Anxiety as China exerts pressure ahead of Tsai's inauguration

 Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters after her election victory at party headquarters in Taipei.
Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters after her election victory at party headquarters in Taipei. PHOTO: REUTERS

With a month to go before Taiwan inaugurates its new leader Tsai Ing-wen, there are signs of Beijing exerting its pressure on the island.

And there is anxiety, says Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, from both Taiwanese and foreign dignitaries over what lies ahead.

"After the presidential election over the last three months, when I travelled over Taiwan meeting different people, they have different levels of anxiety or concern.

"And every week, I receive foreign dignitaries from all over the world and they also express different levels of concern."

Taiwan has yet to receive the invite to the forum of the World Health Organisation (WHO) governing body on May 23, says Mr Ma.

"This is an extremely intricate and sensitive issue, and critically important for the ROC," he says, referring to Taiwan's formal name, the Republic of China.

"Currently, we have been striving to ask the WHO to send us an official invitation and we also told the incoming government that they should work even harder."

Ms Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party will be inaugurated on May 20. She is expected to spell out her stance on cross-strait relations, including whether she will adhere to the 1992 Consensus.

The World Health Assembly (WHA) issue comes on the heels of recent moves by Beijing, including the re-establishing of ties with Gambia, a former Taiwan ally, and curtailing the flow of mainland tourists. Many believe it is part of a pattern of China flexing its muscles.

The question though is whether this hardline strategy will work in influencing Ms Tsai and the public, and on this, Mr Ma says: "Of course, there are still some disputes regarding how Beijing handles this kind of problem. But it is vital for us to use our wisdom so that we will be able to reach a consensus and resolve the disputes."

Over the past eight years, with Beijing's implicit blessing, he wrangled some international space for Taiwan: a clutch of 22 diplomatic allies, mainly impoverished states; an observer's seat at the WHA as Chinese Taipei; two free trade pacts, including one with Singapore.

Mr Ma says the key is the 1992 Consensus - the understanding that there is "one China" but which allows China to take it to mean the People's Republic of China, while Taiwan says it refers to the ROC.

Polls show that it has majority support in Taiwan, says Mr Ma.

"If we refer to the 'one China' as the ROC, would you support it? Over 60 per cent of people would. That is the majority, not the minority."

The problem though is a growing belief that China respects just the "one China" half of it and pays mere lip service to the second half.

There is also an increasingly assertive Taiwanese identity that eschews linkages to China.

Acknowledging this, Mr Ma says it is "very natural... because we are born here, we are raised here and we are all Taiwanese people".

"However, Taiwan identity should not and does not necessarily have to contradict with cross-strait peace, reconciliation or cooperation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'Anxiety as China exerts pressure ahead of Tsai's inauguration'. Print Edition | Subscribe