Tsai’s re-election on Saturday with a record 8.2 million votes, or 57 percent, was a forceful rebuke of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s push to heap economic and diplomatic pressure on the self-ruled island.
But this attempt to encourage support for the more Beijing-friendly opposition pushed Taiwanese voters instead in droves towards Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which leans towards independence.
The result keeps Taiwan on a collision course with its giant neighbour — which views the island as its own territory and has vowed to one day seize it, by force if necessary.
“Beijing will want to quickly put the squeeze on a second Tsai term, poaching allies and reducing its international space and perhaps increasing demonstrations of military might,” Jonathan Sullivan, a Taiwan expert at Britain’s University of Nottingham, told AFP.
“A Tsai victory means that Beijing will likely not just maintain (its) policies but seek to increase the pressure,” added Clayton Dube at the University of Southern California.
Beijing loathes Tsai because she refuses to abide by their view that Taiwan is part of “one China”.
It has long warned that any formal declaration of independence would be a red line that could spark an invasion — a move that could push China into direct conflict with the US, which remains Taiwan’s main military ally.
While Chinese state media portrays Tsai as an independence advocate — and many in her DPP party favour a formal declaration — Tsai holds a deliberately more ambiguous stance.
She maintains that Taiwan is already a sovereign nation and argues that only its 23 million inhabitants, not Beijing, should decide the island’s future.
After she was first elected in 2016, Tsai reached out for cross-strait talks without preconditions.
But China responded by cutting off official communication with her government, ramping up military drills and turning the screw on the economy by drastically reducing mainland tourists.
It also poached seven of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, leaving just 15 nations that still recognise the island as a legitimate country.
Rather than cave, Tsai moulded herself as a defender of liberal democratic values.
During her campaign for re-election, she also repeatedly invoked the political unrest in nearby Hong Kong as a warning of what might await Taiwan should Beijing take control.
The plan worked — 1.3 million more people voted for her in 2020 than 2016.
Her main rival Han Kuo-yu from the Kuomintang party (KMT), who pushed for warmer ties with China, won just 39 percent of the vote.
“If Beijing’s goal was to compel unification then they have certainly failed,” Bonnie Glaser, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP.
“Polls (in Taiwan) consistently show that support for unification is waning and support for independence is growing, with the majority still supporting the preservation of the status quo,” she added.
During her victory speech on Saturday night, Tsai repeated her offer of talks with Beijing.
“Peace, parity, democracy and dialogue are the keys to stability,” she said, adding Taiwan would “never concede to threats”.
But the initial response from across the strait suggests an olive branch is unlikely.
In a commentary on Sunday, Chinese state news agency Xinhua accused Tsai of using “dirty tactics such as cheating, repression and intimidation”, without citing evidence or examples.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told Xinhua he hoped the international community would “understand and support the just cause of Chinese people to oppose the secessionist activities for ‘Taiwan independence’ and realise national reunification”.
Hung Chin-fu, an analyst at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, said Beijing would bide its time in responding to Tsai’s landslide victory, but a U-turn was unlikely.
“I think it’s not to Beijing’s political advantage to take immediate aggressive actions against Taiwan and it will take some time to wait and see,” he said.
One way to pressure Tsai might be to secure another quick diplomatic defection.
Fabrizio Bozzato, a research fellow at the University of Rome La Sapienza, said the Vatican — the only place in Europe that still recognises Taiwan over China — was a vulnerable scalp for Beijing to take.
“The Vatican would likely respond positively for the sake of achieving an historic deal with China,” he said.
“Pope Francis appears to be determined to go down in history as the Pope who opened the door of China.”
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