“The people’s eyes are sharp. Whether this disputed issue can be resolved is an important indicator of how Taiwan people will view the future direction of relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.” So said Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council in a statement issued on January 31. The not-so-subtle warning to Beijing: Change course or say goodbye to your dream of unification. This MAC statement was specifically in reference to China’s then-recent unilateral announcement of new commercial flight routes over the Taiwan Strait, but it can also be understood as a response to China’s two-year pressure campaign on the island.
With the election of Tsai Ing-wen to Taiwan’s presidency in early 2016, Beijing wisely concluded that its previous charm strategy for bringing about unification had failed. During the previous Ma Ying-jeou Administration, Hu Jintao had pursued cross-Strait economic agreements, the obvious rationale being that economic integration would increase the island’s economic reliance on the mainland, eventually making unification inevitable. The people on Taiwan would see the benefits, especially economic, of embracing the People’s Republic and recognize that future attempts to distance themselves from China would hit them where it seems in normal times to hurt most—in their pocketbooks. At the same time, Beijing permitted Taiwan a tad more international space; for example, it didn’t object when Singapore and New Zealand pursued their own free-trade agreements with Taiwan, nor did it object to Taiwan’s participation as an observer in the World Health Assembly.
Perhaps to Beijing’s surprise, the charm approach did not work. If anything, familiarity bred greater contempt. From the perspective of many in Taiwan, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA)—a pseudo-FTA between Beijing and Taipei—did not live up to its promise, with GDP growth below 2 percent for most of Ma’s tenure. Indeed, many in Taiwan, especially among the younger generations, were suspicious of tightening cross-Strait ties during Ma’s second term. When the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) moved to speed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement through the legislature in March 2014, students and civic groups occupied the Legislative Yuan’s chambers. A March 30 rally attracted more than 100,000 people (116,000 according to police; half a million according to organizers) marching in support of passing a law governing cross-Strait agreements before considering the trade-in-services pact.
At the least, the so-called Sunflower Movement slowed the pace of cross-Strait economic integration. Perhaps more importantly, it presaged significant electoral setbacks for the KMT in the nine-in-one elections—local polls for a variety of leadership positions, from village chiefs to big-city mayors—later that year and in the 2016 general election. Following the general election, the Democratic Progressive Party for the first time in Taiwan’s history captured both the presidency and the legislature.
Beijing attempted to dictate terms to Taipei regarding the basis upon which it would engage with the new Tsai government going forward. But Tsai would not be dictated to—after all, she has voters to whom she must answer. China has acted like a petulant child in the two years since that election, but that understates the seriousness of Chinese behavior. China’s pressure campaign may be more sophisticated now than it was during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, when its missile launches bracketing the island both failed to sway Taiwanese voters and, ultimately, demonstrated Beijing’s strategic impotence in the face of the undaunted U.S. commitment to the island’s defense. Although it has not recently resorted to displays of force, its bite today can more closely match its bark.
Beijing has long looked askance at the Democratic Progressive Party, which Tsai Ing-wen leads, primarily because it has not shared the Kuomintang’s commitment to eventual unification of the island with the mainland. Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP candidate to be elected President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), openly considered a referendum on the island’s sovereignty, leading to a nadir in both cross-Strait and U.S.-Taiwan relations.
More generally, the DPP holds that the Republic of China on Taiwan is an independent sovereign state and, therefore, a formal declaration of independence is unnecessary. Unlike the KMT, the DPP rejects the “’92 consensus.”1 This has deeply frustrated Xi Jinping. Despite Tsai’s oft-repeated commitment to upholding the cross-Strait status quo—an eminently responsible position given the DPP’s history—Beijing harbors suspicions that her true goal is formal independence. Evidence to support that contention is flimsy, but that hasn’t stopped China from deriding the Taiwanese President. Indeed, given Chinese suspicions, Tsai’s inaugural address should have been reassuring. She contended that “stable and peaceful development of the cross-Strait relationship” should be advanced based upon “existing realities and political foundations,” which she went on to define in terms meant to offer an olive branch to Beijing without betraying Taiwan’s populace:
By existing political foundations, I refer to a number of key elements. The first element is the fact of the 1992 talks between the two institutions representing each side across the Strait (SEF & ARATS), when there was joint acknowledgement of setting aside differences to seek common ground. This is a historical fact. The second element is the existing Republic of China constitutional order. The third element pertains to the outcomes of over twenty years of negotiations and interactions across the Strait. And the fourth relates to the democratic principle and prevalent will of the people of Taiwan.
The authorities in Beijing, no doubt, found the fourth principle troubling, but as President of a freewheeling democratic polity, she couldn’t very well leave it out. Beijing, however, found it impossible to take (from its perspective) the bad with the very good: namely, the emphasis on the “existing” Republic of China constitution, in which the national boundaries are defined in accordance with those of “one China.”2 China’s Taiwan Affairs Office described Tsai’s speech as an “incomplete test answer.” According to the TAO spokesman, in order to pass Beijing’s test, Tsai would have to confirm “adherence to the common political foundation of the 1992 consensus that embodies the one-China principle.” Tsai has not done so, and is unlikely to change her mind.
Beijing’s frustrations, however, run deeper. They do not stem from having to deal with one particular leader or party; they have more to do with Taiwanese society itself. First, long-term trends are not in China’s favor. Since 1992, surveys have tracked how the people of Taiwan self-identify and their attitudes toward independence and unification. Put simply, since 1992, the share of those surveyed identifying as “Taiwanese” has grown from 17.6 percent to 55.3 percent—hitting a high of 60.6 percent in 2014 during the Ma Administration—while the share of respondents identifying as either “Both Taiwanese and Chinese” (37.3 percent, down from 46.4 percent in 1992) or “Chinese” (3.7 percent, down from 25.5 percent in 1992) has dropped. Accordingly, the shares of those favoring unification, whether as soon as possible or eventually, have decreased, while the shares of respondents favoring independence (again, either as soon as possible or eventually) have grown. Support for maintaining the status quo has grown as well.
Beijing’s efforts to shape the behavior and views of the people on Taiwan, moreover, have largely failed. In 1996, China bracketed Taiwan with missile tests in hopes of dissuading citizens from casting their votes for Lee Teng-hui in the island’s first direct presidential election. In the event, turnout was 76 percent, with Lee winning in a landslide.
The downturn in cross-Strait ties during the Chen years was one reason for the KMT’s presidential victory during the 2008 election, but that victory did nothing to forestall larger trends in Taiwanese society. Rather, the growth in the share of survey respondents identifying as “Taiwanese” accelerated during the Ma years. As noted, discomfiture with tightening cross-Strait ties rose to the surface during 2014’s Sunflower Movement and is a significant factor in Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 victory.
The past two decades of Chinese strategy with respect to Taiwan have shown Beijing that Taiwan’s people are not easily intimidated and that—confounding to Chinese leaders, no doubt—economic self-interest is not a primary factor in determining the type of relationship the people of Taiwan seek with their neighbors across the Strait. If Taiwan’s people cannot be scared into submission or bought off, if they do not understand Chinese leniency as magnanimity, then what is the best way to bring about peaceful (even if coerced) unification? Beijing lacks an answer to that question; indeed, Beijing seems to have little idea how to deal with a democracy such as Taiwan—and therein lies the problem.
Xi Jinping’s China Dream
The ineffectiveness of Beijing’s approaches for Taiwan thus far have been laid bare at a time when unification is perhaps becoming more important to the Chinese leadership. Since Xi Jinping’s declaration in 2012 that “to realize the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history,” it has become clear that Xi is a leader cut from a different cloth than his immediate predecessors. Through a crackdown on civil society entailing a re-extension of state power, a years-long anti-corruption campaign at times indistinguishable from an old-fashioned purge, and a more assertive foreign policy, Xi has sought to strengthen the role of the CCP at home and his own role within it, and from that base to enhance PRC power abroad.
At the same time, Xi Jinping has made some big promises. In his work report to the 19th Party Congress last November, Xi asserted that by mid-century the CCP would “develop China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.” The Chinese economy, however, may well enter a protracted period of stagnation. Slowing growth, soaring debt, demographic challenges, and the central role of the CCP and of state-owned enterprises in the economy all point to significant headwinds. As Dan Blumenthal and Derek Scissors argue, “Absent powerful pro-market reform that is nowhere in sight, true economic growth will halt by the end of this decade, no matter what the government claims.”
To the extent that Xi cannot deliver on promises of widening prosperity, his other targets become more important. As such, his comments on military power and on Taiwan to the 19th Party Congress take on added significance. Regarding the former, Xi asserted, “We will make it our mission to see that by 2035, the modernization of our national defense and our forces is basically completed; and that by the mid-21st century our people’s armed forces have been fully transformed into world-class forces.” With respect to Taiwan, Xi explained that Taipei’s acceptance of the ’92 consensus and the “One China” principle is a precondition for the “peaceful development” of cross-Strait relations and for cross-Strait dialogue. Then, in what was one of the biggest applause lines of his speech, Xi drew a line in the sand:
We stand firm in safeguarding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will never allow the historical tragedy of national division to repeat itself. Any separatist activity is certain to meet with the resolute opposition of the Chinese people. We have the resolve, the confidence, and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for “Taiwan independence” in any form. We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China!
In case there were any doubts, Xi made clear that unification was inextricable from his animating vision of the “China Dream”:
Realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is a dream shared by all of us as Chinese. We remain firm in our conviction that, as long as all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, including our compatriots in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, follow the tide of history, work together for the greater national interests, and keep our nation’s destiny firmly in our own hands, we will, without doubt, be able to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
In time, Xi’s definition of national rejuvenation may increasingly emphasize what might be called “external” efforts—securing contested territory, unification with Taiwan, influence abroad, military power—as the Chinese economy stalls. Indeed, the beginnings of such a shift have likely already occurred. China has proven an ability to sustain pressure on Japan around the disputed Senkaku Islands, has made remarkable progress in securing its position in the South China Sea, and launched an unrelenting pressure campaign on Taiwan for which it has, thus far, faced few if any consequences.
The Pressure Campaign
Beijing met Tsai Ing-wen’s election with harsh words. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office promised to “resolutely oppose any form of separatist activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence.’” The TAO affirmed, “We are willing to strengthen contact and exchange with any parties and groups that recognize that the two sides belong to one China.” In other words, Beijing would not engage with the ruling DPP.
Beijing’s first shot across the bow came two months later, two months before Tsai’s inauguration. In 2013, Gambia, one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, broke ties with Taiwan and offered to recognize the People’s Republic as the sole government of China. Beijing’s role in this is uncertain—though it is difficult to believe the Chinese government lacked advance warning—but in any case, China rejected the offer. Ma Ying-jeou was still President and cross-Strait relations remained amicable, at least on the surface. Thus the CCP pocketed a weapon it could withdraw at any moment.
That moment came in March 2016, when Gambia and the PRC established formal diplomatic relations. Then, in June, another shoe dropped: Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office announced the suspension of the cross-Strait communication mechanism “because Taiwan did not recognize the 1992 Consensus, the political basis for the One China principle.” Taipei and Beijing have several channels through which to communicate, but China’s decision to cut off this more-or-less official conduit (to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council) sent an unmistakable signal: Our way or the highway. It also suggested that Beijing might now tolerate higher risk in crisis management.
Next, Beijing went after Taiwan’s economy. Ma Ying-jeou had opened Taiwan to tourism from China; now, China would keep its tourists away from the island. In the five months following Tsai’s inauguration, the number of tourists from China fell by 27.2 percent on a year-on-year basis. Businesses catering specifically to mainland tourists suffered.
But despite the drop-off in Chinese visitors, Taiwan had a banner year for tourism in 2016. Southeast Asia, in particular, was a growth market, and for the first time Taipei permitted visa-free entry for travelers from Thailand and Brunei (joining Singapore and Malaysia), while simplifying the visa application process for other Southeast Asian countries. Still, China’s immediate resort to the coercive use of economic leverage—in response to nothing more than Tsai’s refusal to utter a few words—raised concerns soon borne out when China eventually began destroying some imports of food products from Taiwan that were not labeled as made in “Taiwan Area” or “Taiwan Area, China.”
The hits kept coming. In December 2016, Taiwan severed diplomatic ties with São Tomé and Príncipe. According to Taiwan’s Foreign Minister at the time, David Lee, São Tomé “disregarded its nearly 20-year friendship with us and approached both sides of the Taiwan Strait to seek the highest bidder.” China was quick to reestablish diplomatic relations with the island nation just five days after Minister Lee’s announcement of the severance. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry laid much of the blame for the switch on Beijing.
The following month, Nigeria forced Taiwan to move its trade mission—essentially an unofficial embassy—out of its capital city. The move came as the Nigerian Foreign Minister, following a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, announced that “Taiwan will stop enjoying any privileges because it is not a country that is recognized under international law. . . . [W]e have taken decision [sic] to abide by One China Policy [sic].” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced $40 billion of investments during his visit.
In case there were any lingering doubts, it became clear in June 2017 that the PRC-Taiwan diplomatic truce was truly dead. That month, Panama—one of Taiwan’s largest remaining diplomatic allies—embraced Beijing’s “One China” principle and established relations with the PRC. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister had little doubt that Beijing was behind this development and was not shy about saying so.
That interference appears set to continue. Taiwanese leaders feared that Panama might be the first of several Latin American dominoes to fall, and so it was. The Dominican Republic cut ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with the PRC in late April of this year; others in the region are looking wobbly. Less than a month after the Dominican Republic’s decision, Burkina Faso ended its formal relationship with Taiwan, leaving it only one diplomatic ally in Africa. Even more concerning is the Vatican’s recent outreach to Beijing, for the Holy See’s decisions carry moral weight. Pope Francis, however, seems intent on reestablishing diplomatic relations with Beijing, a move sure to deal a symbolic blow to Taiwan’s international standing in a way that Gambia’s de-recognition could not.
At times, Chinese attempts to ensure that Taiwan is not accorded nationhood look quite petty. Since the turn of the year, Chinese media have blasted international corporations for not strictly adhering to Beijing’s “One China” principle. Gap, the clothing retailer, was made to apologize for selling a t-shirt that featured a map of China that did not include Taiwan, Arunachel Pradesh (an Indian state claimed by China), and the nine-dash line in the South China Sea. Gap was selling the t-shirt in Canada.
Marriott, Zara, and nearly 40 international airlines (including Delta, United, and American Airlines) have found themselves in the crosshairs for including Taiwan (and, in some cases, Tibet) on lists of countries where they conduct business. Some targeted companies were quick to update their websites and issue apologies. The Marriott CEO’s apology is representative:
Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups. We recognize the severity of the situation and sincerely apologize.
Marriott’s embrace of Chinese talking points is distasteful, but not surprising given its business interests in China. It is also difficult to criticize when even U.S. government agencies are taking steps to mollify the CCP. Last year, the Department of State and the U.S. Trade Representative began taking down Taiwan’s flag from their websites—despite the fact that State websites continued to include the flags of North Korea and Iran, with which the United States does not maintain diplomatic relations, and despite the fact that USTR’s continued inclusion of the Hong Kong and Macao flags is apparently considered consistent with the “One China” policy.
Beijing’s efforts to limit Taiwan’s “international presence,” moreover, have extended beyond the poaching of diplomatic allies. In May 2016, the World Health Organization invited Taiwan to send a delegation to the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) as observers, as Taiwan had done for the previous seven years. That invitation, however, came with a threat from Beijing: “Taiwan has been able to attend WHA since 2009 under a special arrangement made on the political basis that both Taipei and Beijing uphold the ‘1992 Consensus.’ In future, if this political basis for cross-Strait ties is destroyed, it will be hard to continue this arrangement.” Unsurprisingly, Taipei’s efforts to secure invitations to the 2017 and 2018 assemblies were futile.
Taiwan was likewise barred from attending as mere observers the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) triennial assembly in the autumn of 2016 and from attending Interpol’s annual meetings in 2016 and 2017. That exclusion from ICAO took on added significance in January 2018, when China unilaterally announced new civilian flight paths over the Taiwan Strait in contravention of a previous 2015 agreement. In 2015, China announced five new routes over the Strait without consulting the Ma Ying-jeou Administration. Following Taipei’s objections, both sides agreed only to establish the M503, running just west of the Taiwan Strait’s median line, and open it only to southbound traffic. At that time, Taipei and Beijing agreed that they would host prior consultations before inaugurating new routes. Fast-forward to January, when Beijing did exactly what it promised not to do: open the M503 to northbound traffic and also establishing three west-east feeder routes to the M503 from Xiamen, Fuzhou, and Dongshan.
Taiwan has raised concerns of both safety—the new routes run by Taiwan’s offshore islands, which have their own airports—and security. In particular, those responsible for ensuring Taiwan’s security worry that PLA aircraft may take advantage of the new routes to approach the island under the guise of commercial airliners. The W122 feeder route from Fuzhou—in what is unlikely to be a mere coincidence—appears to coincide with the shortest distance between Taipei and the mainland. The W122 and the W123 feeder routes, moreover, align with the flight paths PLA aircraft might follow to provide air cover for ships sailing across the Strait from naval bases at Fuzhou and Xiamen. If the W123 were extended across the Strait, it would pass by the Pescadores (a group of Taiwanese offshore islands) and Kaohsiung (one of the world’s top-15 container ports).
Moreover, should the PLA ever launch an invasion and successfully establish a beachhead on Taiwan, Beijing is likely to use civilian airliners as complements to military transport in order to ferry people and supplies across the Strait; civilian pilots using the newly announced air routes would be, in effect, training for an invasion. China is unsettling the security environment in the Taiwan Strait with little regard for the safety of civil aviation. At the same time, ICAO’s failure to respond to China’s actions has made plain Taiwan’s isolation on the international stage.
China’s challenge to Taiwan’s security goes beyond the imposition of potential dual-use civilian air traffic routes. The pressure campaign has had a clear military component as well. The PLA’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed through the Taiwan Strait at least three times in 2017. Its first transit in January of that year came after the Liaoning first sailed into the Western Pacific via the Miyako Strait and then south toward the South China Sea. Its route home took it north of the Taiwan Strait, thus essentially completing a circumnavigation of the island. The Liaoning has already transited the Strait twice in 2018, skirting the median line on its first trip. In December 2017, in its annual National Defense Report, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry reported that Chinese military aircraft had circled the island 15 times over the previous year. They have continued to do so in 2018.
Finally, the pressure campaign includes what some in Taiwan describe as a “soft” approach. In February, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office published the “31 measures,” promulgated with the aim of “sharing with our Taiwan compatriots development opportunities in the mainland, and to gradually provide equal treatment for university studies, entrepreneurship, employment, and improved living standards for our Taiwanese compatriots on the mainland.” Put simply, these are incentives meant to attract businesses and people from Taiwan to invest, study, work, and make lives in the People’s Republic. If fully implemented, the measures could benefit the individuals who choose to take advantage of them. Beijing’s intent, however, is clearly malicious. As J. Michael Cole put it, “The ultimate aim, which Beijing has made no secret of, is to break support for Taiwanese independence or the ‘status quo’ and to engineer desire for unification under ‘one China.’” That effort seems likely to fail, but the greater threat is that the incentives will attract top talent from Taiwan to the mainland, thus accelerating a potential “brain drain” on the island, or as Cole puts it, “deny Taiwan the brain trust and talent it needs to build and reinvest itself for the future.”
Taiwan’s leaders believe the threat is acute. Less than a month after TAO announced the “31 measures,” the Tsai Administration unveiled its own “Four Directions and Eight Strategies.” The four directions are to “attract and retain talent in Taiwan by building a quality education and work environment, maintain Taiwan’s advantages in global supply chains, deepen capital markets and strengthen the cultural audiovisual industry.” Among other things, the eight strategies include “better financial and other support for academics and researchers, funding of innovators, helping businesses to reward talented employees, and improve [sic] the working conditions and pay for medical staff.” Even if the “31 measures” do not ultimately succeed in winning hearts and minds or attracting large numbers of Taiwan’s best and brightest to the mainland, Beijing will have succeeded in forcing Taipei to dedicate limited resources (for example, U.S. $3.4 billion for an innovation fund) to countering China’s effort.
Explaining the Pressure Campaign
What does Xi Jinping hope to achieve with his pressure campaign? Ideally, he would like to see Tsai Ing-wen (not to mention the population at large) relent, accept the ’92 consensus, and embrace unification. Xi presumably knows, however, that storks do not play the piano. Even if Tsai was susceptible to such pressure, the trends on identity and views toward independence versus unification noted above have proven themselves largely unaffected by changes in cross-Strait relations.
Xi’s efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally and to gain global acceptance of China’s preferred “One China” narrative are intended to reduce the potential for foreign interference in Beijing’s plans for the island. The fewer governments that maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the less foreign appreciation there is for Taiwan’s democracy, the less recognition of the objective reality of Taiwan’s independent statehood, and the more that others adopt the view that cross-Strait ties are an internal Chinese affair, the less foreigners will care about or aid the people of Taiwan in the face of Chinese assertiveness or aggression.
Efforts to isolate Taiwan along with the mainland’s mounting military pressure on the island likewise are meant to convince Taiwan’s people that, ultimately, resistance is futile. Beijing’s message to Taipei has been clear: Whether from the sea or from the air, we can threaten you from all approaches. In the past, the Western Pacific had, in effect, provided strategic depth for Taiwan’s navy; in operating more frequently off Taiwan’s east coast, China seeks to end that advantage.
Chinese exercises around the island have the additional benefit of putting added strain on Taiwan’s aging, shrinking fighter inventory. While it wears down Taiwan’s military, China hopes to normalize the presence of its own forces on the waters and in the skies around Taiwan. Establishing such a new normal could make strategic and operational surprise easier for Beijing should it ever decide to use force.
Finally, Beijing hopes to turn Taiwan’s population against Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP. The latest example of efforts to do so came in the wake of China’s imposition of new flight routes over the Taiwan Strait. China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines scheduled and sold tickets for 176 round-trip flights between China and Taiwan that would use the new, disputed air routes. Taiwan refused approval for the flights given its ongoing objection to the new flight paths and, as a result, the two airlines canceled all 176 flights, affecting hundreds of Republic of China citizens living on the mainland who had planned trips home for the Lunar New Year. China, of course, blamed Taiwan for their inconvenience.
The use of economic leverage noted above is likewise intended to turn voters against the DPP. The CCP surely hopes that Taiwan voters, considering narrowly defined self-interest, will return the KMT to power in 2020.
The Coming Crisis
A KMT government would likely accept the ’92 consensus as the basis upon which cross-Strait relations can proceed, but unification will remain out of reach. Beijing may recall the public blowback to Ma Ying-jeou’s 2011 campaign suggestion that talks on a peace treaty were within reach. A KMT government might be amenable to closer cross-Strait ties, but then again, given the events of Ma’s second term and the societal trends noted earlier, it might not be. As Ellen Bork has noted, even Ma, while running for Taipei Mayor in 1998, described himself in the Taiwanese language as a “new Taiwanese” rather than a mainlander. During his first presidential campaign, Ma ruled out unification during his tenure as President, promising not to undermine the country’s sovereignty, which, he said, was for the citizens of the island to decide. In other words, the KMT is constrained by the changing popular views on identity and unification that are so troubling to Beijing. There is little reason to believe those trends can be reversed or that Taiwan’s people will begin to consider unification more favorably despite the CCP’s continued repressive rule. Indeed, over time, it seems more likely that the KMT will move closer to the DPP on the issue of cross-Strait ties rather than the reverse.
Put simply, un-coerced unification is not in the cards. As a result, barring a fundamental Chinese rethink on Taiwan—and there is no evidence to suggest one might be in the offing—Beijing is likely to rely ever more on coercive measures in its dealings with Taipei.
In 2013, Xi Jinping told Taiwan’s delegate to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, former Vice President Vincent Siew Wan-chang, that unification should not be delayed: “The issue of the political divide that exists between the two sides must step by step reach a final resolution, and it cannot be passed on from generation to generation.” These comments were perhaps the first indicator that Xi wants unification on his watch, or at least significant progress toward it. His one-on-one meeting with Ma Ying-jeou in 2015, his work report to the 19th Party Congress, and the pressure campaign all likewise suggest that Taiwan is a priority for Xi.
Beijing is not eager to use force, but the temptation will only grow as Taiwan remains unbending in defense of its de facto independence and as China continues to carry out its pressure campaign without incurring substantive costs. Under such circumstances, accidents and miscalculations become more likely, with the potential for dangerous follow-on effects.
Xi may not want to pass on the question of unification to the next generation of Chinese leadership, but it is the freedom of future generations that Taiwan’s leaders believe they must defend now. If there is a middle ground here, it is exceedingly hard to discern.
Taiwan’s challenges are significant, but not insurmountable. Put simply, it must counter Chinese efforts to isolate it; counter Chinese psychological operations targeted at Taiwan’s population; and enhance its defensive capabilities and, thus, its ability to deter military actions. For Taiwan, these three lines of effort should be mutually reinforcing.
Particularly in light of the Vatican’s seeming determination to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing, it is difficult to see how Taiwan could expand its stable of diplomatic allies, at least in the near term. Even so, diplomatic relations are not the be-all and end-all in determining, to use Taiwan’s preferred jargon, a nation’s “international space.” Nor is inclusion in international organizations, though certainly Taipei will not give up on participating in ICAO, the WHO, and others that matter to Taiwan’s interests.
Taiwan is deeply enmeshed in the global economy as a major trading economy and an occupant of a key position in global supply chains, notably in the high-tech space. A further embrace of free market principles could make the island into a major site for global business. Were that to proceed, countries like Germany, France, and Canada might not maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei, but they would prioritize the island’s security and stability in the Strait if the likes of Siemens, BNP Paribas, and Manulife were deeply invested in Taiwan.
It is for this reason, in part, that Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which seeks to develop economic and cultural ties to countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, is so important. It would lessen Taiwan’s economic reliance on the mainland, while enhancing its own value in the eyes of many countries where China exercises significant influence.
Taiwan can also think creatively about engaging in international forums. Its hosting of the first-ever Ketagalan Forum in August 2017 and Yushan Forum in October 2017 is a step in this direction. As Taiwan’s answer to the Shangri-La Dialogue, the dual forums focused, respectively, on Asia-Pacific security issues and on connectivity with the countries included in the New Southbound Policy. Former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered an address at the former. Several former senior government officials from regional countries—including former Vice Presidents and Foreign Ministers—attended the Yushan Forum, along with prominent scholars. Tsai Ing-wen addressed both conferences and met with participants, which in the latter case included a current U.S. government official. The high-level participation is promising for future iterations of the forums and for Taiwan’s engagement with the broader region.
Taipei could also consider how it can better use the international organizations in which it does have membership to expand its international space. For example, with U.S. support or perhaps with the United States in the lead, Taiwan might establish one or more issue-specific “caucuses” within the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping to coordinate approaches at annual meetings. Doing so would allow Taiwan to engage more deeply with a number of countries in a relatively non-provocative way.
Broadly speaking, Taiwan should also continue to deepen its unofficial relations wherever possible. The United States will remain Taiwan’s most important foreign partner, but countries like Japan, Australia, and India may be willing to expand their dealings with Taipei as Beijing increasingly infringes on their own interests. Quiet cooperation on issues such as cyber security, disaster relief, and democracy promotion is particularly promising.
Expanding Taipei’s international space in these ways can reverse the island’s increasing isolation and counter the perception, which China seeks to promote among the island’s population, that Taiwan stands alone in the world.
The Tsai government must also counter the Chinese narrative that problems in cross-Strait ties are due to her intransigence. On the one hand, this requires a relatively straightforward public relations effort. The challenge, however, is not simply one of effective government communications. Over the past decade, China’s influence on Taiwan’s media expanded in troubling ways, according to Chien-Jung Hsu, a researcher at Australia’s Monash University:
First, the PRC uses economic affiliation as a means to coopt some Taiwanese media. It attempts to manage the ownership, editorial content, coverage, and criticism of China in various media by enabling pro-Beijing tycoons to acquire media on the island. . . . Second, as the political orientation of business leaders generally pivots on their businesses, the PRC puts pressure on those Taiwan media owners who have invested or intend to invest in China. Thus, those media outlets will tend to side with China or self-censor on any issue related to China. . . . Third, the Chinese authorities publish various types of advertorials disguised as news coverage in Taiwanese media. This placement tactic facilitates political influence by providing a source of advertising revenue, often thereby making Taiwan’s media into virtual propaganda agents of the Chinese authorities. . . . Above all, increasing and closer cross-Strait economic ties have put China in a dominant position with respect to some Taiwan media.
These challenges are difficult to tackle without impinging on freedom of the press or free markets. One option would be for Taiwan’s government to establish an independent media watchdog commission, with half of the members coming from the DPP and half from the KMT. The commission would report on foreign business ties and overseas investments of media conglomerates and their owners, while also tracking and identifying advertorials (essentially, advertisements presented as news coverage). Taiwanese law already outlaws such advertorials; the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the People of the Mainland Area bans advertisements from China without prior approval. But enforcement is difficult. More effective enforcement and steeper fines may be necessary to curtail the practice.
Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan should also consider imposing a reporting requirement on the Mainland Affairs Council. Each year, in classified and unclassified formats, the MAC should issue a report describing in depth the CCP’s united front work, or influence operations, in Taiwan. Sunlight is an important means for neutering such efforts.
Of course, to reassure the population that Taiwan’s fate is not at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, Taipei must field a military capable of deterring aggression and of successfully defending the island in the event of a conflict. Although Taiwan’s armed forces are well trained, deterring and defending against Chinese adventurism is becoming increasingly difficult as China’s own military capabilities advance. Historically a well-equipped force, Taiwan has found it increasingly difficult to procure modern armaments for its armed forces.
In October 2017, Tsai Ing-wen committed to growing Taiwan’s defense budget by 2 percent each year, and as much as 3 percent should another country (namely, the United States) sell more arms to the island. She also suggested a special budget for “significant purchase cases” (read: new fighter jets). New monies also should be put toward personnel costs associated with the military’s shift to an all-volunteer force and, given the nature of the threat the PLA poses and the variety of ways the PLA could coerce or use force against Taiwan, toward fielding a mix of high-end and low-end capabilities. Among other contingencies, Taiwan’s forces ideally should have at least a limited capacity to respond rapidly to any infringement of the median line; defend against cyber attacks; contest a naval or air blockade; control airspace over the island and deny the PLA air supremacy in the event of hostilities; withstand a decapitation campaign; prevent amphibious landings on offshore islands and the main island; conduct a drawn-out insurgency in the event of an invasion; carry out strike operations on the mainland; and communicate, coordinate, and interoperate with the U.S. military and those of other partner nations.
Taiwan cannot focus on countering an invasion to the exclusion of preparing for other contingencies, as the U.S. Defense Department has at times appeared to urge Taipei to do. A multi-domain defense effective in an array of contingencies of varying intensity is the surest means to deter, and if necessary defeat, Chinese aggression.
The U.S. Role
In recent years, the U.S. government has tended to tie itself in knots over balancing ties with Taipei and Beijing. Perhaps the best known example of this predilection concerns Taiwan’s request, during the latter Bush years and the Obama Administration, for new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft. As Defense News reported in 2011, “Taiwan’s June 24 petition to submit a letter of request for new F-16 fighter jets was blocked by the U.S. State Department under orders from the U.S. National Security Council, sources in Taipei and Washington said.” In other words, the Obama Administration denied Taiwan’s request to submit a request for the aircraft, thus evading having to make any formal decision on the sale.
Problems have continued into the Trump Administration, as evidenced by the website flag removals described above. Presumably an initiative arising from the bureaucracy to ensure compliance with the “one China” policy, the effort was too clever by half, serving only to further isolate Taiwan and give the appearance of distance in the Washington-Taipei bilateral relationship.
Ironically, it is a relatively straightforward affair to counter Taiwan’s international isolation within the bounds of the “One China” policy. First, the United States should drop self-imposed limitations on bilateral engagement. American and Taiwanese military officers and civilian officials at all levels should be permitted to meet—in both the United States and Taiwan. The militaries should exercise together in bilateral and multilateral settings. When it comes to arms sales, Washington should treat Taiwan as it does countries with which it has diplomatic ties. Sales should occur with regularity rather than in bundles, and they should not be held hostage to the U.S.-China diplomatic calendar. To its credit, the Trump Administration has recently approved American industrial participation in Taiwan’s submarine program; it should next convey a willingness to sell Taiwan the platforms it requires to ensure a favorable air balance in the Strait. For too long, Washington has been hesitant to sell Taipei the defensive articles Taipei assesses it needs most.
It would be particularly valuable for the Trump Administration to publicly affirm at a senior level that it is U.S. policy, as described in the Taiwan Relations Act:
- to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
- to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
- to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
The Administration should likewise affirm that it is committed to, per the TRA, making “available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
The U.S. Congress has done admirable work in this regard. The recently passed Taiwan Travel Act, which the President signed into law, calls for “visits between officials from the United States and Taiwan at all levels.” The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act included “sense of Congress” language encouraging regular arms sales, inclusion of Taiwan in military exercises, senior level exchanges, and naval port visits. The NDAA also requires that, going forward, the Defense Secretary will report to Congress on the status of Taiwan arms sales requests within 120 days of a request’s submission.
The House and Senate have now passed their own versions of the 2019 NDAA. They did not, however, build on the advances of previous years. The House version includes a well-intentioned but misguided provision for a “comprehensive assessment of Taiwan’s military forces,” to be conducted by the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Such an assessment risks increasing tensions between the United States and Taiwan defense establishments and making it more difficult for Taiwan to acquire the defense articles it needs most. The House version does helpfully require the Defense Secretary to brief Congress “on any plans . . . to carry out senior-level defense engagement,” but it does not mandate that engagement. The Senate version likewise supports such engagement and also encourages U.S. participation in Taiwan military exercises and vice versa—like the House bill, however, nothing is mandated.
In the future, Congress should consider mandating some of the actions it has encouraged in “sense of Congress” language, especially regarding bilateral exchanges and bilateral exercises. In future iterations of the NDAA, Congress should, alongside references to the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances, include as a statement of policy the secret presidential directive that Ronald Reagan issued in the wake of the third communiqué. The memo should be restated in full:
The U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkages between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy. In addition, it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.
Such public affirmations of U.S. law and past policy statements will reassure Taiwan (and its people) that the island does not stand alone, and also ensure that American strategic ambiguity does not become too ambiguous, inadvertently emboldening Beijing. Taiwan’s first-ever mention in a National Security Strategy was positive in this regard, with the NSS noting, “We will maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our ‘one China’ policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”
The Trump Administration, moreover, should make clear that if Beijing begins to rely predominantly on coercive tactics in the Taiwan Strait, the White House will assess that to be a significant change in the status quo, with potential implications for the “One China” policy. For nearly four decades, the United States has asserted that cross-Strait differences must be resolved peacefully and, as President Bill Clinton noted nearly two decades ago, “with the assent of the people of Taiwan.” If Beijing gives up on uncoerced unification, as appears likely, the “One China” policy will no longer serve American interests. The Trump Administration should begin considering alternatives now.
To limit China’s economic leverage over Taiwan, Washington and Taipei should, despite USTR’s loaded agenda, prioritize a bilateral free-trade agreement. Doing so would benefit both the American and Taiwanese economies, reduce Taiwan’s economic dependence on the mainland in relative terms, and ensure that the island has the funds it needs to resource its defense strategy.
In the meantime, the Administration should enhance efforts to bolster Taiwan’s quest for greater international space. Re-conceptualizing Taiwan’s exclusion from ICAO, INTERPOL, and the WHO as national security issues for the United States would send an important signal abroad and encourage the State Department to act with greater urgency in support of Taiwan’s participation. In the event that Taiwan is excluded, the United States should embrace Taiwan’s positions as its own (where they do not conflict with American interests) and speak on its behalf during assemblies.
The Administration should also quietly encourage partners like Japan, Australia, and India to deepen their own engagement with Taiwan. Multilateral track 1.5 dialogues, like Taiwan’s Yushan Forum, provide an excellent opportunity for doing so. With Taipei seeking discussions with partners on disaster relief, cyber issues, and democracy promotion, as mentioned above, Washington should host quiet trilateral meetings regarding cooperation in these and other relatively unprovocative areas.
Lastly, the United States must be sure its own armed forces can deter and defeat Chinese aggression, as the TRA requires. The NSS and the National Defense Strategy’s focus on China’s challenge to U.S. interests, and last winter’s congressional budget deal, suggest that Washington is committed to doing so.
A New Era
A new era in cross-Strait relations is emerging. The two sides of the Strait appear set to grow further apart even as Beijing grows more insistent on unification in the coming years. That is not a recipe for stability, let alone peace, in the Taiwan Strait. It is incumbent upon policymakers in Taipei and Washington to recognize this changing reality and act accordingly. To stave off an eventual crisis, both capitals must work to ensure that Taiwan does not stand alone, that Taiwan’s people continue to believe in the feasibility of a free and (de facto) independent future, and that the United States and Taiwan’s armed forces can deter and, if necessary, defeat Chinese aggression.
1In 1992, members of the China-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) and members of the Taiwan-based Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), quasi-governmental organizations responsible for carrying out cross-Strait diplomacy, met in Hong Kong. The ’92 Consensus, a term retroactively applied several years later to the talks’ outcome, refers to an accord in which both sides agreed that there is only one China while maintaining their own interpretations of what “one China” means.
2According to Article 4 of the Republic of China constitution, promulgated in 1947 while the ROC was still the government on the mainland, “the territory of the Republic of China within its existing national boundaries shall not be altered except by a resolution of the National Assembly.”