The inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and vice president-elect William Lai (賴清德) today is to be a formal, dignified occasion, even though all public celebrations have had to be canceled out of fear of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Everyone is curious about what Tsai’s remarks on cross-strait relations will be. As she disregarded the “one China” principle in her 2016 inaugural address, she is likely to assert Taiwan’s separate identity and outline her holistic vision of the nation’s development.
Her electoral victory was a hard-fought battle against external and internal pressures. Despite the increasing diplomatic isolation of Taiwan, the growing frustration with China has turned into a powerful impetus for supporting Tsai’s effort to fight for national sovereignty.
Throughout the years, China’s ascension to power and the remaking of Asian geopolitics have weakened the diplomatic space for Taiwan. As China becomes more proactive in the global community, it has striven to restrict Taiwanese pro-independence forces through a combination of coercive and co-optative measures, stopping Taiwanese participation in multinational organizations and targeting its few diplomatic allies.
The best example is Taiwan’s troublesome relationship with the WHO. In 1972, Taiwan was expelled from the WHO under World Health Assembly Resolution 25.1. Twenty-five years later, Taiwan applied for readmission into the World Health Assembly as an observer, but China mobilized its allies from the developing world to reject the request.
Taiwan made the same request year after year, and China had it denied each time until 2009, when then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was in office, who kept good terms with China. From 2009 to 2016, Taiwan attended the assembly as an observer.
However, since Tsai took office, Taiwan has not been invited to the assembly. This actually deprives Taiwan of a formal channel to access major information about global health alerts and epidemic outbreaks, and to contribute the nation’s expertise to resolving common medical challenges.
Worse still, China has launched an aggressive international campaign to force Taiwan to change its national title to “Chinese Taipei,” or to withdraw itself from other global institutions.
In 2007, China pushed the World Organisation for Animal Health to support a resolution that “there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing all China.”
This deeply politicized resolution was designed to change Taiwan’s status from a full member to a non-sovereign regional member, and to alter its title from the “Republic of China on Taiwan” to “Taiwan, China.” At that time, the US and allies gave in to the “one China” principle and failed to stand up for Taiwan.
Recognizing that such hostile gestures fail to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese, China has embraced a comprehensive strategy of economic integration, offering material incentives to Taiwanese through a series of policies known as the “31 measures,” introduced in February 2018.
These regulations lure Taiwanese entrepreneurs, professionals and educators to relocate to China with generous tax benefits, loans and grants. The ultimate objective is to incorporate Taiwan into China through all levels of people-to-people exchange.
The frequent cross-strait exchanges clearly benefit Taiwan’s commercial and professional sectors, but have failed to foster a sense of Chinese nationalism against Taiwanese consciousness.
The disastrous performance of the pro-unification Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in recent legislative and presidential elections suggests that the pro-independence agenda has become part of the political mainstream, and that the Democratic Progressive Party is to stay in power for a while.
Against the backdrop of escalating bilateral tensions and rivalries in a post-pandemic world, US presidential candidates of both parties are going to use the Taiwan issue as a trump card against China.
Seeing China as a formidable global competitor, whoever wins the White House in November will advocate a more engaging security strategy that reaffirms the US’ commitment to defend Taiwan and modernize its military.
Although China is widely perceived by the media as a unipolar power in the Western Pacific, any attempt by Beijing to destabilize the Taiwan Strait is bound to antagonize neighboring states and raise the concern about China’s threat to geopolitical stability.
Furthermore, Taiwan still maintains impressive humanistic connections and economic links worldwide. Effective use of informal diplomacy should permit the nation to shine and thrive in a seemingly hostile environment.
In light of compelling diplomatic and geopolitical problems, the best way for Tsai to move forward is to deepen ties with global civil society, and advance formal and informal alliances with countries to balance any external security threats. By upholding the pillars of a liberal world order and engaging with multilateral bodies, her administration will gain respect and recognition from the wider world.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is history professor at Pace University in New York City.
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