Tsai Ing-wen is new to the job and the strain is beginning to show. Elected president of Taiwan in a landslide victory, she took office in May, buoyed by high approval ratings. Yet in a few short months, Tsai’s popularity has plunged by 25%. The reason may be summed up in one word: China. Suspicious that Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party, which also won control of parliament, harbours a pro-independence agenda, Beijing suspended official and back-channel talks with its “renegade province” and shut down an emergency hotline.
More seriously, for many Taiwanese workers, China also curbed the lucrative tourist trade, which brought millions of mainland visitors to the island during the accommodating presidency of Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Cross-strait investment and business have also been hit.
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Tsai faces contradictory pressures. The public wants the benefit of closer economic ties with China but Beijing’s intentions are rightly distrusted by a population that increasingly identifies itself as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Given President Xi Jinping’s ominous warnings that reunification cannot be delayed indefinitely, China’s military build-up and hawkish suggestions that Beijing may resort to force, Taiwanese ambivalence is wholly understandable.
This dilemma – how to work constructively with a powerful, assertive China without compromising or surrendering national interests – grows steadily more acute. It is shared by states across the east and southeast Asian region. From Indonesia and the Philippines to Vietnam, Japan, Seoul, Malaysia and Singapore, the quandary is the same. But the answers proffered by national leaders are different and sometimes sharply at odds.
The China dilemma is felt strongly in Washington. The US has striven in recent years to strengthen Asian alliances, increase trade and raise its regional military profile – Barack Obama’s so-called rebalance or pivot to Asia – in a bid to contain and channel China’s ambitions peacefully. But analysts say the pivot appears to be in trouble. For Europeans fixated on Syria and immigration, this may not seem especially worrying or relevant. That’s shortsighted. If Obama and future US presidents get China wrong, the resulting damage could be global, threatening the security and prosperity of all.