TAIPEI: It has been a turbulent first year in power for Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen as relations with Beijing have soured and her approval ratings have plummeted.
And in the face of an intransigent China and warming ties between Beijing and the United States – Taiwan’s most powerful ally – observers say there is more trouble ahead.
Tsai was inaugurated as the island’s first female leader on May 20 last year, defeating the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party by a landslide.
Her victory spelled the end of eight years of cross-strait rapprochement as she refused to acknowledge the concept that Taiwan is part of “one China”, unlike her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou.
Beijing still sees self-ruled democratic Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified, and is deeply suspicious of Tsai.
Her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is traditionally pro-independence and there is little hope of finding middle ground.
Tsai has said she feels Taipei has shown “good will” towards China and she has repeatedly urged Beijing to break with its “old thinking” on cross-strait dealings.
But the message has fallen on deaf ears – Beijing has cut off all official communication with Taipei and upped its military drills.
Observers say China has yet to really flex its muscles and that could happen in the year ahead.
The two sides are in a tense “holding pattern”, says Jonathan Sullivan, director at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.
Beijing is currently preoccupied with domestic issues ahead of a key Communist Party congress later this year, which could cement President Xi Jinping’s grip on power for years to come.
After that, the gloves may come off.
“Given the consolidation of both Xi’s position and the relationship that seems to be emerging with (US President Donald) Trump, I don’t see that Beijing’s own position is going to soften,” Sullivan told AFP.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, agrees.
Beijing “will be tempted to use all sorts of ways to increase its pressure on Taiwan – economic, political, and military – to force it to give in”, he said.
Tsai was praised for putting Taipei back on Washington’s agenda in December when then president-elect Trump took a protocol-busting congratulatory phone call from her.
A direct conversation between the two leaders was unprecedented – although it is Taiwan’s main ally and biggest arms supplier, the US has had no official diplomatic relations with the island since switching recognition to Beijing in 1979.
The call infuriated China, but ties between Trump and Xi have since improved as Washington courts Beijing’s cooperation in handling North Korea and other issues.
Trump last month rebuffed Tsai’s suggestion that another call could take place, in what was widely seen as a slap in the face.
Washington will be “more cautious” in the year ahead to avoid rocking the boat with Xi, predicts Tang Shao-cheng, a political analyst at National Chengchi University.
“Tsai is in an awkward position as she doesn’t have bargaining chips,” he added.
In winning the leadership, Tsai capitalized on a sense of indignation at what many saw as Taiwan kowtowing to China under Ma.
Now some voters fear the repercussions of increasingly frosty ties.
“I hope the government will soften its stance in order to resume communication with China,” restaurateur Michael Liu told AFP.
“Otherwise relations will continue to worsen and it’s bad for Taiwan’s economy.”
Economic woes were one of the main reasons Tsai was elected, as low salaries failed to compete with cost of living.
But although GDP has rallied, up 2.88 percent in the last quarter of 2016, Tsai’s initial 70 percent approval rating has sunk to below 30 percent in some polls.
Residents say despite promised reforms and incentives, such as better social welfare and tax cuts, there has been little real improvement in day-to-day lives.
“For young people, we need to make more money, we need pay rises. We need hope that we can live better lives,” said Taipei salesman Yu Ya-han, 27.
Last month there were violent protests against proposed public-sector pension cuts.
Some analysts say Tsai must work harder to strike a chord with the public in her second year, with policies that have a more immediate impact.
But her supporters in the DPP remain philosophical.
“The Tsai government is cleaning up the house in the first year,” said lawmaker Wang Ting-yu.
“The direction is right and the things they are doing are not easy. It’s inevitable that dust is flying.”