President Tsai’s inauguration attendees
President Tsai Ing-wen has been inaugurated for her second term, joined by William Lai inaugurated as Vice President for the first time. Due to the coronavirus, the event was low key. KMT chairman Johnny Chiang, ex-President Ma Ying-jeou, and Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu all skipped the event. New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-yi and Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen did show up, with Mayor Lu appearing to have done so more reluctantly.
She had said she came to the decision “after considerable deliberation” to “represent the 2.81 million people of Taichung.” Hou, however, was much more positive on attending saying individual or party affiliation wasn’t important, unity was important and that the inauguration of the president is an important national event. Interestingly, Hou posted a pic on Instagram of him posing with some other mayors, including Taichung’s Lu, Taipei’s Ko, and Taoyuan’s DPP mayor Cheng Wen-tsang–and even more interesting was the photo credit he thoughtfully added: DragonforPeople. DragonforPeople is the Instagram handle for Transport Minister Lin Chia-lung. Some foreign luminaries also attended, but more sent theirs in digitally. In all, 92 dignitaries sent their congratulations.
Tsai’s inauguration: 70 years of the Republic of China, Taiwan!?
As for the content of the President’s speech, the bulk of it essentially laid out how her administration plans to continue on various initiatives they started in her first term. However, a few things really jumped out. Searching the Chinese language version, I discovered she said “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese” 50 times, but used “Republic of China” only five times. Very interestingly, she kicked off her conclusion by saying “My fellow citizens, over the past 70 years, the Republic of China (Taiwan) has grown more resilient and unified through countless challenges. We have resisted the pressure of aggression and annexation.” That’s a fascinating statement! 70 years ago is 1951, which is definitely not when the ROC was founded, and a few years after the ROC arrived in Taiwan. So what is she referring to? Two possibilities come to mind. Perhaps she is referring to the practical end of the Chinese Civil War, which generally is stated to have ended in 1949 when the KMT brought over the corpse of the Republic of China to Taiwan, but in reality, the fighting in China continued into the early 1950s. The other possibility is the Treaty of San Francisco, which officially ended Japan’s sovereignty over Taiwan.
That was signed in 1951 and went into effect in 1952. She could be referring to both. What’s important about this–and I do think it is relevant she kicked off her conclusion with this–is that it appears she’s laying the groundwork for defining Taiwan’s statehood differently. Her use recently of “Republic of China, Taiwan” is clever, and famously said on BBC that Taiwan doesn’t need to declare independence, Taiwan is already an independent country. In short, she’s bypassing the whole “Republic of China” versus the “Republic of Taiwan” debate by forging a new “Republic of China, Taiwan” path. It appears that she’s now defining the Republic of China, Taiwan as coming into existence at the dawn of the 1950s and as an entity distinct from the earlier Republic of China in China.
That’s clever. Taiwan’s status after the Treaty of San Francisco officially, at least in the eyes of many countries like the US, became “undetermined” because while in the treaty Japan renounced sovereignty over Taiwan, the treaty did not specify where Taiwan’s sovereignty did lie. This smells a bit like the President may be using the Republic of China, Taiwan to answer that question. I’ll be watching this very closely to see if that is indeed what she is up to.
Tsai inauguration: Military
Another area that really caught my attention is the section on national security. In her speech, she said: “We have three important directions for our national defense reforms. First is accelerating the development of our asymmetrical capabilities.” After going into some detail on that, she continues “The second is substantive reforms to our military reserve and mobilization systems. We need to enhance the quality of our reserve forces, as well as their weapons, equipment, and training, in order to achieve effective jointness with our regular forces.”
While I’m no military expert, this sounds very much like she’s been listening to advice, especially from the Americans. I’ve heard military analysts saying things very similar to this. In her first term, though she did raise military spending, she fell far short on her promise to boost spending to 3% of GDP. With many of the big issues of her first term out of the way, she may spend more of her second tackling this issue.
Tsai inauguration: China relations
She also had some interesting things to say about relations with China:
“In the face of complex and changing cross-strait circumstances, we have made the greatest effort to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait over the past four years, gaining approval from the international community. We will continue these efforts, and we are willing to engage in dialogue with China and make more concrete contributions to regional security. Here, I want to reiterate the words “peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue.” We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of “one country, two systems” to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo. We stand fast by this principle.” This is carefully crafted, and will likely be welcomed by key international players like the US and Japan as being very reasonable and moderate. Of course, China doesn’t like it one bit, and they’ve already responded in the People’s Daily. Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said: “We uphold the fundamental guideline of ‘peaceful reunification and one country, two systems,’ and we are willing to create vast space for peaceful reunification, but we will not leave any room for separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.” President Tsai continued in her speech, saying, “We will continue to handle cross-strait affairs according to the Constitution of the Republic of China and the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. This has been our consistent position for maintaining the peaceful and stable status quo in the Taiwan Strait.”
She said something similar in her first inauguration and is doubling down on it. The part about the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area has already drawn outcry from the Taiwan Statebuilding Party and New Power Party as well as other activists.
That act still defines “unification” as a national goal, and a DPP lawmaker introduced a bill to remove it–but clearly was pressured by the party to drop it. The TSP is going to introduce a new bill. The Taiwan People’s Party has already said they support the concept, and the NPP will almost certainly be on board as well. The question is what the DPP will do.
The President continued: “Cross-strait relations have reached a historical turning point. Both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term and prevent the intensification of antagonism and differences. Faced with changing circumstances, I will hold firm to my principles, adopt an open attitude to resolve issues, and shoulder my responsibilities as President. I also hope that the leader on the other side of the Strait will take on the same responsibility, and work with us to jointly stabilize the long-term development of cross-strait relations.”
Again, very carefully worded, and puts the responsibility for poor relationships firmly on the Chinese side.
Tsai inauguration: Constitutional reform
The president also added this to her speech: “While we work to achieve national development, it is crucial that we optimize our government institutions over the next four years. Our Legislative Yuan will establish a constitutional amendment committee, giving us a platform to engage in dialogue and reach a consensus on constitutional reforms pertaining to government systems and people’s rights. This democratic process will enable the constitutional system to progress with the times and align with the values of Taiwanese society. Our first priority should be to lower the voting age from 20 to 18, an issue on which both the majority and opposition parties are in agreement.”
A “constitutional amendment committee” is potentially a huge deal…or not, depends entirely on what she has in mind for it to discuss. If it is limited to just the voting age, then it’s a fairly small deal. However, already within hours of her speech, all sorts of calls for major changes, or even writing a whole new constitution have appeared. This is something to watch carefully going forward.
Tsai inauguration: US response
Many of the responses from dignitaries were from a range of US figures in government and elected officials. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee tweeted out the following: “Congratulations to Dr. @iingwen on the start of her second term. Taiwan’s thriving democracy and response to COVID-19 are an example to the world. America’s support for Taiwan must remain strong, principled, and bipartisan.” Doctor!? Why didn’t he use president as her title!? More significantly, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement, which included this: “As we look toward the future, I am confident that, with President Tsai at the helm, our partnership with Taiwan will continue to flourish. Best wishes for a successful second term.” This appears to be the first time a Secretary of State has issued such a statement, usually in past it is a lower-ranked official.
China’s foreign ministry said Pompeo’s act had severely damaged peace and stability in the strait between Taiwan and China. It warned it would take “necessary countermeasures” and the US would have to bear the consequence. China’s Global Times came out with a tweet saying “The US and Taiwan want to play petty tricks at a low cost, which is too naive. We will make them feel pain in some places that they can’t think of.”
On that pleasant thought, let’s end the show.
Image courtesy of President Tsai’s Facebook page