Taiwan's main opposition party, known for riling China with its push for formal independence, picked a relative moderate Wednesday as its candidate for the 2012 presidential election, indicating that the island's relations with Beijing may have passed their historic worst.
In an island-wide telephone poll on Monday and Tuesday of 15,000 eligible voters, the Democratic Progressive Party nominated its chairwoman, Tsai Ing-wen, to run against China-friendly incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party in January. Ms. Tsai favors conditional engagement on economic issues with China, which has claimed sovereignty over the self-ruled island since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.
"She represents a symbol of a new generation of leadership [that] will be more pragmatic, more moderate in its views toward China," says Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence. "China will go through a period of hearing her words and watching her deeds."
The former vice-premier's stance differs from that of her party's former President Chen Shui-bian, who enraged China and irritated the United States, Taiwan's staunchest informal ally, by seeking the island's formal independence. Relations across the Taiwan Straight were also strained under Mr. Chen's predecessors, with the two sides occasionally flirting with war.
Beijing officials have said de jure independence would be grounds for a military strike on the island just 100 miles away from mainland China. Soon after Tsai's nomination Wednesday, China's Taiwan Affairs Office warned her party against pressing for independence, which would "damage the peaceful development of cross-strait relations and affect stability in the Taiwan Strait."
Since Chen left office in 2008 due to term limits, Taiwan's current government has signed agreements with Beijing to open hundreds of direct flights, slash trade tariffs, and increase investment by mainland Chinese firms. Two-way trade exceeds US$100 billion per year.
Tsai said earlier this month she would advocate continued economic cooperation with China but treat the economic behemoth like any other trade partner by working through international bodies such as the World Trade Organization. The current government has dealt directly with Chinese officials, as Beijing prefers to keep foreign organizations out of affairs that it considers domestic.
"We are not a party that's so conservative that we don't want to see trade and economic exchanges with China," the characteristically direct Tsai told an expatriate-run breakfast club in Taipei on April 23, speaking in fluent English that she learned in part while studying at Cornell University Law School and the London School of Economics.
"We do not have to create new rules or new structures for China," she added. "We are both part of the multinational community."
Some in Tsai's often fractured party – which she has helped pull together as chairwoman since 2008 – still advocate a harder line toward Beijing. The party is unlikely to renounce that line, but experts say that to win the party must appeal to centrist voters and the largely pro-China Taiwanese business leadership.
"Anyone who wants to win has to lean toward center. You can't win by being extremist," says Shane Lee, political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. "Tsai, by her character, is a very moderate reasonable person."
The Jan. 14 election is impossible to call, political analysts say, but barring a major gaffe in the coming months the incumbent has slightly stronger odds of winning because of support for his pro-business economic policies. Last year Tsai also lost the mayor's race in Taiwan's largest city to a Nationalist Party candidate.