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Taiwan President Calls for Resumption of Cross-Strait Exchanges in New Year’s Address

FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen attends the National Day celebration ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2023.
FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen attends the National Day celebration ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2023.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen used her last New Year’s address Monday to urge both sides of the Taiwan Strait to resume “healthy and orderly exchanges,” emphasizing that the only option for Taiwan is to keep safeguarding democracy and peace.

“We also hope the two sides will jointly seek a long-term and stable way of peaceful coexistence under peace, parity, democracy and dialogue,” she said during the speech, which came one day after Chinese leader Xi Jinping said China would “surely be reunified” with Taiwan.

Since Taiwanese presidents often focus on relations with China during the New Year’s address, some analysts say Tsai’s message is centered on the importance for Taiwan of maintaining its democratic way of life.

On New Year, Taiwan, China Leaders Offer Contrasting Visions of Future
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“She emphasized the need for Taiwan to maintain its autonomy as well as its defense capabilities, which are consistent with her cross-strait policies,” Chen Fang-yu, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taiwan, told VOA by phone.

During her address, Tsai said Taiwan’s efforts to deepen engagement with the international community and its attempt to initiate defense reform, which includes the assessment of its defense strategies and modernization of weapon and defense systems, has helped Taiwan win the trust of the world as well as deal with China with confidence and calmness.

“What is even more different from the past is that Taiwan is no longer forgotten, and the 23.5 million people of Taiwan have participated in changing the world,” Tsai said, adding that “Taiwan” has been the keyword in the world for the last eight years.

Highlighting the growing competition between democracy and authoritarianism, Tsai said Taiwan will stick to defending democracy and peace by showcasing its determination for self-defense.

“We have to show our determination to defend the democratic and free way of life so that the world will recognize that Taiwan is an indispensable and crucial player of global democracy and peace,” she said, adding that Beijing and Taipei have the shared responsibility to defend the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the region.

The speech comes 12 days before Taiwanese head to the polls for a hotly contested presidential election that will determine who succeeds Tsai in May 2024 and the direction that the democratic island will take for the next four years.

Tsai’s eight-year term as Taiwanese president witnessed rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait and saw Taiwan trying to deepen relations with like-minded democracies around the world.

Some experts say Tsai intended the speech to showcase how international Taiwan has become amid the ongoing domestic debate about how the island should handle its relationship with China. “She wants to normalize Taiwan politics and Taiwan's international standing in a way that isn't completely framed by cross-strait issues,” Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, told VOA by phone.

During his New Year’s address Sunday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping reiterated that Taiwan and China will surely be reunited. “All Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he said.

As Taiwan’s two main opposition parties try to frame the current state of cross-strait relations as dangerous and on the brink of war, Chen in Taiwan said such rhetoric may limit the effect of Tsai’s message of safeguarding democracy and Taiwan’s determination to defend itself.

“In the past, whenever Xi made tough remarks, Taiwanese people would react strongly,” he told VOA. “However, the opposition parties in Taiwan have successfully created a feeling that people no longer want to talk about cross-strait relations when it comes to domestic policies. This may limit the effect of Tsai’s rhetoric on democracy and Taiwan’s determination to defend itself.”

Apart from showcasing Taiwan’s efforts to deepen ties with the international community and its willingness to uphold the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, Tsai also laid out her administration’s efforts to diversify Taiwan’s trade and economic relations, pointing to the trade agreements that Taiwan has signed with the U.S., Britain and Canada.

“These trade agreements are crucial steps in response to the new global situation and now Taiwan can directly engage with the world,” she said, adding that the island is no longer confined in the mentality that it needs to prioritize engagement with China before engagement with the international community.

Chong from Singapore said Tsai’s efforts to diversify Taiwan’s economic and trade relations over the last eight years have helped the island to become less susceptible to economic pressure from China while enhancing its ability to withstand economic turbulence in general. “Having a more diversified risk portfolio means that Taiwan is going to be more able to withstand other kinds of economic ups and downs,” he said.

As China ramps up efforts to interfere in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and legislative elections, unleashing a combination of economic coercion and disinformation campaigns, Tsai urged Taiwanese to be aware of China’s attempts and the false information originating from China. “Taiwan’s national security agencies are aware of China’s efforts to interfere in the election,” she said.

Since a new president is guaranteed to emerge from the election scheduled on Jan. 13, Chong and Chen both agree that there is a risk that Tsai’s efforts to deepen Taiwan’s ties with the international community could be eroded, depending on which candidate wins the election.

“While the basic principles of her approach are sticky since all three contenders talking about deterrence first and essentially somehow continuing Tsai’s path, it ultimately [still] depends on the policies of who comes next, whether they consolidate what Tsai has done, or whether they make an effort to systematically dismantle the direction that she has set for Taiwan,” Chong said.