President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan urged China on Tuesday to seek a peaceful solution to its differences with Taiwan and stressed that the island’s people want to maintain self-rule.
Speaking a day before China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was expected to make a major speech about Taiwan, Ms. Tsai said that China must respect the freedom and democracy of Taiwan’s 23 million people. Her remarks came amid a shift in the island’s political landscape, with Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party having suffered major losses in local elections in November. Candidates who favor closer ties with China won mayoral contests in Taiwan’s four largest cities.
“I must emphasize, the results of the past election absolutely do not represent that the will of the people at the grass-roots level seeks to give up our sovereignty,” she said in a New Year’s Day address. Beijing considers Taiwan to be Chinese territory that must be united with the mainland, by force if necessary.
The Chinese government, Ms. Tsai said, “must handle our differences peacefully and as equals.”
That set of differences amounts to one of Asia’s biggest potential flash points. Since Ms. Tsai came to power in 2016, China has ramped up pressure on her government. It has increased patrols by military aircraft, sent bombers to circle the island and sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan has been self-governed since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang troops fled to the island after losing China’s civil war to Mao’s Communist Party. After decades of martial law, it democratized in the 1990s and is now one of Asia’s freest societies.
Beijing has cut official contacts with Ms. Tsai’s government because she has refused to state that Taiwan and China are both part of the same country. After her party’s November defeat, Ms. Tsai stepped down as its chair and is now dealing with an internal power struggle.
Ms. Tsai’s weakened position offers an opportunity for the opposition Kuomintang — the party that once ruled China and later monopolized political power in Taiwan — as well as China’s ruling Communist Party. Despite having fought each other in China’s civil war, the two parties have cooperated at times, and both consider Taiwan and China to be part of the same country.
With Kuomintang mayors taking the reins in the major cities of Taichung, New Taipei City and the traditional Democratic Progressive Party stronghold of Kaohsiung, Ms. Tsai and others are concerned that China will use these mayors to influence the island’s politics.
In December, Ko Wen-je, the independent mayor of Taipei, hosted officials from Shanghai at an annual forum held by the two cities, and there has been speculation that other cities may follow suit. During his recent re-election campaign, Mr. Ko was criticized for saying that both sides of the strait are part of the same family.
Ms. Tsai issued a thinly veiled warning to the new Kuomintang mayors that they should not be holding secret talks with China or undermining her government’s cross-strait policy.
“We don’t oppose normal cross-strait activities, we also don’t oppose cross-strait interactions between cities,” she said. “However, cross-strait interactions need to be healthy and normal.”
Mr. Xi of China has taken a hard line against independence for Taiwan, restating his opposition to it in a major speech last month.
Tuesday was the 40th anniversary of when the United States broke formal relations with the Republic of China government in Taipei to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. This year is also the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the United States Congress to ensure future support for the island. It says that the United States considers Taiwan’s status undetermined and that it must be resolved peacefully and without coercion.