Is Trouble Brewing in the Taiwan Strait?
Taiwan enjoyed a brief stint in the headlines late last year, with leading U.S. Republicans, the island’s independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen, and Beijing all signaling that a shift to a much tenser period of inter-strait relations has arrived. Of course, relations between Taipei and China began to deteriorate over a year ago, after Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) soundly beat the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), China’s preferred interlocutor, in January 2016. But things really became heated after President-elect Donald Trump broke with longstanding U.S. diplomatic protocol in December to hold a telephone call with Tsai. This prompted fears in Beijing that a pro-independence minded Taiwanese leader had emerged at the same time as a protectionist U.S. president, undermining support in both countries for the hoary one China policy which China’s ruling Communist party still clings to as a symbol of its nationalist credentials.Recent moves by the new Trump administration, particularly a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, have taken the spotlight off the Taiwan issue. However, the factors heating up the long-frozen Taiwan crisis remain very much in play, and should not be overlooked
Recent moves by the new Trump administration, particularly a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, have taken the spotlight off the Taiwan issue. However, the factors heating up the long-frozen Taiwan crisis remain very much in play, and should not be overlooked
Although Trump’s pick for secretary of state has denied rumors that the administration intends to question the one China policy, the longstanding basis of U.S.-China relations, Trump has made no secret of his hostility toward China. With the president sounding off on social media over issues like free trade or Beijing’s expansive South China Sea policy, Beijing fears that Trump sees Taiwan as a bargaining chip, a tool to apply pressure on China. The Chinese government has been keen to stress this is not an issue over which it will negotiate. Beijing has also re-started its diplomatic war against the DPP, continuing to use its checkbook to pick off Taiwan’s shrinking band of allies in the developing world. The tiny African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe was the latest to switch allegiances from Taipei to Beijing. The mainland is hoping that a show of strength now will deter either Tsai or Trump from reaching an accommodation with the other in 2017.
However, such shows of force may backfire in Taiwan. Tsai was elected partly because ordinary Taiwanese feared their country was becoming too economically entangled with an autocratic Beijing. It is instructive to remember that only a few years ago, under the KMT administration of Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) was signed but left unratified by Taiwan’s legislators. This was after protesters from the Sunflower student movement occupied Taiwan’s parliament in 2014 because they felt that the treaty would damage the Taiwanese economy and leave it too vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. The subsequent emergence of reports about Chinese efforts to silence critics of the communist elite in supposedly autonomous Hong Kong have added fuel to these fears. The general DPP position that any surrender of political independence under a Hong Kong type “One Country, Two Systems” deal would only end in the erosion of Taiwanese institutions has seemed vindicated.
Under Tsai and the DPP, Taipei has turned away from China and back toward building up Taiwan’s profile in the outside world. Partly to keep its remaining allies away from Beijing, Tsai began 2017 by visiting four Central American states. But her visit sparked great anger in Beijing when it emerged she had coordinated her travel arrangements in order to receive a visit from U.S. Republican Senator (and former Trump rival) Ted Cruz. China responded by sending its only aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in a blunt reminder to Taipei and Washington that it is a much stronger military power than in 1995-96, the last time the three countries faced off over the status of what Beijing still calls a rogue province.
The legacy of the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis was the political calculation in Beijing that Taiwan can best be reabsorbed into the motherland through a combination of the carrot and the stick. The carrot has been ever greater economic integration with China and the wealth this brings to Taiwanese society. The stick is the fact that a wealthier China is ever more economically and militarily powerful and can withstand the costs of retaking Taiwan by force ever more easily. Following the failure of the CSSTA “carrot” however, Beijing is reaching more often towards the stick of coercive policies such as parading military hardware off Taiwan’s coast. By doing so Beijing also aims to deter any future U.S. intervention to protect the island in the face of a crisis by demonstrating it has raised the costs of coming to Taiwan’s defense to unacceptably high levels for Washington. Read more…