China's long shadow over Taiwan's recent presidential and legislative elections will no doubt continue to shape President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's political responses after she takes over the task of steering the island through turbulent times. The vagueness of her pre-election pledge to maintain the "status quo" in cross-strait relations implicitly acknowledged both the risk of conflict with the major power and that of ignoring public sentiments against reunification. It has been likened to a political tightrope walk for her.
While many voters were seized by economic matters (like wage stagnation and housing affordability), the China factor still loomed large. The Asian giant is the island's largest export market, and Taiwan's economy gets a boost from millions of Chinese tourists who are permitted to travel there. Yet, the prospect of deepening trade ties had fuelled fears about China's unstoppable domination, not helped by President Ma Ying-jeou's handling of a trade pact that had sparked the "Sunflower Movement" in 2014.
A widespread perception is that big businesses have gained more from cross-strait ties. There is also a strong sense of distinct Taiwanese identity among the young and others which has grown in past decades. One survey showed that the proportion rejecting unification rose from about a third to two-thirds within the space of five to six years.
With its substantial clout and growing confidence on the international stage, China might not overreact to the tilt of public opinion which contributed to the landslide win garnered by Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party. China has, after all, various levers within reach as it modifies its approach to drawing Taiwan closer under the One-China framework. It will not be a smooth ride as during Mr Ma's terms but there should not be a return to the frost induced by the mainland strategy of former president Chen Shui-bian.
Ms Tsai, who was closely associated with Mr Chen's cross-strait policy when the DPP was in power from 2000 to 2008, cannot afford to let history repeat itself as much is at stake. The bitterness between the two over six decades has long posed a potential flashpoint and calls for careful handling. For years, a studied ambiguity (symbolised by the so-called 1992 consensus) has allowed both sides to pursue separate paths and avoid confrontation. But in stating that "the 1992 consensus is an option, but it's not the only one", Ms Tsai has created doubt about how steadfastly she will adhere to the status quo.
The US and others, including Singapore, supporting the One-China principle would scarcely wish to see the modus vivendi being threatened by a more assertive DPP stance. However, by making cross-strait peace and stability the overriding imperative, Ms Tsai can gain time and space to focus on the economic ills affecting Taiwan.