‘Immense challenges’ as Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen begins second term

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has never been more popular.

As the territory’s first female president takes oath on Wednesday for a second term in office, her approval ratings are at a record high and Taiwan’s international standing is growing over its successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The self-ruled island of 23 million people has recorded just 440 cases and seven deaths despite its close proximity to China, the origin of the respiratory disease that has now killed more than 320,000 people globally.

But the next four years will prove to be challenging for Tsai, according to experts.

Cross-strait relations with China, which claims Taiwan as its own, are at an all-time low. Calls for a formal break with Beijing are likely to grow, while the island’s export-driven economy is expected to contract as much as 4 percent as the pandemic curbs demand in key markets.

“The challenges are immense,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia. “As President Tsai looks forward to the next four years, she will need to demonstrate the same competency and preparedness that she has shown during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

With swift and decisive action, Tsai’s government managed to check the new virus’s spread early on. Taiwan was among the first to screen arrivals from China. It began doing so in early January, soon after reports emerged of a respiratory illness in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. An aggressive contact tracing and quarantine campaign followed, allowing the island to avoid the infection rates and stifling lockdowns seen elsewhere.

Plaudits and tensions

Taiwan’s successful response has won Tsai plaudits across the world, but the boost to its global status has only worsened relations with China.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated tensions that already existed in the Taiwan Strait,” said J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based analyst at the Global Taiwan Institute.

“China’s cover-ups in the early stages of the epidemic in Wuhan, contrasted with Taiwan’s openness and rapid response to the virus, has been noticed globally, and the Chinese Communist Party resents that. Beijing is therefore expected to try to undermine the strategic gains that Taiwan has made since January by acting in an even more belligerent fashion.”

These frictions, according to observers, are rooted in the island’s ambiguous status.

Taiwan, as we know it today, is the result of the Chinese civil war, which Chinese nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Led by Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 and set up the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) on the island. The nationalists initially intended to retake the mainland, but ultimately abandoned their dream. They never declared independence, however.

With its own military and foreign ministry, Taiwan also has its own distinct identity, with two-thirds of the island’s population saying they do not identify as Chinese, according to a recent survey. Another poll from October last year showed nearly a third of the Taiwanese people favour independence, while some 25 percent said they favour maintaining the status quo.

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, reunification is an issue of legacy. Xi sees reclaiming Taiwan as a mission that would assure his place in history, alongside leaders such as Mao. In a 2019 speech, he outlined his grand vision of “One China” and warned Taiwan that any effort to assert full independence would be met by armed force.

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