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Taiwan Inaugurates First Female President

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today, Taiwan inaugurated its first female president. Her party, in the past, has pushed for formal independence from mainland China, something Beijing says it would go to war to prevent. Those ongoing tensions between Taiwan and the mainland could, in turn, complicate ties between Beijing and Washington, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the capital, Taipei.

(SOUNBITE OF ARCHIVED RECODRING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Performances at the inauguration celebrated a Taiwanese identity distinct and separate from that of China. Aboriginal children sang the national anthem. Actors played the part as students fighting for democracy against the former dictatorship of the long-ruling Nationalist government. In her speech, President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated her people on their third transfer of political power through democratic elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES TSAI ING-WEN: (Through interpreter) We are firmly committed to defending our free and democratic way of life. Each and every one of us participated in this journey. My dear fellow Taiwanese, we did it.

(APPLAUSE)

KUHN: Tsai acknowledged what public opinion polls show, that voters elected her to solve a long list of mostly domestic problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ING-WEN: (Through interpreter) Our judicial system has lost the trust of the people. Our families are deeply disturbed by food safety scandals. Our wealth disparities are still widening. Our social safety net is full of holes.

KUHN: Since the end of China's civil war in 1949, Taiwan has enjoyed a sort of de facto independence. Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party would like to make that independence formal, but voters ousted two presidents before Tsai Ing-wen. One who they felt went too far towards independence. And the other who they thought got too chummy with Beijing. So Tsai and her party have moved to the center.

J. MICHAEL COLE: Society itself has moved toward the center, in my opinion.

KUHN: J. Michael Cole is a Taiwan-based scholar with the University of Nottingham in England.

COLE: They are surprisingly accommodating of China, at least in terms of recognizing it as a state that needs to be dealt with.

KUHN: But China is highly suspicious of Tsai and her party. They demand that Tsai recognize that Taiwan and the mainland are both part of a single China. Tsai stopped short of acknowledging this in her speech, and Beijing accused her of waffling. Taiwan is heavily reliant on the mainland as a place to make and sell products. And Beijing has hinted that it could make life difficult for her. J. Michael Cole says that would be a mistake.

COLE: Slowing down trade across the Taiwan Strait, punishing the Taiwanese for their democratic choices, I find it very difficult to see how that would yield the results that they're hoping for.

KUHN: Meanwhile, the U.S. is also in a balancing act as it pivots towards Asia. Taiwan could serve as a useful partner in hedging against aggression by mainland China. But Harvard University Taiwan expert Steven Goldstein says that the U.S. is proceeding cautiously.

STEVEN GOLDSTEIN: We don't want the Chinese to think that we're including Taiwan in a mammoth anti-Chinese alliance.

KUHN: Washington continues to publicly acknowledge the so-called One-China policy. Even as, Goldstein says, it keeps up a quiet, robust cooperation with Taiwan's military. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.