China and Taiwan’s Uncertain Bond

Geopolitical Diary / OCTOBER 6, 2016

Despite Taiwan and China’s avowed commitment to maintain the status quo when it comes to cross-strait ties, a number of recent developments point to undercurrents of change. Indeed, there is a growing uncertainty in the island state’s relationship with its mainland counterpart. In an interview published Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen affirmed that the island would not “bow to pressure” from Beijing and called for reducing Taiwan’s economic dependence on China. On Wednesday, it was announced that Tsai had nominated James Soong, head of a junior party in the Nationalist Party-led opposition coalition, to represent Taiwan at an Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) meeting in Peru this November. A month earlier, his appointment had been soundly rejected by Beijing.

For the most part, Tsai’s comments represent an extension of, not a departure from, her administration’s standing position on cross-strait relations. It is notable, though, that Tsai insinuates that Taiwan’s economic relationship with China has become more competitive than cooperative, suggesting that the island should curb its dependence on the mainland market. Arguably, the comment is the most open challenge yet by a Taiwanese leader to the notion that the island’s economic ties to China are less than beneficial for both parties. This is a move away from the position held by Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, who heavily promoted trade and investment ties across the Taiwan Strait as a way to develop the island’s economy.

Elsewhere in the interview, Tsai appeared to temper these comments by reiterating her commitment to the status quo in cross-strait relations — which confers a degree of autonomy without sovereignty for the island — and shied from anything approaching an open call for Taiwanese independence. But even such an ostensibly conservative and pragmatic position is apparently not enough to satisfy Beijing. Tsai has not made it explicitly clear that her administration’s understanding of the status quo encompass what has come to be known as the “1992 Consensus” establishing a one-China doctrine, something Beijing has consistently made the precondition for formal communication between the two.

In light of this ambiguity, Tsai’s call for the status quo itself marks, at least in Beijing’s eyes, a break from Taipei’s former neutral stance on independence. Given this, it is not surprising that cross-strait ties deteriorated shortly after Tsai took office, with Beijing severing official exchanges and moving to ensure the island’s exclusion from international organizations and events. China also reportedly imposed indirect economic punishments, which included barring mainland tourists from traveling to the parts of Taiwan showing the strongest support for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party. Read more…

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