Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, right, waves beside incumbent her predecessor President Ma Ying-jeou on Friday. Photo: Kyodo News/AP Beijing: She is soft-spoken, attentive, balanced and loves cats. She is also the most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world and she has drawn a line in the sand with Beijing on her very first day on the job.

After being swept to a landslide election victory in January by a Taiwan public deeply disillusioned with the mainland-friendly Kuomintang government, Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in on Friday and promptly skirted around directly acknowledging the so-called “one-China policy” in her inaugural address, a move likely to irk Beijing.

‘One-China’ Policy and the ‘1992 Consensus’

Ms Tsai, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, said in her speech she would seek common ground with the mainland and ensure cross-straits relations remained stable and peaceful. But she resisted pressure from Beijing to acknowledge they were part of a single nation, merely saying she respected the “historical fact” of “joint acknowledgements and understandings” reached between the sides at a landmark 1992 meeting which has underpinned all subsequent engagement between both sides since.

Beijing had been stepping up pressure on Ms Tsai in recent weeks to follow her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou’s lead and openly endorse the “one-China” principle, the understanding that both sides belong to one China, even if they have different interpretations of what that signifies.

“If there is a cross-strait deadlock, or a crisis emerges, the person who changed the current situation should bear responsibility,” Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said at a news conference last week.

A more combative tone?

Much of Ms Tsai’s mandate – the DPP has taken control of both the executive and legislative branches of parliament – is predicated on showing greater transparency, and a more sceptical tone, in the government’s dealings with mainland China.

Toward the end of his second term, Mr Ma was heavily criticised for courting mainland business and economic pacts at little discernible benefit for the Taiwanese public. Lack of transparency over a mainland trade pact prompted widespread demonstrations and the occupation of the legislative yuan by university students in 2014.

“I think she will be incredibly attentive to domestic politics where the Ma government wasn’t,” says Mark Harrison, a Taiwan expert at the University of Tasmania.

“They will have a very different tone … it will be noisier but not necessarily substantively different.

“Tsai has signalled pretty strongly that she wants to maintain stability and peace and balance but the Chinese government has a strong position and we need to see whether it will go along with Tsai in finding a new equilibrium point.”

Domestic agenda

Despite strong trade ties with mainland China, Taiwan’s economy is in recession, having shrunk for three straight quarters, dragged down by slowing demand for its exports from mainland China and around the world. Recent university graduates, in particular are disillusioned with a lack of employment, low starting salaries and decreasing housing affordability.

Ms Tsai on Friday reinforced her pledges to enact policies focused on youth empowerment and social justice issues, while in another signal to the mainland, she said would reform Taiwan’s flagging economy and “bid farewell to our past overreliance on a single market”.

Ms Tsai drew strong applause from the crowd when she said her government would look into judicial reform: “the general sentiment is that the judicial system is not close to the people, and is not trusted by them”. Also drawing cheers was a pledge to set up a “truth and reconciliation” commission to properly account for Taiwan’s darkest page in its modern history: the bloody crackdown during an uprising of Taiwan’s indigenous population in 1947, a prelude to decades of martial law that was only formally lifted in 1987.

There is also significant expectation that Ms Tsai could make Taiwan – with an increasingly liberal and progressive demographic – the first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.

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