as a shining example for countries that strive for democracy, prosperity, and a better path for their people,” he said in a statement.
On Saturday, Tsai beat Han Kuo-yu of the Nationalist party, also called the KMT. Han, the 62-year-old mayor of Taiwan’s chief port city Kaohsiung, had advocated trade and investment talks with China on Beijing’s condition that both sides are two parts of one country.
His policies follow from those of ex-president Ma Ying-jeou. Over Ma’s eight years in office before 2016, China and Taiwan signed more than 20 trade and investment deals while setting aside the political dispute. But by 2014 many Taiwanese feared Ma was getting dangerously cozy with China and staged mass street protests in Taipei
Taiwanese on Saturday also renewed Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party majority in parliament, giving it control of the foreign affairs budget and a clear channel to pass any laws related to Taiwanese people’s interactions with China.