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Taiwan’s Tsai to Tread Cautiously on Cross-Strait Relations at Inauguration: Experts  

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen arrives during her visit to the Centers for Disease Control in Taipei on May 19, 2020.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in on Wednesday for her second term. Analysts say she is expected to “put down the markers” on Taiwanese sovereignty but not cross China’s red lines in her inaugural speech.

Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) she represents won a landslide victory in January elections, which were widely seen as a referendum on the future of Taiwan and cross-strait relations with Beijing.

Her inaugural speech could provide clues as to how Tsai, who rejects Beijing’s one-China principle, will proceed in her second term.

Robert Sutter, who teaches international affairs at George Washington University, said Tsai is “a formidable opponent” of Beijing, and her stance has been consistent. Sutter said he expects Tsai's speech will emphasize her government’s accomplishments in the first term and avoid overtly antagonizing China.

Sutter said, “Tsai Ing-wen strikes me as a very sober individual, who is very concerned about Taiwan’s sovereignty, and she’s very experienced in cross-strait relations. She knows what the buttons are, and she doesn’t want to push with Beijing, and so she’ll avoid them and say something meaningful to the people on Taiwan to deepen their sense of being in a good place of good government.”

FILE - Supporters of Taiwan's 2020 presidential election candidate, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, cheer for Tsai's victory in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 11, 2020.
FILE - Supporters of Taiwan's 2020 presidential election candidate, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, cheer for Tsai's victory in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 11, 2020.

Beijing has escalated the number and intensity of military drills around the island in recent months, including a 36-hour air force endurance exercise in April and a first-ever air force nighttime drill in March.

I-Chung Lai, president of the Taiwan-based Prospect Foundation, said the island received pressure from China to show goodwill in Tsai’s speech, but China’s recent saber-rattling could have the opposite effect.

Lai said, “So I really hope China can reduce the temperature a little bit so Tsai Ing-wen will have a better reason to respond in kind.”

Jacques deLisle is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who focuses on contemporary Chinese law and politics. He said Tsai’s speech will not challenge the status quo in the Taiwan Strait but may reference protests and unrest in Hong Kong.

“I expect her to hit pretty hard on the themes of how successful Taiwan’s democratic liberal society has been in coping with COVID,” deLisle said. “I think she has to walk a fine line in how much to reference the Hong Kong situation which obviously is key to her re-election but neuralgic [sharply painful] to Beijing.”

DeLisle added, “I think there’ll be a bleak reference to how appealing the Taiwan model is and how Taiwanese people ... don’t want to be Hong Kong. I think you will see the kinds of references to sovereignty that put down markers but don’t cross red lines.”

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, there will be no large-scale celebrations for the inauguration. Tsai posted a tweet on Monday, inviting people to watch the inauguration ceremony online “to celebrate the power of the people in this flourishing democracy that embraces diversity.”