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International relations

Taiwanese president wants 'new mode of interactions' with China

Tsai Ing-wen urges both sides to work toward long-term peace

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen gives a speech during the National Day celebrations in Taipei on Oct. 10.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday urged Chinese leader Xi Jinping to work with her to find a new way to conduct bilateral exchanges.

"As we face new circumstances in cross-strait and regional relations, leaders from both sides should together work to display the political wisdom that has carried us through over the years," Tsai said during her remarks on national day. "We should search for new modes of cross-strait interactions with determination and patience. This will lay a more solid basis for long-term peace and stability in the cross-strait relationship."

The Taiwanese leader adopted a soft approach in appealing to Chinese officials to work with the island.

Relations between Taipei and Beijing were further strained on Sept. 26, when Taiwan's newly appointed Premier William Lai made pro-independent remarks. Speaking in parliament, Lai said he was a "political worker who advocates Taiwan independence" but that Taiwan already is an independent country, one called the Republic of China, and so, he said, there is no need to declare independence.

Tsai commemorated the 30th anniversary of the commencement of cross-strait exchanges in 1987, when Taiwan finally allowed its people to visit their relatives on the mainland for the first time after the two sides split amid a civil war in 1949.

"Over the past 30 years, hostility between the two sides of the strait has been replaced by peaceful development," she said. "A new chapter has been written in cross-strait relations. Key to this was that both sides were able to put aside political differences in order to be pragmatic and realistic.

"We should treasure these hard-fought results and the accumulated goodwill from the past 30 years. On this existing basis, we hope for more breakthroughs in the cross-strait relationship."

Tsai's comments came ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's national congress, set to open on Oct. 18. The national congress is held once every five years. This time, Xi is expected to set out political and strategic guidelines covering a broad range of issues, including Beijing's dealings with Taiwan.

Relations between Taipei and Beijing have cooled significantly since Tsai became president in May 2016 as Chinese officials consider her and her Democratic Progressive Party to be staunch supporters for Taiwan's independence.

After her speech on Tuesday, Taiwan's official Central News Agency noted that Tsai used the term "Taiwan" 48 times, and "Republic of China," the island's official name, six times.

The invocation of "Republic of China" by Taiwanese politicians is often seen as a way to bolster the island's connection with the mainland, whose official name is the People's Republic of China. On the other hand, addressing the island as "Taiwan" while playing down the official moniker is often seen as support for independence.

Tsai has also repeatedly refused to bow to Beijing's demand that she recognizes the so-called "92 Consensus," a controversial doctrine that China sees as Taiwan's commitment to eventual unification.

Despite the 1949 split, Beijing continues to assert its claim over the island and has not renounced the use of force to achieve unification.

Since Tsai's inauguration, high-level dialogues have been suspended, the number of Chinese visitors to Taiwan has been on the decline and Beijing has poached two of Taiwan's diplomatic allies, Panama and Sao Tome and Principe.

Before Tsai remarked on Taiwan's relations with China, she highlighted Taiwan's democracy and freedom and the island's military capabilities, then reminded the public of the various forms that Chinese threats can come in.

"We should remember that democracy and freedom are rights that only came following the joint efforts of all Taiwanese people," she said. "As a result, the government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan's values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life."

She thanked Taiwanese troops and described them as "staunch defenders of Taiwan's democracy, freedom, and way of life."

"We must strengthen our military capabilities," she said. "We must be more prepared for growing threats in cybersecurity and espionage, as well as more capable of protecting our critical infrastructure."

Tsai's remarks before the CCP's national congress are unlikely to change Beijing's stance, said Chang Wu-ueh, an associate professor at the Graduate Institute of China Studies at Taipei-based Tamkang University.

"The president is seeking stability with her remarks, but Beijing is unlikely to warm to her remarks," Chang said. "Even if both sides are seeking a new mode of interactions, that will have to wait till after the party congress."

Still, Chang said tensions between the two sides are unlikely to escalate after the CCP's conclave.

"While China would boost its opposition to Taiwan independence during the party congress, it is unlikely to focus on the use of force to achieve unification," Chang said. "While there may be support in some sectors in China to use force against Taiwan to achieve unification, that is never Beijing's official stance."

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