TAIPEI/BEIJING – Taiwan’s outgoing president and his successor on Wednesday emphasized the need for a smooth transition of power amid a slowdown in the island’s high-tech economy and uncertainty over sensitive relations with China.
President Ma Ying-jeou began his meeting with Tsai Ing-wen by calling her January election victory, along with that of her Democratic Progressive Party, a “new milestone” for Taiwanese democracy.
“Chairwoman Tsai is about to become first female president since the establishment of the Republic of China,” Ma said. He used Taiwan’s official name predating the government’s relocation to the island in 1949 as the Communist Party swept to victory in the Chinese civil war.
The victory of the independence-leaning Democrats over Ma’s China-friendly Nationalist Party has introduced new uncertainty over whether Beijing will agree to continue expanding contacts.
Tsai, who takes office May 20, has declined to meet Beijing’s demand that she explicitly endorse its claim that Taiwan and mainland China are part of a single Chinese nation. She has stated that reviving economic growth and improving social welfare will be the main focuses of her administration, placing relatively little emphasis on relations with Beijing.
In Beijing, the spokesman for the Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, An Fengshan, said ties would suffer if Tsai didn’t endorse the principle recognizing the mainland and China that Beijing terms the “’92 consensus.”
“The ’92 consensus is the precedent and political foundation stone,” An told reporters.
Without mentioning specific issues, Ma said Taiwan “faces many challenges from within and without,” which call for cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties.
Tsai thanked Ma for his work as president and for agreeing to the meeting, which she said came a time of concern over the transition.
“I think the hopes of the people are very clear — that regardless of the attacks and competition during the election campaign, we can all now ensure that this process of transferring power can be smooth,” she said.
While neither directly mentioned relations with China, Ma said he appreciated the Taiwanese people giving him the opportunity over the past eight years to work toward “a free, just and prosperous Taiwan, a peaceful Taiwan Strait and friendly international environment.”
Beijing claims the self-governing island of Taiwan as its own territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary. Relations between the two improved under the Nationalists, which governed Taiwan over the last eight years and promoted pro-China policies.
Also Wednesday, Beijing warned Taipei that the passage of a proposed new law governing relations between the two could seriously damage the basis for talks, and that China opposed any obstacles to developing ties.
In 2014, hundreds of students occupied Taiwan’s parliament for weeks in protests nicknamed the Sunflower Movement, demanding more transparency and fearful of China’s growing economic and political influence on the democratic island.
The protests over the 2013 Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which aimed to open up investment from both sides in industries such as banking, health care, and tourism, were the largest display of anti-China sentiment in Taiwan in years.
The DPP is proposing that Taiwan’s parliament pass a so-called cross-Taiwan Strait supervision law before it considers agreeing to the trade pact.
China is worried that the law would stymie future agreements with Taiwan.
Asked about the law, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the basis for talks between the two sides should not be damaged.
“Anything that damages the basis for consultations and negotiations between the two sides of the strait, interferes in or impedes relevant progress or puts up man-made blocks on the development of ties, we will resolutely oppose,” spokesman An Fengshan said at a regular briefing.
He did not elaborate.
The trade deal has stalled in Taiwan’s parliament, although the manner in which the self-ruled island moves forward in the current February-to-May session will be seen as a sign of how Tsai will steer Taiwan-China ties.
China’s trade minister last month urged Taiwan to pass the trade pact.