China-Taiwan Relations in the Tsai Ing-wen Era

Taiwan’s relationship with Mainland China has become increasingly strained due to the PRC’s perception of the Democratic Progressive Party compounded with the uncertainty surrounding President Trump’s rhetoric towards China-Taiwan relations. The foundation of the status quo is based on the One-China Policy, which both sides interpret differently. Trump’s phone call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, along with his initial position of considering using the One-China Policy as bargaining leverage, understandably raised significant concerns. Former Ambassador Chas Freeman, Richard Bush, Shelley Rigger, and Jacques deLisle provided insight into the prospects for China-Taiwan relations and the influences of an increasingly complex American role in the Taiwan Strait.

Former Ambassador Freeman emphasized that the question at hand was not necessarily whether or not Taiwan is part of China, but how and when the PRC will choose to solve its political issues with Taiwan, be it through negotiations, use of force, or a combination of the two. Between 2005 and 2015, many viewed a resolution of differences to be within sight, particularly after Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping’s meeting in Singapore. However, Taiwanese leadership under Tsai Ing-wen indicates great tension in cross-Strait relations. By the time that Donald Trump was elected, all progress appeared to have been frozen, and Beijing had several reasons to adopt a more aggressive position. President Trump suggested a willingness to increase relations with Taiwan, declared his support for a major expansion of the US nuclear arsenal, and considered reducing US-China economic interdependence by penalizing Chinese exports. Additionally, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the United States should be prepared to block Chinese access to features in the South China Sea. Freeman considered it likely that regardless of a trade war, China will object more forcefully to US arms sales to Taiwan by conducting military activities, and contesting median lines in the Taiwan Strait as well as Taiwanese control over Taiping Island. Taiwan is a symbol of China’s historic impotence in the face of foreign intervention, a reminder of Japanese imperialism, and the division of spheres of influence. Escalating military power in the region sends a strong message to Taiwan regarding their military inferiority, and Xi Jinping has stated that the Taiwan issue must reach a final resolution without being passed on from generation to generation.

Starting in 1979, the United States and China established diplomatic relations to facilitate cooperation on a variety of issues, one of which is the acceptance of the One-China Policy. While the core of the US position is rejecting a “two China policy,” unofficial relations with Taiwan are preserved through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Former Chairman of the Board and Managing Director of AIT Richard Bush highlighted that although President Trump reversed his position by honoring Xi Jinping’s request to accept the One-China Policy, his tendency to switch positions and his deal making instincts indicate that the issue is not fully closed. An American president has not met their Taiwanese counterpart since 1960, and Trump’s call to Tsai Ing-wen before his inauguration raised alarms in Beijing. Taiwan would undoubtedly prefer diplomatic relations, but President Tsai understands the reality of the circumstances and places more importance on substantive achievements through unofficial relations. The PRC has never renounced the possibility of using force to resolve the Taiwan issue, and the PLA has increased their military capabilities in the region as a deterrent for a Taiwanese movement towards legal independence. Bush also described three fundamental flaws in the potential use of Taiwan as leverage in US-China relations: Chinese economic policy has only minimally impacted the economic difficulties of a segment of the US population, while technological change represents a much more important factor; Beijing will not bluff on its position towards Taiwan, and removing a keystone for the US-China relationship could have drastic consequences; the One-China Policy affects the residents of Taiwan, and evidence indicates that the Taiwanese people do not desire to be part of a bargaining chip.

Davidson Professor Shelley Rigger stressed that regarding the prospects of the triangular relationship, the United States appears to be the most likely to destabilize the relationship and act unpredictably. A proponent of maintaining the status quo, President Tsai is deliberately cautious and has appeared to adopt a more realist approach to China-Taiwan relations than many pro-independence members of the Democratic Progressive Party. When Trump reportedly arranged for the phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, his status as a private citizen limited the scrutiny he would have faced post-inauguration, so although this action was somewhat beyond traditional practice it would not drastically upset existing norms. From a Taiwanese perspective, doing so may have allowed unofficial relations to be conducted more smoothly once Trump took office, but his subsequent tweets dragged Taiwan into the center of unwanted controversy. Trump’s trust has been somewhat eroded, and Taiwan is now likely to be much more cautious in responding to developments in cross-Strait relations and will continue to support maintaining the status quo. Taiwanese identity has in recent years indicated a shift away from Beijing’s preferred direction, whereas security and military concerns limit the effects of such a shift. Economic factors have changed over time, and Taiwan’s integration with the global economy has alleviated some of the dependence on China. Nevertheless, President Tsai realizes that much of the Taiwanese economy is dependent good relations with Beijing, and still heavily relies on Chinese trade. Professor Rigger emphasized that from an American perspective, the US must take into account the positions and preferences of both the PRC and the ROC. Policy should not be based on inward facing calculus rooted in ideas in Washington about how the relationship should unfold, but a wholesome diplomacy that pays attention to interlocutors on both sides.

In response to the challenging political environment, Taiwan has invested in policies and approaches with external relations to hedge against increasing pressures. Taiwan has pursued engagement and participation in formal international organizations and has attempted to maintain formal diplomatic relations with various countries. Although Tsai has expressed her commitment to stability and has reflected that the years of negotiations and the accumulated outcomes have considerable influence, Beijing remains dissatisfied. Penn Professor Jacques deLisle discussed Beijing’s subsequent reaction to Taiwan’s strategy, indicating that China will likely continue to place significant pressure on Taiwan. The failure to accept the 1992 Consensus, combined with what some Chinese consider to be a pursuit of soft or cultural independence as well as the new Southbound Policy, has influenced the PRC to respond by squeezing Taiwan’s influence abroad. Chinese influence has restricted Taiwan’s participation in INTERPOL, ICAO, and other international organizations, and has even resulted in several diplomatic partners such as Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe cutting their formal ties with Taiwan. However, Beijing is limited in its international pressures, given that at some point Taiwan would be theoretically pushed into a corner with no diplomatic partners and thus more likely to provoke a conflict. Professor deLisle noted that China must now grapple with the fact that it has seemingly won on anti-secession and lost on unification. The PRC’s next steps may rely on the adoption of a policy of patience, a perception or claim of Taiwan’s disruption of the status quo, or perhaps an American action that would result in Chinese interference. For the time being, however, it appears that China’s “squeeze and freeze” policy is to remain in place.

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