TAIPEI — Beijing’s Communist Party leadership has a new problem with what it terms its “renegade province” off China’s east coast. On Friday, Taiwan swore in a new president who pledged to continue democratic reform, improve the economy, and maintain cross-strait peace and security.
Taiwan’s 14th president, Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to serve, said in her inaugural address that the “two governing parties across the strait must set aside the baggage of history, and engage in positive dialogue, for the benefit of the people on both sides.”
China has threatened to invade the self-rule island if it continues to resist unification even though ties have significantly improved over the past eight years under the leadership of President Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Nationalist Party (KMT).
However, the KMT underwent a crushing presidential and legislative electoral defeat in January to the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party. The election defeat underscored a demographic shift that reflected less trust and confidence in the KMT.
Since winning the election, Tsai has made it clear that military modernization will be a priority in her administration, including a shift from foreign procurement to domestic development and manufacturing of weapons. Priorities include a plan to build eight attack submarines and advanced fighter trainers.
Tsai and the DPP landslide victory placed Washington in a difficult position: continue rejecting the island democracy as a nation-state and bow to China’s demands that the US abide by its “one China policy,” or recognize a sea change has occurred in the relationships among the three capitals.
In Tsai’s inaugural address, she said that her administration would “align its polices with the values of diversity, equality, openness, transparency and human rights, so as to deepen and evolve Taiwan’s democratic institutions.”
Taiwan’s requests for US weapons and military support have been hampered by Chinese lobbying in Washington, including the killing of a multibillion-dollar deal for new F-16 fighter aircraft.
US congressional efforts to improve military relations with Taiwan are evident in the pending 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA tasks the Pentagon to conduct a program of senior military exchanges, which are now restricted to the rank of colonel, and allow for more US Navy port visits of Taiwan naval vessels.
Alexander Huang, chairman of the Taipei-based Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies, said Taiwan welcomes the friendly gesture. “It shows the intention of the Congress and many American friends, as a part of continuing efforts in recent years, to provide Taiwan with access to the US military that would enhance Taiwan military’s exchange with the US/USN and widen the vision of the Taiwan military/Navy officers.” However, the essence and conditions of cross-strait relations under the Tsai presidency and the DPP government, and the state of the US-China relations will influence the “execution of these positive and friendly actions.”
Ching Chang, research fellow of the Taipei-based Society for Strategic Studies, agrees it is a welcome addition to the many “substantial cooperation and exchange programs” between the Taiwan and US military already in place. It is a delicate balancing act in implementing pragmatic programs that are serving both Taiwan and US interests, he said.
Those that enhance Taiwan’s defense capabilities should be embraced by Taipei, but those that have no substantial contribution and only serve political purposes may undermine the already-fragile cross-Strait stability under the new presidency, Chang said. “Doing the right things without saying anything should be more important than saying the wrong words and doing nothing.”
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