Oct. 4, 2016 5:33 p.m. ET
TAIPEI—Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen vowed that Taiwan wouldn’t buckle under the pressure China has ratcheted up on the island, though she pledged to avoid confrontation and urged Beijing to hold talks with her government.
Ms. Tsai offered Beijing a chance to reset relations after several months in which China has used its abundant economic and diplomatic sway to try to check her government’s domestic and international agendas. She said both sides should sit down to eliminate misunderstanding, without any preconditions.
“I also hope that mainland China does not misinterpret or misjudge the current situation, or think that it can make Taiwanese bow to pressure. In a democratic society, this kind of pressure is felt by all,” Ms. Tsai said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. “No administration in Taiwan is able to make any decision that goes against the opinion of the people.”
Ms. Tsai also recommitted to plans to reduce Taiwan’s economic dependence on China, saying the economies compete more than complement each other. On ties with the U.S.—Taiwan’s most important security partner—Ms. Tsai expected relations to remain firm no matter whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton wins next month’s presidential election.
Ms. Tsai came to power four months ago in a landslide vote that put her party, long in opposition, in control of the legislature. The shift unsettled China and swept aside Taiwan’s long-ruling party, whose engagement with Beijing many Taiwanese saw as benefiting the few. The prior detente had eased tensions in a recurring flashpoint since the Chinese civil war seven decades ago.
Several times during the more than hourlong interview Ms. Tsai spoke about the complex relations the now full-fledged democracy has with China, which still claims the island as its territory.
The 60-year-old Ms. Tsai, a former law professor and trade negotiator, chose her words carefully. She said both sides should recall her inaugural address in May when she committed to “maximum flexibility” by maintaining the status quo and respecting the prior administration’s understandings with Beijing.
“The pledges we have made in the past remain unchanged. Our goodwill is unchanged. But we will not succumb to pressure from China,” Ms. Tsai said. She said, “We won’t revert to the old path of conflict and confrontation.”
From the outset, however, Beijing has sent signals to rein in Ms. Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party officially supports independence for Taiwan, a stance inimical to China.
Group tourism from the mainland, whose spending buoys small businesses on the island, has dipped. Beijing suspended official channels of communication with Ms. Tsai’s government and blocked an attempt by Taiwan to participate in a global civil-aviation body. Without directly linking these measures, Beijing has conditioned engagement on Ms. Tsai’s endorsing a vague 1992 formula her predecessor followed that there is “one China.”
Ms. Tsai has refused to use the phrasing “’92 consensus” that Beijing prefers and declined to adopt it in the interview.
When comparing the island’s situation to the former British colony of Hong Kong now under Chinese rule, Ms. Tsai said Taiwan is “a sovereign, independent country” but, like the people of Hong Kong, aspires to “democracy, freedom and human rights.”
A frustration for Ms. Tsai’s government, as well as for many Taiwanese, has been Taiwan’s relative diplomatic isolation and exclusion from many international bodies, chiefly due to Beijing’s objections. Most recently, Taiwan was barred from last month’s meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization after joining the rule-setting body’s prior meeting in 2013.
Ms. Tsai said her government sought to engage Beijing to permit Taiwan’s entry. While some countries voiced their backing, she said, “We need stronger support from the international community.”
On the South China Sea, Ms. Tsai surprised many governments in the region by rejecting an international tribunal’s ruling in July that invalidated most of China’s sweeping claims to the seas and land formations. Beijing rejected it as well. Taiwan controls the largest island and its claims on paper mirror Beijing’s. Ms. Tsai explained her government’s decision reflected in part a sense of unfairness: the tribunal excluded Taiwan and referred to its government as part of China.
“As a stakeholder, we must be part of the negotiations and be allowed to participate as other claimants,” she said.
Likewise, on the economy, Ms. Tsai said, for the sake of prosperity, Taiwan must promote innovation and shift trade and investment to Southeast Asia and South Asia, and away from China. Growth in the economy, which is roughly the size of Sweden’s, is officially projected to reach 1.2%, and, Ms. Tsai said, was already slowing for years before she took office.
“We don’t intend to politicize this intention to expand to other markets and economies,” Ms. Tsai said. Asked if Chinese leaders might block agreements with other countries, she said that “they tend to forget many of the decisions made are not that politically oriented.”
Ms. Tsai said she’s open to meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but without conditions. After forging closer ties with Beijing, her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, held a landmark meeting last year with Mr. Xi, the first between leaders of the two sides since Communist forces drove the Nationalists from the mainland in 1949.
“It has been a longstanding practice of China to set political preconditions before any meaningful dialogue can be held. I think this is obstructive to the development of our relationship,” she said.
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Tags: China, democracy, Democratic Progressive Party, Donald Trump, freedom, Hillary Clinton, human rights, independence for Taiwan, International Civil Aviation Organization, Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, Ma Ying-jeou, President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan, Taiwan’s economic dependence on China, Tsai, Tsai Ing-wen, Xi Jinping