TAIPEI, Taiwan — After a year in office, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration is shunned by an angry China and facing even greater international isolation.
Yet, the island’s first female president seems focused on policy initiatives at home as well as maintaining robust relations with the United States, Taiwan’s most important source of arms and political support.
“I am expecting the leaders on the other side of the Taiwan Strait to accurately interpret the meaning of last year’s presidential elections, and the good intentions that Taiwan tirelessly showed,” she said in a speech to overseas Chinese media representatives on Friday. “This is a new era, because the Taiwanese people say so.”
China cut contacts with Taiwan on June 25 to protest Tsai’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s view that the two sides are part of a single Chinese nation. President Donald Trump’s administration, at least initially, seemed poised to offer new support.
The then-president elect astonished many by talking directly on the phone with Tsai in December, a conversation not held between leaders of the two sides since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. He then further stirred the pot by questioning the need to hold to the “One China” policy under which Washington maintains only unofficial ties with Taipei.
Soon afterward, however, he reasserted his support for “One China,” resulting in Chinese President Xi Jinping flying to Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort for an informal summit in April and last week’s announcement of a trade deal under which China will again allow imports of American beef and purchase natural gas from the U.S.
China says it cannot resume normal interactions unless Tsai endorsed the “One China” principle, also known as “’92 consensus.”
The sides split amid civil war in 1949 and China continues to regard Taiwan as part of its territory, to be recovered by force if necessary. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party advocates Taiwan’s formal independence as an island nation.
Taiwanese officials say their Chinese counterparts no longer answer their calls, emails or faxes and steady momentum toward increased contacts — highlighted by an unprecedented meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou in 2015 — has ground to a halt.
Beijing’s silent treatment has been accompanied by moves to increase Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, including blocking its participation in international gatherings such as this month’s World Health Assembly in Geneva. Taiwan is already excluded from the United Nations and other international organizations at Beijing’s behest, and maintains diplomatic relations with only a handful of nations.
Beijing has also sought to exert economic pressure, particularly by discouraging Chinese tourists from visiting the island. That’s brought about a 10 percent decline in overall visitor numbers in the first quarter of the year, although an increase in numbers of big-spending Japanese and South Koreans has helped partly make up the difference.
But rather than increase pressure on Tsai, such moves “only make Taiwanese more resentful,” said Shelley Rigger, a political scientist and longtime observer of Taiwanese politics at Davidson College in North Carolina.
“People need to understand: Taiwanese have been living under this threat for decades. I don’t think she will be compelled to make concessions. The focus is very much on domestic issues right now,” Rigger said.
Gary Lin, a 78-year-old Taipei businessman echoed such sentiments.
“If you have a neighbor who only thinks of bombing you or eating you up, then you can’t do anything about it,” Lin said. “And you want president Tsai Ing-wen to kneel to (China) and beg? That’s impossible. I would not agree to that.”
At home, Tsai has been grappling with matters ranging from social justice to public welfare. She issued a formal apology on behalf of the government to Taiwan’s indigenous people for the discrimination and neglect inflicted on them over the past 400 years, and has pushed for legalization of gay marriage. Tsai also announced that Taiwan will build its own jet aircraft and submarines, in part to revive local industries but also to counter the intense pressure China exerts on foreign nations not to sell weapons to Taiwan.
Taiwan has also moved to position itself as an attractive partner for Trump’s push to promote domestic manufacturing, with the island’s Cabinet saying earlier this month Taiwan plans to continue to buy U.S. semi-conductor machines, aircraft, services and military hardware and expects Taiwanese investment in the U.S. to reach $34 billion.
“Notwithstanding the flux of international affairs, maintaining and deepening U.S.-Taiwan relations remains Taiwan’s top priority,” the Cabinet said in a report made as part of a public comment process for a U.S. trade review.
Meanwhile, Tsai’s government has been struggling to reinvigorate the island’s high-tech economy, raise wages for young workers and push through reductions to highly lucrative public pensions that have elicited protests from retired senior servants. She’s also been pushing a “New Southbound Policy” to encourage closer economic ties with the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and countries as diverse as Bhutan and New Zealand as a way of reducing dependency on China’s vast market.
Although the stock market remains strong and the economy is tracking modest growth, Tsai has seen her job approval rating fall to 41.3 percent in a survey released this week, while 52.9 percent were dissatisfied, even while she remains the front runner for the next presidential election in 2020.
The only serious political pressure Tsai faces comes from the opposition Nationalist Party, which remains largely in disarray since losing both the presidency and its legislative in last year’s elections.
“Certainly, President Tsai Ing-wen will not return to Beijing’s demands, so I consider this stalemate, miscalculation, misunderstanding, lack of communication will continue throughout the year. Which is not good for the security and stability in the Taiwan Strait area,” said Andrew Yang, who encouraged greater flexibility from both sides.