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Taiwan's new president sets chilly but pragmatic tone with China

surfacing modes of thought

As she marks 100 days in office, President Tsai Ing-wen move toward less cozy ties with the mainland is being greeted with middling marks at home. But Beijing seems to be accepting it, for now.

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    Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen waves after the annual Han Kuang military drill simulating the China's People's Liberation Army invading the island, in southern Taiwan Aug. 25.
    Tyrone Siu/Reuters
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Taiwan’s tourism industry has a problem: the number of package-tour visitors from mainland China is down 30 percent after enjoying a record-breaking year in 2015. Nobody knows why, so the Transport Ministry decided to send a delegation to meet officials in Beijing and find out what is going on.

Beijing has not agreed to the visit.

This seemingly humdrum incident tells you a lot about the complications that have beset Taiwan’s relationship with China since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president last May on pledges to be less cozy with the mainland. Abandoning the kind of broad understanding her predecessor enjoyed with Beijing, Ms. Tsai is resorting to ad hoc responses to problems as they arise.

And Beijing is treating them with caution, but is expected to play along for the time being.

In the chilly absence of regular cross-straits dialogue, which came to an abrupt halt 100 days ago with Tsai’s election, the president will handle each matter involving China on its own merits, political analysts say.

“This natural kind of back-and-forth in relations can keep things going” on a day-to-day level, says Lee Chun-yi, a senior legislator with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. He calls the approach “practical” during what he expects to be a “cold period” in China-Taiwan ties.

Behind the current standoff is Tsai’s refusal to accept the principle – sacred to Beijing – that the mainland and Taiwan are part of the same country. Officials say she has not ruled out dialogue with Beijing, but the president has not proposed any alternative guiding principle for bilateral relations.

“I do not see any sign she will come along with a formula at this time,” says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University, near Taipei.

A pragmatic approach to settling issues as they arise would ease the pressure to meet China’s pre-conditions for renewed formal dialogue – agreeing to the “one China” formula. It also assuages fears among the Taiwanese public that Beijing would seek to use such a dialogue to push for political unification.

China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war in the 1940s and rebased their government on the island. Beijing insists that both sides eventually reunify despite public opinion surveys that show most Taiwanese prefer autonomy.

Tsai’s apparent lack of coherent direction has cost her politically. Her approval ratings have fallen over her first 100 days in office, according to several opinion polls. Support for her China policy stands at only 51.4 percent, a Chinese Culture University survey found this week, a sign of how many Taiwanese are torn between a desire to keep Beijing at arm’s length politically and a fear of the economic consequences of that policy.

Taiwan-China relations soared from 2008 through last year as Tsai’s predecessor, President Ma Ying-jeou, broke the ice with Beijing by agreeing Taiwan and the mainland belong to a single China. That led to 23 deals bridging the two economies – the world’s second and 20th largest.

Tsai’s case-by-case approach surfaced twice in July. When a Taiwanese tour bus caught fire, killing 24 mainland tourists, the government used a nonprofit, semi-governmental organization to notify China and allowed Beijing inspectors to visit – despite China saying in June it had cut off even informal dialogue with Taiwan.

Then when a Taiwanese naval vessel launched a supersonic anti-ship missile by mistake, the Mainland Affairs Council notified Beijing directly, indicating that official communication channels also remain open. The missile, which killed a Taiwanese fisherman, did not reach Chinese waters but had prompted an official in Beijing to forecast a further decline in two-way relations.

Such impromptu contacts are enough for some Taiwanese for the time being.

“I’d like China to talk with Taiwan about [broader] deals after it goes democratic,” says Wang Yi-kai, a government supporter, expressing a viewpoint that is increasingly voiced.

But many citizens are looking to Tsai to ensure the peaceful relationship that would open the Chinese economy further to Taiwanese businesses.

Deals signed by former President Ma allowed 890 direct cross-straits flights a week where none had existed before, opened the tourist floodgates, and kicked off trade liberalization in banking, healthcare, and petrochemicals.

Twenty-one other deals were still in the works when Tsai took office, including tariff cuts on thousands of Taiwanese exports. Without formal talks, they cannot be finalized.

For the time being, China will go along with Tsai’s situation-based approach to relations because it has no choice, says Lin Chong-pin, a retired international politics professor. 

“Beijing would only do it very passively and the minimal amount, but they have to face these incidents,” he says.

Beijing will also hold off on any major policy change until the ruling Communist party’s 19th congress  toward the end of 2017, Mr. Lin predicts.

If China grew more upset it could use its economic clout to tempt the 22 countries that still recognize Taiwan into switching their diplomatic ties to Beijing, and block Taiwan from participating in international events.

But the Chinese government knows that Tsai has steered well clear of its red lines, says Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. Most importantly, she has avoided pushing for constitutional independence. 

“Tsai … knows that the people of Taiwan don't want to be part of China, but they want to have good economic ties and exchanges with China,” Ms. Glaser says. “Her actions and statements already prove that she is someone [China] can tolerate.”

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