TAIPEI, Taiwan – New Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's inaugural address Friday was scrutinized for indications of what her administration will spell for relations with China, the United States and the Asia-Pacific as a whole.
While it may be too early to gauge the response of China, which claims the self-governing island as its own territory, Tsai's presidency introduces new uncertainty in a region already beset by tensions over the South China Sea, North Korea's nuclear program and China's jousting with the U.S. for strategic dominance. Here are some questions and answers about Friday's events and their likely effects.
Q: What were the most noteworthy points of Tsai's inaugural address?
A: Tsai said she respected the outcomes and the "historical fact" of a meeting between representatives of the two sides in 1992. That meeting broke the ice after decades of bitter enmity deriving from the Chinese civil war that led to the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949 and the shifting of the Nationalist government to Taiwan.
However, Tsai declined to mention the "'92 consensus" encompassing a "one-China policy," a construct that Beijing insists must underpin interactions between the sides.
Q: How has China responded to Tsai and her inaugural address so far?
A: It's not clear yet what actions China plans to take in response. 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" toward the nature of the relationship between the sides.
The entirely state-controlled media was mostly silent on the inauguration, although the official Xinhua News Agency issued a brief report saying Taiwan's "new leader and deputy leader" had taken office, language reflecting China's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Taiwan's government.
Q: What further steps could China take to ratchet-up pressure on Taiwan?
A: Although China doesn't rule out using force to bring Taiwan under its control, it's unlikely to take military measures beyond saber-rattling war games intended to advertise the threat.
Beijing is considered more likely to do all it can to increase the island's diplomatic isolation, winning away some of Taiwan's 22 diplomatic allies and restricting its participation in international organizations.
As a crucial market for Taiwan's products, China could also exert added stress on Taiwan's ailing economy.
Q: How does this new dynamic affect China-U.S. relations?
A: While Washington remains a key Taiwanese backer, there are unlikely to be any immediate implications for China-U.S. ties. The dispute over the South China Sea is much higher on the agenda of the U.S.-China relationship.
Analysts doubt any dispute would arise that would significantly draw in the U.S. "The Chinese see themselves as having a very large tool box to deal with Taiwan and they don't immediately need to turn to the United States and insist that the U.S. manage this problem for them," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Q: What does this mean for other countries in Asia?
A: The Taiwan Strait has long been considered a potential powder keg in Asia and any uptick in frictions between Beijing and Taipei will only increase regional risks and uncertainties.
China may pressure Asian countries to curtail their dealings with Taiwan, particularly India and nations in Southeast Asia that Tsai wants to improve business ties with as a way of reducing Taiwan's reliance on the Chinese market.
"If the Chinese really want to put pressure on Taiwan, they will use any means possible," Glaser said. China is unlikely to allow any country in Southeast Asia to pursue free trade agreements with Taiwan, which currently only has such pacts with Singapore and New Zealand.
Q: What is the significance of this for Taiwan itself?
A: Tsai's inauguration has been hailed by many as a sign Taiwan's often raucous democracy has achieved a new level of maturity in the almost quarter-century since martial law was lifted.
As Taiwan's first woman president, Tsai has also been held up as a sign of rising gender equality in a traditionally male-dominated society. She has promised to bolster social programs, reform the rigid educational system and increase opportunities for women and minorities, all while attempting to reinvigorate the economy and create jobs for educated young people.
In her address, Tsai also said she would establish a peace and reconciliation commission to revisit the crimes committed by the former authoritarian Nationalist government and seek justice for its victims.