All ears for Tsai Ing-wen's speech at inauguration ceremony

Tsai Ing-wen is sworn in as Taiwan's first female president.
Taiwan's honour guard rehearsing for the presidential inauguration in Taipei yesterday.
Taiwan's honour guard rehearsing for the presidential inauguration in Taipei yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Inauguration speech by new President expected to chart course for Taiwan

Nearly 700 foreign dignitaries from 59 countries will be in attendance when Taiwan's first woman president Tsai Ing-wen is sworn in today, the highest number ever at a presidential inauguration ceremony, according to the island's Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Among the guests at the ceremony that will mark Taiwan's third transfer of power since 1996, when it held its first direct presidential election, will be six heads of state from the island's 22 diplomatic allies, mainly small states in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Other guests include Mr Ron Kirk, former trade representative of the United States, with which Taiwan has a close if unofficial relationship, Mr Dominique Riquet, a member of the European Parliament, and Archbishop Joseph Chennoth, representing the Holy See. Representing Singapore are former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi and MPs Cedric Foo and Foo Mee Har.

Last night, banquets were held in honour of the guests, hosted separately by outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou and Foreign Minister David Lin. Today, they join some 20,000 people, and millions more watching live on TV, in witnessing the investiture of Taiwan's new leader in a ceremony that features cultural performances and, for the first time in 20 years, the island's aerobatic display team Thunder Tigers. Absent from the festivities, however, will be former president Chen Shui-bian from Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who was jailed for corruption but is on medical parole. He declined to attend the inauguration state banquet.

But all eyes - and ears - will be on Ms Tsai as she delivers her inauguration speech, to which her team was still putting the finishing touches yesterday.

After she and her pro-independence DPP won a landslide victory in the Jan 16 polls, there has been much uncertainty over the DPP controlling both the Cabinet and the legislature for the first time, and many will be listening closely to Ms Tsai for the course she will be charting for the island.

Ahead of today's inauguration, Taiwan stocks fell, with the main Taiwan Index sliding 0.78 per cent to 8,096 points, pulled down by fears that Ms Tsai's speech will sour economic ties with China, Taiwan's biggest trading partner.

The new President's top priorities include jumpstarting a moribund economy and keeping on an even keel the island's relationship with China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Beijing is deeply suspicious of Ms Tsai, who has not publicly accepted the 1992 Consensus, a tacit agreement that there is one China, with each side having its own interpretation of what it means. This has been set as a bottom line by Beijing for stable ties to continue.

Piling on the pressure, China's Defence Ministry on Wednesday said it held military drills on its south-eastern coast across the Taiwan Strait from the island.

Domestically, groups took to the streets over the past two days to oppose Ms Tsai's policies and inauguration. On Wednesday, about 500 rallied outside the DPP headquarters, demanding that she accept the 1992 Consensus. Yesterday, about 50 protested against a segment in the inauguration programme, disrupting rehearsals.

While Ms Tsai may not say things that Beijing would like to hear, say observers, "she will not do anything or say anything that will antagonise the Chinese", according to Asia expert Bonnie Glaser of US think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

But cafe owner Janice Tao, 37, like some Taiwanese, fears things may get out of hand under Ms Tsai's rule. "We can't run away from the fact that... we will be able to benefit from good relations with the Chinese. Why are we rocking the boat and trying to make things more difficult for ourselves?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2016, with the headline '700 foreign VIPs attending Tsai's swearing-in ceremony'. Print Edition | Subscribe