TAIPEI: New Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called for “positive dialogue” with China in her much-anticipated inauguration speech Friday, striking a conciliatory tone in the face of an increasingly hostile Beijing.
Tsai took office as the island’s first female President after winning a landslide victory in January to defeat the ruling Kuomintang, ending an eight-year rapprochement with Beijing under outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou.
Voters felt Ma had moved too close to China, which still sees self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification.
Beijing-skeptic Tsai swept in with a campaign to restore Taiwanese pride.
But she sought to cast Taiwan as a force for peace in front of a jubilant crowd of more than 20,000 at the presidential palace in Taipei, where she was sworn in earlier Friday.
“The two governing parties across the strait must set aside the baggage of history, and engage in positive dialogue, for the benefit of the people on both sides,” she said.
Relations with Beijing have already cooled since she won the presidency, with China putting pressure on Tsai to back its “one China” message—the bedrock of the thaw under outgoing leader Ma Ying-jeou.
Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party have never recognized the concept.
While she showed no sign of backing down from that stance in her speech, Tsai emphasized the importance of communication.
“Cross-strait relations have become an integral part of building regional peace and collective security,” she said. “In this process, Taiwan will be a staunch guardian of peace that actively participates and is never absent.”
However, without mentioning China by name, Tsai said Taiwan needed to end its dependency on the mainland for trade, “to bid farewell to our past reliance on a single market”.
She also expressed the island’s commitment to its democratic freedoms.
Analysts said she had gone as far as she could to placate Beijing, without making any specific commitments, or alienating her China-wary supporters.
“Tsai tried to strike a conciliatory tone given the lack of trust between the two sides,” said Tang Shao-cheng, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “She is throwing the ball back into Beijing’s court.”
Yet without the key “one China” compromise missing, Beijing is unlikely to be placated.
“I think China will not easily accept Tsai’s speech… it’s difficult to be optimistic about cross-strait ties,” said Yang Kai-huang, head of Ming Chuan University’s Cross-Strait Research Center in Taipei.
Chinese media blackout
Official mainland Chinese news outlets snubbed the inauguration, while searches for Tsai’s name and “Taiwan” were blocked on social media.
In an editorial, the Global Times, a newspaper owned by the People’s Daily group that often takes a nationalistic tone, said Tsai’s assumption of power heralded “a new era for a cross-straits region that is characterized by uncertainty.”
In celebrations likely to have irked Beijing, the “Pride of Taiwan” inauguration pageant revolved around Taiwan’s unique culture and history, including dances and songs by indigenous groups.
“Tsai Ing-wen is the first woman President in Taiwan’s history so I want to witness this sacred moment,” said teacher Chen Su-mei, 48, who joined the celebrations.
Others praised her for the conciliatory speech.
“I was touched by the part where she said both sides across the strait should work for the well-being of their people,” said Mahdi Lin, 40.
However, pro-China activists railed against Tsai outside the ceremony, calling for unification with the mainland.
Tsai has consistently pledged to maintain the status quo with Beijing but critics have pushed her to explain how she can achieve that without compromise over the “one China” sticking point.
The concept is enshrined in a tacit agreement with the KMT known as the “1992 consensus.”
In her speech Friday Tsai reiterated her previous stance of acknowledging 1992 meeting had happened, but without endorsing the “one China” principle.
Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949 after a civil war but has never declared a breakaway.
Beijing has warned Tsai against any move towards formal independence—the DPP is traditionally a pro-independence party.
A small group of pro-independence activists also demonstrated outside the presidential palace Friday, calling for Tsai not to compromise with Beijing.