This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen set the scene for her second term in office on Wednesday with a vow that the democratic island would never accept rule by the Chinese Communist Party, signaling instead a cautious move towards constitutional reform.
Tsai said that any relationship with Beijing would have to proceed peacefully, on an equal footing — an idea that is anathema to the Chinese Communist Party — and with respect for Taiwan’s democratic system.
“We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo. We stand fast by this principle,” Tsai said.
“Here, I want to reiterate the words ‘peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue,'” said Tsai, who won a landslide victory in January for a second term as president of the 1911 Republic of China, which has controlled the four islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu since losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949.
She said Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, would begin a process of “constitutional amendments,” beginning a dialogue to achieve consensus on “constitutional reforms pertaining to government systems and people’s rights.”
“This democratic process will enable the constitutional system to progress with the times and align with the values of Taiwanese society,” Tsai said.
She said the first amendment would aim to lower the voting age from 20 to 18, a move for which there is already a broad consensus.
Tsai spent the first section of her speech praising the island’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Thank you for your patience, and thank you for trusting the government,” she said. “You have shown the world Taiwan’s commitment to civic virtues, even in times of greatest distress.”
“This is what solidarity feels like.”
Beijing insists on ‘reunification’
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Beijing would stick to its insistence on “reunification,” which it described as a “historical inevitability of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
“We have the firm will, full confidence, and sufficient ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the office said in a statement responded to Tsai’s speech.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Tsai on her second term inauguration.
“I would like to congratulate Dr. Tsai Ing-wen on the commencement of her second term as Taiwan’s President,” Pompeo said. “Her courage and vision in leading Taiwan’s vibrant democracy is an inspiration to the region and the world.”
Support for Taiwan in the United States is bipartisan and unanimous,” he said. “We have a shared vision for the region—one that includes rule of law, transparency, prosperity, and security for all.”
He said island’s response to the pandemic had shown the world a model “worthy of emulation.”
China’s Foreign Ministry condemned Pompeo’s remarks, and said China would take “necessary countermeasures,” without giving details.
Matt Pottinger, senior director of the U.S. National Security Council, spoke in Mandarin as he commended Taiwan’s performance in handling the COVID-19 outbreak and congratulated Tsai on her second four-year term.
“The world has much to learn from Taiwan and the U.S. will continue to engage with Taiwan. We will continue to urge other countries and organizations, such as the World Health Organization, to put human lives above politics,” Pottinger said in a video message from the White House.
Tsai’s inauguration speech repeated her election campaign pledge that her government would only deal with China on an equal footing, and would continue to insist on its freedom, democracy and sovereignty in the face of threats of invasion — which Beijing refers to as “reunification.”
China has used diplomatic offensives, military threats, interference and infiltration to try to force the island to compromise its sovereignty, according to the Taiwan government and its security services.
Tsai said on the campaign trail that Taiwan would never agree to becoming part of the People’s Republic of China in its current, authoritarian state, because the experience of Hong Kong had shown that Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model isn’t viable, because democracy and authoritarianism are unable to coexist within the same country.
Hong Kong crackdown fuels Taiwan fears
Public opinion polls have shown that the violent suppression of Hong Kong’s anti-government protest movement has fueled fears for Taiwan’s national security and democracy, and that only around 4.5 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people welcome the idea of Chinese rule.
Tsai has been a vocal supporter of Hong Kong protesters’ aspirations for full democracy, and against the use of police violence and political prosecutions to target protesters, and argued during a presidential election debate that China is the biggest threat to Taiwan’s way of life.
Retired Shandong University lecturer Feng Gang said Beijing appears to be deliberately nudging Taiwan in the direction of declaring a new sovereign identity unconnected to China.
“I think that the policy is to provide stimuli to send Taiwan towards independence,” Feng told RFA. “This will free them up to do what they want to do.”
“The chances of Taiwan actually acquiescing to [unification] at any point in the next three decades are looking pretty poor,” he said.
Chinese academic Li Muyang said the Legislative Yuan constitutional amendment committee would pave the way for Taiwan to move still further from Beijing’s notion of “one country, two systems.”
“Tsai Ing-wen looks likely to set up a constitutional amendment committee which could be very important … over the next four years,” Li said. “Although there are no detailed parameters yet, the direction [she is going in] is clear to everyone. Taiwan may develop in a more independent direction.”
Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was occupied by the 1911 Republic of China under the Kuomintang (KMT) as part of Tokyo’s post-war reparation deal with the allies.
It has never been controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.