May 25, 2017 10:00 am JST

Editorial: Victories at home can help Taiwan's Tsai dodge China's punches

Reforms and economic fixes will ease pressure from Beijing

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, shown here at her inauguration ceremony in Taipei on May 20, 2016, is under pressure to keep her reform agenda on track. © AP

One year has passed since Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in as Taiwan's president. The island's first female leader has been pressing ahead with liberal reforms, including measures to protect minority groups and a plan to wean the nation entirely off nuclear power. On the diplomatic and security front, her administration has embraced pragmatism, taking care not to do anything that might cause tensions with mainland China to flare up.

At the same time, however, the economy has yet to shake off the stagnation being caused in part by pressure from the giant next door. Tsai's approval rating has tumbled over the past year. A big challenge for the president during her remaining three years in office will be to keep her reform agenda on track and turn the economy around.

On domestic matters, the Tsai administration has taken a liberal policy line. Last summer, she became the first Taiwanese president to formally apologize for the mistreatment of the island's aboriginal peoples. Also, her administration submitted a bill to parliament seeking to legalize same-sex marriage, and revised a law with the aim of halting all nuclear power plants by 2025.

With these measures -- extraordinarily liberal for Asia -- Tsai has done a commendable job of playing up the contrasts with the highly authoritarian China.

On diplomatic and security matters, her administration has opted for a realistic approach. It has struck a balance between not reacting too nervously to Chinese provocations, lest cross-strait relations turn icier, and working to upgrade Taiwan's defense capabilities.

China's Communist leadership, which wants Tsai to recognize its "One China" principle, is increasing the pressure on her administration economically, diplomatically and militarily. But to Beijing's chagrin, Tsai has stood firm in her refusal to acknowledge the One China principle, lending a cool tone to diplomatic ties.

TRUMP'S REVERSAL Beijing's apparent desire to exclude Taiwan from multilateral frameworks such as the World Health Organization hurts international efforts to tackle global challenges. And by stepping up its military pressure on Taiwan, China will only further alienate Taiwanese voters and increase tensions in East Asia as a whole. To change this, Chinese President Xi Jinping will have to take a more flexible approach to Taiwan.

The U.S. holds the key to how things will go for Taiwan in diplomatic and security affairs. President Donald Trump has been taking an increasingly conciliatory stance toward China, a stunning shift from his pre-Oval Office days. That reversal could make it harder for Tsai to buy advanced weapons and military equipment from the U.S., something she has made clear she wants to do.

Fortunately for her, Taiwan's largest opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, has yet to regain its former strength. Tsai needs to use this time to score political victories with reforms and economic improvements before next year's local islandwide elections, which are considered a curtain raiser to the next presidential election.

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