Taiwan's first female leader must absorb pressure from China, economy

As leader of the Republic of China, the official name for Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen assumes a post fraught with political, economic and historical pressures.

Most of these relate to its giant communist neighbour across the Taiwan Strait, but Tsai will also have to address the expectations of the supporters who handed her and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a landslide in January elections.

Tsai's victory came after eight years of government led by the China-friendly Nationalist Party. Mainland China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949, leading to tense diplomatic ties, but Tsai's predecessor Ma Ying-jeou pursued a closer relationship with Beijing.

Tsai said during the campaign that her administration would maintain the status quo across the strait, but has refused to endorse the "One China" principle that Beijing emphasizes.

The principle came out of a 1992 meeting when the two sides agreed that there is only one China, but each left the other to decide for itself what exactly was meant.

Such statements, and the prospect of an independence-leaning party in power in Taipei, have already set alarm bells ringing on the mainland. Since Tsai's election, an unofficial diplomatic truce between the two sides has gradually broken down.

In March, China resumed diplomatic relations with Gambia, which in November 2013 removed itself from the short list of countries that officially recognize Taiwan.

In April, Kenya and Malaysia deported Taiwan citizens suspected of fraud to mainland China, prompted accusations of "abduction" from officials in Taipei.

This month, another row broke out over Taiwan's invitation to the annual World Health Assembly (WHA).

For the first time, Taiwan's invitation letter to the UN gathering explicitly mentioned the One China principle, as well as UN resolution 2758, which likewise recognizes the administration in Beijing.

The DPP accused Beijing of political interference and insisted that Taiwan will attend the assembly without accepting the One China principle. Beijing retorted that principle was "unquestionable."

Chen Ming-chi, a China expert at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University Institute of Sociology, believes that Tsai has tried to adopt a non-confrontational strategy with the mainland, but that this has not satisfied Beijing.

"It’s understandable that Tsai wants to show the international community that Taiwan will not be a troublemaker. But Beijing is impatient and wants to test the strength of her conviction," Chen told dpa.

The WHA row may be an indication of more tensions to come, he says, especially if Tsai wants to avoid disappointing the voters who put her in power.

"Under the circumstance, Tsai's supporters might expect tougher actions from her administration to defend Taiwan’s national dignity," Chen said.

Economically, China also looms large for Taiwan, an island of under 23.5 million people.

China is Taiwan’s largest export market, but with growth slowing in the mainland economy, Tsai is aiming to diversify towards other overseas markets. 

One plan to achieve this is joining the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) initiated by the United States, Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner.

The tariff-lowering deal worries local consumers and pig farmers however, who have protested in Taipei against any possible concessions Tsai may make in negotiations.

Energy is another challenge: Taiwan relies on imports for 97 per cent of its energy consumption.

According to Lai Wei-chieh, director-general of the Green Citizens' Action Alliance, the era of growth in Taiwan through cheap utilities and low salaries is over.

"Now we've encountered a bottleneck. To find a way out, the new government will have no choice but to adopt pathways to a low-carbon economy," Lai told dpa.

Tsai has promised to establish new industrial clusters to develop the green energy industry. If Taiwan can produce 25 per cent of the energy it needs, it will save on imports and create a domestic market worth an estimated 500 billion Taiwan dollars (15 billion US dollars) a year.

Tsai's vision about energy use does not include nuclear: she vows to phase out nuclear power by 2025, abolishing three operational nuclear power plants and scrapping a fourth one currently under construction.

Researchers who agree with Tsai's roadmap are nevertheless unsure of whether the goals can be reached.

"Regarding the planned green energy industrial clusters, what worries me are the lack of feasible methods and mechanisms," said Lin Tze-luen, associate professor of the Department of Political Science at National Taiwan University.

Other new initiatives by the new government are focussed on fields such as biotechnology, national defence, and the Internet of Things - connecting appliances other than computers to the internet, including cars or household goods.

Incoming prime minister Lin Chuan sees Taiwan's future in creativity.

“It’s quite challenging,” he said in a TV interview last week. "You have to be innovative."

Last update: Tue, 17/05/2016 - 10:14
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