Global Pairings

China and Taiwan — Apocalypse Now?

Will the arrival of a new President in Taiwan bring even more “interesting times” in relations with mainland China?

Credit: Ed Yau and Carrie Kellenberger www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with very few countries (22 small countries at last count).
  • Taiwan’s youth are frustrated with its weak economy, poor job prospects and rising inequality.
  • Taiwan’s youth are wary of China’s undue influence on Taiwan.
  • Ironically, person-to-person contact between China & Taiwan has emphasized cultural differences.
  • The majority of Taiwanese people support neither independence nor reunification.

The Presidency of Tsai Ing-wen, which begins officially following her inauguration on May 20, promises even more “interesting times” in relations across the Taiwan Strait.

Tsai Ing-wen won Taiwan’s presidential elections on January 16, 2016 as a representative of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

China’s Communist government has always had a deep allergy to the DPP. It regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland under the banner of its “one-China policy”.

Beijing has long threatened military intervention should Taiwan seek to declare independence. It has also applied great pressure on the international community to accept its one-China policy.

This means that Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with very few countries (22 small, poor countries at last count), and is shut out of most international organizations and free trade agreements.

Between 2008 and 2016, a history of testy relations between Beijing and Taipei gave way to a “golden age” when Taiwan was under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) party.

Many official agreements were signed. Trade and investment boomed, as did the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan.

A key to this golden age was Taiwan’s acceptance of the “1992 Consensus” by which both sides commit to the principle of one China, even if they may interpret that principle differently.

Young people wary of Beijing

The victory of Tsai Ing-wen was an act of defiance against Beijing’s playbook. Taiwan’s citizens should have appreciated the benefits of closer economic and person-to-person linkages under the KMT.

But in reality, Taiwan’s citizens, especially its youth, were frustrated with the country’s weak economy, poor job prospects and rising inequality under the KMT. They were also very wary about China’s undue influence on Taiwan.

The vast majority of Taiwanese citizens now feel a greater attachment to their distinct Taiwanese identity rather than to a Chinese identity.

Ironically, the increase in person-to-person contacts between China and Taiwan seems to have emphasized their differences for the Taiwanese.

Through the presidential election campaign and subsequently, Tsai Ing-wen has refused to adhere to the 1992 Consensus and say that Taiwan and China are part of one country.

Neither independence nor reunification

Rather, she has tried to dance a fine line between the pro-independence elements from her party and the incessant demands from Beijing that she commit to the one-China policy.

Her usual formulation is that she supports the “status quo,” meaning neither independence nor reunification, a position that is supported by the majority of Taiwanese people.

But this is not good enough for Beijing, which does not trust Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP. Beijing continues trying to bully her into formally accepting the 1992 Consensus on one-China.

Indeed, the long period between the elections and Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration has provided Beijing with plenty of opportunities to tighten the screws on Taiwan.

President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders have been employing “megaphone diplomacy” through various speeches telling Tsai Ing-wen what she must do.

Most significantly, Beijing broke a diplomatic truce to not steal away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies when it established diplomatic relations with Gambia, a small African country, with which Taiwan used to have diplomatic relations.

The mainland plays hardball

China also succeeded in pressuring Kenya and Malaysia to hand over a number of Taiwanese citizens accused of defrauding Chinese citizens, rather than repatriating them to their home territory.

Invitations for Taiwan to attend recent World Health Organization and OECD meetings have reportedly been withheld due to political interference by China.

China has also sharply reduced the number of mainland tourists visiting Taiwan, and suspended a program that gave Taiwanese milkfish farmers preferential access to the Chinese market.

A continuation of such trends could inflict great pain on Taiwan. It would greatly undermine the government of Tsai Ing-wen, which is clearly Beijing’s intention.

Taiwan’s resolve

But it may also stiffen the backbone of Taiwanese citizens, especially its youth, some of whom occupied the national parliament (“the sunflower movement”) for three weeks in 2014 to block the approval of a services free trade agreement with China.

Playing hardball is certainly no way to win the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan.

With a little bit of creativity and flexibility, China and Taiwan should be able to find a formula that both could accept and that respects Taiwan’s democratic processes and public opinion.

But in President Xi Jinping’s China, this may not happen. Stubborn domination through hard power is China’s playbook today.

The world is now waiting to hear what Tsai Ing-wen will say, if anything, about relations with China in her inauguration speech on Friday, May 20 — and then to see what happens next.

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About John West

John West is executive director of the Asian Century Institute [Japan] and author of "Asian Century… on a Knife-Edge: A 360 Degree Analysis of Asia’s Recent Economic Development."

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