TAIPEI: As new president Tsai Ing-wen pledges a stronger Taiwan that is proud of its identity, tensions with China are already simmering as Beijing watches and waits.
Tsai ousted the ruling Kuomintang to take the presidency in a landslide Saturday as voters turned their backs on closer ties with China.
The Beijing-friendly KMT also lost control of parliament for the first time.
Its disastrous defeat tapped into frustration and fear that the island’s sovereignty is being eroded by China after an eight-year rapprochement under outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou.
“It is a political earthquake,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“I don’t think Beijing will react quickly, but it means more trouble.
“It would be surprising if (China’s President) Xi, who has been assertive with the whole world, is not assertive with Taiwan,” said Cabestan, adding China’s strategy would depend on the actions of Tsai and Taiwan’s main ally the United States.
Beijing has already responded to the election rout by warning that it would resolutely oppose any bid by Taiwan to seek independence.
Taiwan is a self-ruling democracy since splitting with China in 1949 after a civil war, but has never formally declared independence, and Beijing sees it as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
Tsai has toned down her Democratic Progressive Party’s traditionally pro-independence message — the vast majority of voters want peace with China and she has promised to maintain the “status quo.”
That message has also calmed nerves in the US, which does not want to see tensions flare.
But while Tsai reiterated her commitment to peaceful ties Saturday, she made it clear Taiwan would not be cowed.
She told cheering crowds they should never apologize for their identity and warned that Chinese “suppression” would damage ties.
“Tsai was saying that she plans to promote stability in cross-strait relations but only if Beijing refrains from coercive threats or efforts to tighten the noose on Taiwan diplomatically,” said John Ciorciari, political science professor at the University of Michigan.
The K-pop factor
Tsai’s comments came against a backdrop of outrage over the treatment of 16-year-old Taiwanese K-pop star Chou Tzu-yu, who was forced to apologize after waving Taiwan’s official flag in an Internet broadcast.
The flag-waving stoked online anger in China and accusations that she was a pro-independence advocate.
Her abject video apology went viral Saturday, prompting Ma and the presidential candidates to leap to her defense.
Tsai mentioned Chou in her victory address to media, saying the case highlighted the importance of “strength and unity to those outside our borders.”
“This incident… invoked old and new hatred among some people towards China,” said George Tsai, politics professor at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei.
“It probably cost the KMT hundreds of thousands of ballots.”
Chou reportedly had a Chinese endorsement deal pulled and her band was axed from a Chinese TV show, which struck a nerve with the electorate.
“Taiwan is subject to both as well: threats to its economic well-being and sledgehammer rhetoric in Internet forums,” said Clayton Dube of the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute.
“Tsai has vowed to work to ensure that Taiwanese can be proud of their home.”
Voter anger has also been stirred by Taiwan’s diminishing position on the global stage in the shadow of China’s growing influence.
Taiwan is only officially recognized by 22 countries, with even the US having unofficial ties after establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.
Tsai said Saturday that Taiwan’s international space must be respected, another shot across the bows of Beijing.
The strength of her stance reflects a shift in voter mindsets, says Nathan Batto of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica research institute.
“More and more people think of themselves as exclusively Taiwanese,” says Batto, rather than Chinese and Taiwanese.
“That’s a fundamental change.”
While analysts agree there will be no immediate backlash from Beijing to Taiwan’s new era of politics, they say China will be monitoring Tsai’s every move.
“Beijing may not take a harsh approach within a short period,” said analyst Tsai.
“But it is not clear to what extent it will put up with her.”