TAIPEI, Taiwan—Taiwan’s new independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen tread carefully around the thorny issue of relations with China in her inaugural address Friday, emphasizing the importance of two decades of growing exchanges without mentioning the one-China principle fundamental to Beijing.
Tsai said in her speech that she respected the “joint acknowledgements and understandings” reached between the sides at a landmark 1992 meeting seen by China as underpinning all subsequent contacts and agreements.
However, Tsai made no explicit mention of the concept that Taiwan is a part of China. Beijing claims the self-governing island as its own territory and says failing to endorse the one-China principle would destabilize relations.
In Beijing, the Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office issued a statement noting Tsai’s reference to the 1992 meeting, but saying she had taken an “ambiguous stance” over the nature of the relationship between the sides.
Her failure to explicitly endorse what China calls the “’92 consensus” embodying the principle of one-China, or to offer a “specific proposal to ensure the peaceful and stable development of relations between the sides” had left the question unanswered, the office said.
The statement, issued about five hours after Tsai’s speech, also reaffirmed China’s rigid opposition to Taiwan’s formal independence, stating that: “Today, our determination to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity is unshaken, our capability is strengthened and we will resolutely contain any ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist acts or plots in whatever form they take.”
In her address, Tsai called for Taipei and Beijing to “set aside the baggage of history, and engage in positive dialogue, for the benefit of the people on both sides.”
She said her administration would “work to maintain peace and stability” in relations between the sides. However, she added that Taiwan’s democratic system and the will of its 23 million people must be respected in the course of cross-strait dialogue.
The Nationalist Party government of Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou had repeatedly endorsed the one-China principle and the “’92 consensus” and reached a series of economic and civil agreements between the sides.
China maintains that Taiwan must unify with the mainland eventually, by force if necessary. However, Taiwanese public opinion is strongly against any sort of political union, instead favoring the status of de facto independence and robust social and economic interactions.
While the Nationalists favor unification, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party advocates formally establishing Taiwan as an independent nation.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has said the issue of unification cannot be put off indefinitely and China’s military has conducted saber-rattling war games in recent days along the coastline facing Taiwan.
Tsai is Taiwan’s first female president and the first woman elected as head of state in Asia not related to a prominent male politician.
Much of her speech focused on reviving Taiwan’s high-tech, export-oriented economy, which is now in recession, and increasing opportunities for young people who largely blame Chinese competition for shrinking the pool of well-paying jobs.
The inauguration was festive, with bands and cheerleaders, and included presentations on Taiwan’s history. One segment took on a politically charged event, the 1947 massacre of Taiwanese intellectuals by Nationalist troops from mainland China. Actors portraying executed political prisoners fell to the ground in the plaza in front of the Presidential Office Building.
While Tsai faces challenges on several fronts, she will be aided by the DPP’s commanding majority in Taiwan’s parliament. The party’s landslide victory in the January polls was seen as a keen expression of concern that the island’s economy is under threat from the mainland’s economic juggernaut.
While leaving Beijing unsatisfied, Tsai avoided provoking Beijing by referring to Taiwan as an independent sovereign nation, said Li Fei, deputy director of the Taiwan Research Institute at China’s Xiamen University.
“This is a speech that can be accepted by the international community and endured by the mainland,” Li said, adding that Beijing will be watching what Tsai does in coming days as she forms her administration.
China has multiple ways of registering its dissatisfaction, including cutting exchanges and regular contacts, tightening the island’s diplomat isolation and barring Chinese tourists from visiting the island.
China may also block Taiwanese observers from attending the U.N. World Health Organization’s annual World Health Assembly in Geneva next week.
Asked about Taiwan’s future participation in international organizations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying offered few clues, saying only that the matter could be discussed between the two sides “on the premise that it will not result in “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”
Taiwanese political scientist Shane Lee said he expected China to react, although not too strongly.
China will continue to “have a bit of this and that around the world to make sure the new government gets the message China is not that happy,” said Lee, who teaches at Chang Jung Christian University in the southern city of Tainan.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said Beijing will see Tsai’s remarks as “continuing to be ambiguous.”
“You could read into it whatever you want to read into it,” Glaser said. “My guess is that the Chinese will choose to see this as insufficient.”
Associated Press writers Gillian Wong and Christopher Bodeen and researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report in Beijing.