A Taiwanese Perspective


In contrast to the relatively amicable Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) era (2008-16), cross-strait relations have chilled considerably since Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) came to power in Taiwan in 2016. Despite Tsai’s vow to maintain the status quo, China has criticized her for failing to accept the so-called 1992 Consensus – an agreement to disagree reached between the two sides’ semi-official exchange bodies in 1992 – and has increased political, military, and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan. New dynamics emanating from Beijing, Taipei, and Washington promise to make 2019-20 a challenging time, requiring prudent restraint and vigilant management.

Since 1996, when Taiwan held its first popular presidential elections ushering in its truly democratic epoch, the triangular relationship among Taiwan, China, and the United States can be explained largely in a three-step sequential framework. Until 2016, typically Taiwan made the first move, which led to China making the second move, which in turn required the US to make the third move – largely to restore the status quo ante. In a nutshell, Taiwan’s rapid and robust democratization has contributed to internal sovereignty but also exerted demand for external sovereignty.1 

During the Lee Teng-hui era (1988-2000) and the Chen Shui-bian era (2000-08), rising Taiwan identity that had become increasingly entrenched over time2 put pressure on popularly elected leaders to safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty (clarifying Taiwan’s relationship with China, if necessary) and seek greater international affirmation of Taiwan’s democratic accomplishments.  Taiwan’s campaign to (re-)enter the United Nations (launched in 1993-4), Lee’s visit to his alma mater Cornell University (1995), and his characterization of cross-strait relations as “special state-to-state relations” (teshu guoyuguo guanxi) (1999), and Chen’s declaration that “there is a state on either side of the Taiwan Strait” (yibian yiguo) (2002) all attest to the aforementioned internal-external dynamic. In those cases, Taiwan initiated the first move (although one can argue that politicians might justify their moves in defensive terms, that is, in response to China’s changing the status quo). China responded with threatening disruptive second moves, such as instigating the third Taiwan strait crisis (1995-6) and warning Taiwanese voters not to vote for “splittists.” The US, owing to its own significant interests in the Western Pacific region, its adherence to its own “One China” policy, and its commitment to Taiwan mandated under the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances, would then intervene (the third move) diplomatically or militarily to restore the status quo.3 Although, arguably, the US was able to restore the status quo (essentially the Shanghai Communiqué paradigm), seeds for the next cycle were also planted.

Both cross-strait and Taiwan-US relations improved during the Ma era (2008-16). Guided by a policy of “pro-US, peace with China, and friendship with Japan” (qinmei hezhong youri) and accepting the 1992 Consensus, Ma signaled that his administration would not initiate the first move. Professing “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” during his terms, Ma saw a period of “peaceful development” in cross-strait relations. Toward the US, Ma promised “no surprise” and worked to repair the relationship damaged during the Chen years. The type of internal-external dynamic characterizing the Lee and Chen eras subsided. Starting the second Ma term, however, certain policy circles began to worry whether cross-strait reconciliation might be progressing too fast and its direction too uncertain for the US with the potential for a first move of a different kind.4 Domestically Ma’s mainland policy met strong resistance over the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in the 2014 Sunflower Movement,5 which presaged the KMT’s electoral defeats in the 2014 local and 2016 national elections. 

In 2016, Taiwan’s presidency underwent the third democratic change of power with the election of Tsai, the first female leader. The DPP also won the legislature. Tsai staked out a middle ground: maintaining the status quo (and refraining from provocative moves) but declining to accept the 1992 Consensus (while acknowledging the “historical facts” and the “spirit of seeking similarities while preserving differences” embodied by the 1992 cross-strait talks). Beijing has equated the 1992 Consensus with the “One China Principle” (each side affirms One China, or gebiao yizhong) whereas the KMT, the ruling party until 2000, held that it meant “One China, but each side has its own interpretation” (yizhong gebiao). Citing Tsai’s refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus, Beijing has intensified diplomatic, military, and political pressure against Taiwan.

Prima facie, since 2016 Taiwan has not been the first mover. Instead, both Beijing and Washington have attempted the first moves to change the status quo. Beijing has worked assiduously to reduce Taiwan’s already constrained international space. Observer invitations to Taiwan during the Ma years from the World Health Organization (technically only its plenary sessions, World Health Assembly) and International Civil Aviation Organization were withdrawn. In two years China snatched five of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners (Panama, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Burkina Faso, and São Tomé and Príncipe), reducing Taiwan’s partners to seventeen and ending a “diplomatic truce” implicitly observed when Ma was in power.  Militarily, Chinese warships and military aircraft began to circle-navigate Taiwan (albeit over high seas) and Chinese warplanes began to cross the symbolically important median line in the Taiwan Strait. In terms of political warfare, China began to “domesticize” cross-strait relations with its own laws and regulations. On New Year’s Day 2019, on the occasion of commemorating the 40th anniversary of “A Message to Taiwan Compatriots,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping removed all pretense over Taiwan and seemed to initiate the unification process. He defined the 1992 Consensus as the One China principle, which requires Taiwan’s unification with China. He argued the best way to achieve unification would be the “one country, two systems” model, and invited all walks of life that subscribe to the 1992 Consensus to begin a “democratic political consultation” over the “Taiwan formula” under that model (yiguo liangzhi de Taiwan fangan).6 Xi tried to link Taiwan’s return to his ambitious goal of “national rejuvenation.” Xi’s assertive stance helped boost Tsai’s popularity, dealt a severe blow by the November 2014 local/midterm elections,7 and led to her winning the primary in June as the DPP’s nominee for the January 2020 presidential election.

Usually playing the role of third mover to restore the status quo, the US under the Trump administration has increasingly played a role as the second-mover (and even initially hinted at a first-mover possibility). Trump startled the Washington establishment by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwan leader Tsai before his inauguration, tweeting his skepticism about the One China policy and revealing his transactional tendencies. The administration’s first National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, named China and Russia as “revisionist powers.”8 The administration’s darkened view about China, exemplified by Vice President Pence’s speech last October,9 captured bipartisan disillusionment about the engagement policy toward China over the past four decades.10 The US is increasingly willing to respond more robustly, or even push back, against Chinese actions such as assertiveness in the South and East China seas, pressure against Taiwan, execution of “sharp power,” contestation over global governance, a trade war, 5G technology competition, etc. Amidst an increasingly competitive US-China relationship, the strategic value of Taiwan soars. Congress passed and the president signed a number of pro-Taiwan laws, including the Taiwan Travel Act, National Defense Authorization Act, and Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. Although these legislations largely express the will of the Congress and prescribed measures that this administration was likely to do anyway, the frequency of such overt pro-Taiwan legislation was unseen since US-PRC normalization. The US is also beginning to help Taiwan shore up its remaining diplomatic foothills and push back Chinese advances in the Western Hemisphere and Oceania, even though Washington is unlikely to itself change its basic One China policy framework. However, a prudent observer should still worry about the double-edged sword nature of the Trump administration’s pro-Taiwan stance: in the calculus of a “transactionist president,” a highly valuable Taiwan may be used to extract greater concessions from China on things that matter to him, such as a trade deal and North Korea. These recent dynamics are likely to carry over into developments in 2019-20. Impetus from each side of the triangle may combine to make the coming year challenging, requiring prudent restraint and vigilant management.

Taiwan will soon enter the campaign season for the January 2020 presidential elections. Tsai defeated former premier Lai Ching-teh, who was favored by the Deep Green, in the DPP primaries in June. The KMT’s primaries in mid-July will be decided among five candidates, with Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu and Foxconn tycoon Terry Gou leading the polls. Will the DPP use an anti-China plank to energize its base, salvage its policy unpopularity, and solidify US support? Will China attempt to use “influence operations” to interfere in Taiwan’s elections and produce outcomes favorable to China, as some have alleged?11 If a KMT candidate wins the presidential race, how will he re-engage with China in the aftermath of Xi’s New Year Speech, which essentially pulled the rug from under the KMT version of the 1992 Consensus? Are missions by the Chinese military likely to increase in the vicinity of Taiwan in the lead-up to the elections?  Will US warships, joined by nations such as France and Canada, increase their patrols around Taiwan? Will the Taiwan Strait become increasingly “militarized,” an arena for great-power competition?

For China, the coming year is highly symbolic. It will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC in October – a milestone Xi would undoubtedly use to herald the staying power and central role of the Chinese Communist Party and his leadership of China’s glorious national rejuvenation. This nationalist campaign entails three potential flashpoints on China’s peripheries: progress to bring Taiwan into the fold, pressure against Japan, and challenge against the US.  Potential escalation from increasing encounters, such as the US military’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait and the Chinese military’s expanding operations off the First Island Chain in the Western Pacific, are possible. Meanwhile, the image of Xi as all-powerful and in full control contrasts with an alternative perception: subdued but simmering domestic discontent (thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown), Hong Kong’s growing disaffection about the “one country, two systems” scheme revealed by the recent massive protests against the proposed extradition agreement, and a potential challenge to Xi from within the party (over purges in the name of an anti-corruption campaign or premature abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s “biding one’s time and hiding one’s capability” maxim), and misguided policy toward the US (eliciting Washington’s robust pushback). Will Xi divert internal or external challenges toward a nationalist adventure, such as compelling Taiwan to begin talks over unification or use force against Taiwan? Will China snatch a few more diplomatic allies from Taiwan (for example, the Vatican or the Solomon Islands), furthering Taiwanese’s sense of isolation and desperation? Will China resume the semi-official dialogue and exchange with Taiwan, broken off since 2016, if the KMT returns to power? Will China demand additional assurance that Taiwan’s movement toward unification is irreversible, notwithstanding the lack of appeal of China’s political system to most Taiwanese?

For the United States, should it revert back to the traditional third-mover role as the guardian and enforcer of the “status quo” or more energetically play the role of second-mover or even first-mover to push back against Chinese offenses and challenges as a necessary component to “make America great” again? Does Trump’s more robust response to China and greater propensity to help Taiwan reflect a principled statecraft informed by realism? Or do they belie his negotiation style, by maximizing leverage on his side in order to extract a favorable deal, but in reality most “chips” can be bargained over? Trump’s foreign policy has befuddled scholars and analysts. Both logical realist strands and unpredictable personalistic deal-making are found in the areas and issues which he has chosen to engage. He has announced his re-election bid for 2020. Will his foreign policy behavior be even more chaotic, as he has to focus on the domestic economy and campaign strategies to win the re-election? So far, even the Democratic members of Congress have largely deferred to Trump’s harder line against objectionable Chinese commercial and other behavior.  Will a partisan rift over policy toward China develop as the presidential campaigns intensifies?

While the prominence of Taiwan will certainly rise in the months ahead thanks to the respective and combined impetus from all three sides of the Taiwan-China-US triangle, the probability of a military flare-up is not high. Prudent restraint (by all sides) and vigilant management (primarily by the US) can help navigate through challenging currents. However, even a successful “muddling through” over this period does not obviate the need for a longer-term analysis on whether the current policy framework has outlived its usefulness to warrant a “paradigm shift.”

1. For a fuller exposition of this model and empirical details, see Vincent Wei-cheng Wang, “Prospects for U.S.-Taiwan Relations,” Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Fall 2016), pp. 575-91.

2. Reputable longitudinal surveys in Taiwan, such as the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University, find that usually over 90% of all the respondents exhibit Taiwanese identity, including 55-60% identifying themselves only as Taiwanese and 32-38% identifying themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Only 3-4% of respondents identify themselves as Chinese. See https://esc.nccu.edu.tw/course/news.php?Sn=166#

3. Examples include: Bill Clinton’s dispatch of two aircraft carrier groups to waters off Taiwan around Taiwan’s first democratic presidential elections in 1996 to defuse military tensions caused by China, George W. Bush’s “preventive diplomacy” to dissuade Taiwan president Chen’s referenda ploy and to dress down Chen in front of the visiting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, and Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly’s famous declaration of “the status quo as we defined it.”

4. Nancy Tucker was the first to ask this improbable question: “If Taiwan chooses unification, should the United States care?” Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, “If Taiwan Chooses Unification, Should the United States Care?” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.3 (2002), pp. 15-28.

5. Vincent Wei-cheng Wang, “Cross-Strait relations after the Sunflower movement,” China Policy Institute Blog, (University of Nottingham, U.K), September 26, 2014.

6. See Richard C. Bush, “8 key things to notice from Xi Jinping’s New Year speech on Taiwan,” “Orders from Chaos, Brookings Institution Blog, January 7, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/07/8-key-things-to-notice-from-xi-jinpings-new-year-speech-on-taiwan/

7. Vincent Wei-cheng Wang, “A ‘Blue Wave’ or a ‘Green Flop’? Making Sense of Taiwan’s 2018 Local Elections,” Taiwan Insight(University of Nottingham, U.K.), November 30, 2018.

8. National Security Strategy, December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf.

9. “Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China,” October 4, 2018, The Hudson Institute, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-administrations-policy-toward-china/.

10. Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations,” Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-02-13/china-reckoning

11. Paul Huang, “Chinese Cyber-Operatives Boosted Taiwan’s Insurgent Candidate,” Foreign Policy, June 26, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/06/26/chinese-cyber-operatives-boosted-taiwans-insurgent-candidate/

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