WHEN Taiwan’s president stood up to give her National Day Address in Taipei yesterday, attention was as always focused on the issue of cross-strait relations with the giant People’s Republic of China.

The recent focus of international attention in the region has, for obvious reasons, been on the ramping up of rhetoric between North Korea and Washington. And particularly on North Korea’s decision to fly missiles over Japan.

However, for Taiwan’s 23 million people, the issue of its relations with mainland China remains absolutely crucial.

Loading article content

And President Tsai Ing-wen, who came to power last year when her Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential election, did not disappoint. There was never a chance she was going to ignore the elephant in the room. However, as fitting with her style so far, she confronted it head-on, at a time when tensions in the region have been elevated by the North Korean situation.

She declared: “Today, on our National Day, we should remember that democracy and freedom are rights that only came following the joint efforts of all Taiwanese people.

“As a result, the government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life.”

And she went further, declaring: “For 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, our brothers and sisters in uniform are standing at their posts, in defence of Taiwan. Across air force bases, pilots are in full combat gear ready to take to the skies. On the blue seas, our navy and coastguard vessels are currently engaged in patrols. Our army personnel are engaged in routine exercises and standing guard, without a moment’s relaxation. In situation rooms, hundreds of eyes are closely watching our neighbouring waters and airspace for the slightest disturbance.”

She talked about strengthening Taiwan’s military capabilities. She highlighted a need to address the growing demands of modern warfare and for Taiwan’s “new-generation military” to focus “not on quantity but quality”.

President Tsai has taken a more robust stance towards the People’s Republic of China than the previous Kuomintang administration.

And there has certainly been an escalation in verbal jousting across the Taiwan Strait.

President Tsai yesterday acknowledged “political differences between the two sides have led to some complications”, while declaring her administration had “exerted maximum goodwill” since May 20 last year.

It is a difficult balancing act. Taiwan, known officially as the Republic of China in its home territory, is all too aware of the might of mainland China.

However, there is also a determination among segments of the Taiwanese population, particularly young people, to take a more assertive stance on the question of the Republic of China’s independence.

People in Hong Kong, around two decades on from its handover by the British, watch the situation in Taiwan with interest, and vice-versa.

In the meantime, a somewhat delicate status quo prevails, based on the 1992 consensus reached between those on either side of the strait, of “one China, with respective interpretations”.

These respective interpretations effectively mean that those on each side of the strait believe that they are the real China.

The necessary balance seemed to be struck yesterday by President Tsai, who noted that this year marked the 30th anniversary of cross-strait exchanges and that hostility between the two sides had been replaced by peaceful development. She expressed hopes for “more breakthroughs in the cross -strait relationship”. In these days of globalisation, this relationship has huge economic as well as political ramifications.

The tone of President Tsai’s address, robust but highlighting a desire for cooperation, could hardly have been more different from the strong and at times alarming language adopted by the current North Korean and US administrations, although it should probably be emphasised in this context that the two situations are not the same.

Meanwhile, it is worth observing that the National Day celebrations before and after President Tsai’s speech could hardly have been any further removed from the likes of big demonstrations of military strength in the likes of North Korea or the People’s Republic of China.

Rather, the military part of the parade was small-scale and focused on ceremony rather than strength. The rest of the parade included dozens of colourfully decorated floats promoting the likes of renewable energy, organic food, and the chamber of commerce. This part of the parade had a celebratory family-type atmosphere slightly reminiscent of Disney.

That said, the message from President Tsai was robust and serious.

While highlighting Taiwan’s desire for peace and stability, she expressed a determination to ensure freedom and democracy prevailed in the Republic of China.

She said: “Although we are strengthening our military capabilities, we do not seek war. We remain committed to maintaining peace and stability both in the Taiwan Strait and across the region.

“Meanwhile, we will continue to safeguard Taiwan’s freedom, democracy, and way of life, as well as ensure the Taiwanese people’s right to decide our own future.”