Nationalist Tsai faces nationalist Xi: The China Post columnist

Taiwan opposition leader and president-elect Tsai Ing-wen reacts during an interview in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 20, 2016.
Taiwan opposition leader and president-elect Tsai Ing-wen reacts during an interview in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 20, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

During the campaign leading up to the Jan 16 elections, Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), took part in singing the national anthem at public events, but her lips visibly stopped moving when it came to the words "our party," since they referred to the Kuomintang (KMT), which had been in power in Taiwan since the 1940s, save for eight years.

It is striking, therefore, that in her victory address, Tsai, who will be the first woman to be president when she assumes office May 20, repeatedly used the name Republic of China as that of the country that she will be governing, spurning the DPP's historical stance of creating an independent Republic of Taiwan, separate from China.

Even more striking was her calling herself "the 14th president-elect of the Republic of China," making her a direct political descendant of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan with his government after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and who ruled Taiwan under martial law until his death, imprisoning or executing those suspected of being advocates of Taiwan independence.

That is being pragmatic - and smart.

After all, there is no way of creating a Taiwanese republic without provoking a major response from Beijing, including military measures, and the world will say that Taiwan provoked such action. The only realistic option is to accept the Republic of China, lock, stock and barrel - including the flag and anthem and including the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu as well as Taiping in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

That is also a smart move because it is the least provocative in Beijing's eyes. Any attempt to cloak Taiwan's historical links with mainland China will be viewed with suspicion in Beijing.

This way, Tsai and the DPP accept reality and in effect invite Beijing to do likewise. The Chinese Civil War is over. Taiwan is a democracy.

Tsai made it clear during the campaign that her policy was to maintain the cross-strait status quo. Beijing wants her to accept the "1992 Consensus" under which both the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party agreed there was only "one China" but differed as to its definition.

So far, Tsai has not endorsed this concept but she has recognised "the 1992 meeting," which was held in Hong Kong.

Will Beijing be willing to accept some other form of words, such as recognizing the outcome of the 1992 meeting, without necessarily using the word "Consensus?"

Actually, Hong Kong is very much involved in developments in Taiwan. After all, the formula "one country, two systems" was originally devised by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping with Taiwan in mind, and then applied to Hong Kong first because the New Territories lease was about to expire.

Beijing hoped that it would work so well in Hong Kong that Taiwan would find the solution attractive. However, the opposite has happened.

The election itself did not focus on cross-strait issues, so the Global Times, the People's Daily affiliate, was right to say that Taiwan's voters chose Tsai, not independence.

The DPP agrees with that analysis, with Joseph Wu, the party's secretary-general, saying in Washington that the election was a referendum on domestic issues, not on cross-strait relations.

In her victory speech, Tsai was conciliatory to all concerned, including both her domestic rivals and to Beijing.

On cross-strait relations, she pointed out that both sides of the strait had a responsibility to ensure that no provocations or accidents take place.

But, as a Taiwanese leader - not a mainlander like Ma Ying-jeou - who is forging a new sense of Taiwan identity, Tsai will stand up for her people.

She made this clear when she drew attention to one highly publicised case, that of a 16-year-old Taiwanese singer who was filmed in South Korea holding the Republic of China flag.

The young woman was so widely criticised in China that she made a video in which she apologised and bowed deeply.

"This particular incident will serve as a constant reminder to me about the importance of our country's strength and unity," Tsai said. "This will be one of the most important responsibilities for me as the next president of the Republic of China."

With nationalistic leaders in power in both Beijing and in Taipei, the evolution of their relationship should be interesting over the next few years. But Tsai clearly will try not to provoke, though she may respond. One cannot speak with as much certainty about Xi Jinping.