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Taiwan Just Elected Its First Female President — And Now She Has to Deal With China

Taiwan's independence-leaning opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen will be thrust into one of Asia's toughest and most dangerous jobs after she takes office.
Taiwan president-elect Tsai Ing-wen waves to supporters in Taipei on January 16. (Photo by Jerome Favre/EPA)

Taiwan's independence-leaning opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen won a convincing victory in presidential elections on Saturday, becoming the first woman to hold the country's top office. Tsai pledged to maintain peace with neighboring China, which claims the island and has warned that it would oppose any move toward independence.

Tsai, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will be thrust into one of Asia's toughest and most dangerous jobs. China has hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan, where losing Nationalists fled from Mao Zedong's Communists in the Chinese civil war in 1949.


Tsai said she would establish "consistent, predictable and sustainable" relations with China. She risks antagonizing China if she attempts to forcefully assert Taiwan's sovereignty and reverses eight years of warming China ties under incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalists.

"Both sides have a responsibility to do their utmost to find mutually acceptable ways to interact with respect and reciprocity and ensure no provocation and no surprises," Tsai added, having taken around 56 percent of the vote.

She added, however, that she would defend Taiwan's interests and its sovereignty. China has not renounced the use of force to ensure eventual unification with the island.

"Our democracy, national identity and international space must be fully respected and any suppression would undermine the stability of cross-Strait relations," she said.

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In a statement carried by state media, China's Taiwan Affairs Office said the achievements and peace of the past eight years should be cherished, and that it would not tolerate any Taiwan independence activities.

"On important issues of principle like protecting the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, our will is as hard as rock," it said.

China was willing to have exchanges with any party, as long as they recognize both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China, it added.


Support for the DPP has swelled since 2014, when hundreds of students occupied Taiwan's parliament for weeks protesting against a China trade bill in the largest display of anti-China sentiment the island had seen in years.

Watch the VICE News documentary The Sunflower Revolt: Protests in Taiwan:

Outside DPP headquarters, supporters cried for joy.

Optometrist David Chen, 28, said he wanted Tsai to stand up to China.

"We're not a part of China. I definitely think we should exist as two countries," he told Reuters. "If it's possible for Tsai, I want her to push for independence. More and more Taiwanese people want this."

Tsai, a lawyer, got an even stronger mandate as the DPP also won a majority in parliament in polls held the same day.

Tsai will have to balance the superpower interests of China, which is also Taiwan's largest trading partner, and the United States with those of her freewheeling, democratic home.

Related: The US Is Reshuffling All its Game Pieces on the Asia-Pacific Chessboard

The US State Department said it looked forward to working with Tsai. "We share with the Taiwan people a profound interest in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability," it said.

Perhaps fearful of allowing discussion about democracy on an island Beijing says it owns, Chinese censors moved swiftly to block searches for Tsai's name on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.

Some Chinese managed to post about the vote though.


"Why is there no election for the chairman in China? I condemn this," said one Weibo user.

Tsai has the tide of history against her. Ma and his predecessors all failed to bring about a lasting reconciliation with China. Shots were traded between the two sides as recently as the mid-1970s.

At stake are relations with an ascendant and increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping.

Tsai has been ambiguous on her China policy, merely pledging, in public anyway, to maintain the status quo. Beijing has warned repeatedly that hard-earned peace across the Taiwan Strait could be affected by a Tsai win.

The United States has expressed concerns about the danger of worsening China-Taiwan ties, at a time when China's navy is increasingly flexing its muscles in the South China and East China Seas and expanding territorial claims.

China has held out the "one country, two systems" formula, under which the British colony of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, as a solution for Taiwan. But both the Nationalists and DPP have rejected the idea.

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