Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has never been more popular.
As the territory’s first female president takes oath on Wednesday for a second term in office, her approval ratings are at a record high and Taiwan’s international standing is growing over its successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The self-ruled island of 23 million people has recorded just 440 cases and seven deaths despite its close proximity to China, the origin of the respiratory disease that has now killed more than 320,000 people globally. With early screening and an effective trace and quarantine campaign, Taiwan has avoided the type of stifling lockdowns seen elsewhere, thereby cushioning its economy from the catastrophic slumps expected in many other countries.
But still, the next four years will prove to be challenging for Tsai.
Cross-strait relations with China, which claims Taiwan as its own, are at an all-time low. And experts say calls for a formal break with Beijing are only likely to grow inside Taiwan, while the island’s export-driven economy is expected to contract as much as 4 percent as the pandemic curbs demand in key markets.
“The challenges are immense,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia. “As President Tsai looks forward to the next four years, she will need to demonstrate the same competency and preparedness that she has shown during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With swift and decisive action, Tsai’s government managed to check the new virus’s spread early on. Taiwan began screening arrivals from China in early January, soon after reports emerged of a respiratory illness in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. An aggressive contact tracing and quarantine effort followed, allowing the island to avoid the tolls seen in other countries.
Taiwan’s successful response has won Tsai plaudits across the world, but the boost to its global status has only worsened relations with China.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated tensions that already existed in the Taiwan Strait,” said J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based analyst at the Global Taiwan Institute, a US think tank.
“China’s cover-ups in the early stages of the epidemic in Wuhan, contrasted with Taiwan’s openness and rapid response to the virus, has been noticed globally, and the Chinese Communist Party resents that. Beijing is therefore expected to try to undermine the strategic gains that Taiwan has made since January by acting in an even more belligerent fashion.”
These frictions, according to observers, are rooted in the island’s ambiguous status.
Taiwan, as we know it today, is the result of the Chinese civil war, which Chinese nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Led by Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 and set up the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) on the island. The nationalists initially intended to retake the mainland, but ultimately abandoned that dream. They never declared independence, however.
With its own military and foreign ministry, Taiwan also has its own distinct identity. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of the island’s population do not identify as Chinese. Another poll from October last year showed nearly a third of the Taiwanese people favour independence, while some 25 percent said they favour maintaining the ambiguous status quo.
But reunification is an issue of legacy for Chinese President Xi Jinping. The most powerful leader since Mao, Xi sees reclaiming Taiwan as a mission that would assure his place in history. In a 2019 speech, he outlined his grand vision of “One China”, warning Taiwan that any effort to assert full independence would be met by armed force.
Tsai responded by telling China to show Taiwan respect. The island was already an independent country called the Republic of China, Taiwan, the 64-year-old former lawyer insists. She reiterated that message in her inaugural address on Wednesday, while also calling for dialogue and peaceful co-existence.
But Chinese officials responded by accusing Tsai of separatism – a view long held in Beijing.
Since Tsai’s election in 2016, China has cut off official communication with her government and convinced at least seven countries to transfer diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing. It also sought to squeeze Taiwan’s economy by preventing individual Chinese tourists from visiting the island.
Ironically though, observers say it was China’s actions – both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong – that assured Tsai her resounding victory in the January election. She had been trailing in opinion polls early last year – amid anger over wage stagnation and pension reforms – when protesters in Hong Kong took to the streets to denounce Beijing’s increased interference in the territory’s affairs.
Tsai was quick to offer her support to Hong Kong. “We stand with all freedom loving people of Hong Kong” she said in a Twitter post in June. In the same tweet, she said Taiwan’s “hard-earned democracy must be guarded” and went on to reject the “one country, two systems” model which ties Beijing and Hong Kong together.
“As long as I’m president, ‘one country, two systems’ will never be an option,” she wrote.
Tsai’s firm stance in the face of Xi’s warnings and the crackdown in Hong Kong helped her secure the highest number of any leader in the territory’s history. She called her re-election a message to China to respect Taiwan’s sovereignty, but since then, Beijing has only intensified its military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei.
In recent months, Chinese military aircraft have crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait at least three times, while a Chinese aircraft carrier and five warships sailed close to Taiwan through the Miyako Strait in April. Beijing has also reportedly threatened to cut off all economic ties with the African kingdom of eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, if it does not break off relations with Taipei.
Tsai “can expect Beijing to bring greater pressure to bear on Taiwan,” Cole at the Global Institute for Taiwan said, adding that he expected the military and diplomatic action to be “accompanied by ramped up political warfare efforts to erode and weaken Taiwan’s democracy and ability to function as a coherent state”.
The pandemic, however, has created diplomatic openings that could help Taiwan deal with China, he said, namely pushing it closer to the United States.
Washington is Taiwan’s security guarantor and has seized on the opportunity to boost the island’s international status at a time when US-China ties have deteriorated amid disputes over trade relations and the coronavirus pandemic.
In March, US President Donald Trump signed a law that requires his country to press for Taiwanese recognition in international forums – a move Chinese state media slammed as support for Taiwanese separatism.
But Bonnie Glaser at the US-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “the tools the US has to help Taiwan are limited” mainly because of Taiwan’s isolation on the international stage. At present, only 14 nations recognise the territory.
Yet Tsai is still likely to “face pressure from some of the radical elements of her own party, who would like her to seize the opportunity to press more pro-independence measures,” added Glaser.
That is certain to strain cross-strait relations even further. But Glaser, who heads the CSIS’s China Power Project, said conflict remains unlikely, arguing Beijing would be unwilling to risk a military confrontation with the US.
Despite the uncertainty ahead, Glaser said she has faith in Tsai’s ability to lead Taiwan.
“She’s a very good listener. She’s very calm, very cool. And she has enormous skills as a negotiator,” the analyst said, noting Tsai’s lead role in negotiating Taiwan’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2002.
“She will stand her ground in preserving a position despite the fact she is widely criticised. And I respect that,” Glaser continued, referring to Tsai’s decision to push through much-needed pensions reforms despite widespread opposition. “And when she makes mistakes, she’s also able to recover from them. If you look back on her first term, there were points where she had very low support in public opinion. But she was able to come back.”
Still, Glaser cautioned: “It will be difficult for any leader to handle all of the challenges that Taiwan faces. The hurdles are enormous, regardless of how capable a president is.”