TAIPEI, TAIWAN — A stunning victory for Taiwan’s opposition and the election of the island’s first female president Saturday signal a new era and send a clear message: Taiwan is coming of age as a democracy.
The question is whether Beijing is listening, and how it will respond.
Even as the final votes were being tallied, President-elect Tsai Ing-wen was reaching out to China and calming any fears the giant neighbor might have.
Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party considers Taiwan to be a sovereign, independent nation, but it sees no need to anger Beijing by making a formal declaration of independence. But Tsai went further, promising in her victory speech that she would rise above party politics, maintain peaceful and predictable relations with Beijing, and avoid doing anything provocative.
“The onus is on Beijing,” said J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.
“If they refuse to meet Tsai Ing-wen halfway, it is as clear a signal as you can imagine that they don’t understand what’s going on here and can’t adapt their policies to be acceptable to the Taiwanese people.”
In Washington, the State Department said the United States shared with Taiwan “a profound interest in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability” — a message meant for ears on both sides of the waterway.
The initial signs were not positive. The Chinese office that deals with Taiwan affairs said good relations were possible only if Tsai renounced any dream of independence by signing on to the idea of “one China,” enshrined in an agreement between Taipei and Beijing — known as the 1992 consensus.
On the issue of sovereignty, it said, China’s will is as “firm as rock.”
It is that sort of attitude, underlined repeatedly in the run-up to the elections, that has sparked fears that Tsai’s victory might bring instability and even military tension across the Taiwan Strait — tensions that could easily draw in the United States.
After all, hundreds of Chinese missiles still point toward Taiwan, and Washington still acts as Taipei’s unofficial protector.
Unlike the official rhetoric, academics in China greeted Tsai’s comments more warmly.
“Tsai’s speech showed that she has switched her role from being a party leader to a ruler,” said Zhang Nianchi, a scholar at the Shanghai Institute for East Asia Studies. “If she is on this track, we should accept and encourage her. We shouldn’t be unsatisfied with her not accepting the 1992 consensus. Tsai was chosen by Taiwanese people, and that is a reality we have to face, too.”
Relations between China and Taiwan have improved markedly in the past eight years, culminating in the historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in November.
Beijing insists that the meeting was possible only because Ma’s Nationalist Party had accepted the idea of “one China” in 1992. Now China faces a tougher choice: get along with Tsai or stick to its principles and punish her if she refuses to toe the line.
Another leading Chinese scholar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to foreign media, said China had taken a hard line with Taiwan in previous elections only for that to backfire and alienate the Taiwanese people. This time, the mainland should be patient, he said.
“The Beijing government might not be satisfied, but they must learn the lessons from previous mistakes,” he said. “Maintaining the current relationship is what really matters, not the 1992 consensus.”
Tsai’s mandate was indeed impressive — she won nearly twice as many votes as her nearest rival, with the DPP also gaining its first majority in parliament.
“The size of the DPP victory should induce Beijing to reconsider the hard-line stance that it has taken during the run-up to the election,” Richard C. Bush III, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a commentary. “If Beijing can adjust its strategy and Tsai is willing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping half way, a mutual accommodation between them is not impossible. But it will not be easy.”
Speaking by telephone, Bush said he read Beijing’s initial comment as a “placeholder” that should not be taken too seriously, adding, “If something meaningful happens, it will be done out of sight and out of earshot.”
Yet he and others said a hard-line response from Beijing remains a distinct possibility.
The wild card is Xi. The Chinese leader has engineered a dramatic centralization of power since taking office in 2013 and shown a firmly nationalist approach to issues of sovereignty, including in the South China Sea.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there was considerable uncertainty within China about how Xi would react. Leading experts who used to provide policy advice are now scared to offer suggestions, she said.
“Part of the Taiwan policy community appears to be completely shut out. The system is broken, and even more broken on Taiwan than other issues,” she said.
Xi worked between 1985 and 2002 in China’s eastern Fujian province, right across from Taiwan, and is thought to understand the island well. But that might not be an advantage anymore.
“People who are very senior say, ‘Oh, Xi Jinping knows so much more about Taiwan than I do. He lived in Fujian.’ Nobody is giving Xi Jinping advice because they are all afraid,” Glaser said. “If he’s making decisions based on what Taiwan was like when he was in Fujian, well, Taiwan is a different place today.”
Xu Jing in Taiwan and Emily Rauhala in Beijing contributed to this report.