Tsai’s Cross-Straits Conundrum

Gunjan Singh, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

The rise of China to an economic and military power has had the most significant effect on its relationship with Taiwan. China has always been assertive about the use of One-China Principle in its dealings with Taiwan. However, the change of the political system in Taiwan from an authoritarian to a democratic system has further complicated this relationship. China was comfortable dealing with Taiwan until it was dominated by the single Kuomintang Party but the recent development of a vibrant multi-party democracy in Taiwan appears confusing to China. To face such a problematic issue when it comes to dealing with its own ‘getaway province’ is rather ironical. The oscillation between reunification, supporting Kuomintang, and a pro-independence Democratic People’s Party (DPP) government in Taipei has led to a very muddled policy in Beijing towards Taiwan.

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping there have been very strong assertions towards ‘not giving up’ even an inch of its territory (indicating towards Taiwan, which is currently under the DPP rule). The 19thParty Congress report provided some insights into the upcoming Chinese policies towards Taiwan under Xi Jinping. As per the report, China will be aiming to attain “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and become a modern socialist power by the year 2050. During the Party Congress, Xi had argued that, “We have the resolve, the confidence and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for Taiwan independence in any form.”

In the last few years since Tsai Ing-wen came to power, Beijing has been tightening its political grip around Taiwan with some arguing that Xi may be ready to launch a military attack in order to take over Taiwan. This is also because Tsai has refused to use reference to the 1992 Consensus while discussing China-Taiwan relations. In 1992, during a meeting in Hong Kong, both China and Taiwan had agreed that they would discuss the One China Policy as they reasoned fit. In addition to this, Taiwan has lost some of its diplomatic allies who finally gave in to the lure of Chinese economic benefits. The most recent example is the switch in diplomatic alliance of El Salvador from Taiwan to China.

Since 2016 Taiwan has lost a number of its diplomatic relations. Prior to El Salvador, Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Sao Tome and Principe and Panama had switched their diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing. Today there are only 17 countries which have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and most of them are poor countries in Central America and the Pacific region. No surprise that since 2001, around 14 countries have ended their diplomatic relations with Taiwan. As reported by Taiwan News, they are “Macedonia (2001), Liberia (2003), Dominica (2004), Vanuatu (2004), Grenada (2005), Senegal (2005), Chad (2006), Costa Rica (2007), Malawi (2008), Gambia (2013), Sao Tome and Principe (2016), Panama (2017), Dominican Republic (2018), and Burkina Faso (2018)”.

The major factor behind these countries switching their allegiance is the financial lure of Chinese investments. However, as a response to the recent developments, the Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said that, “We are not willing to continue with the money competition with China.” In this backdrop the major question which needs discussion is whether Taiwan has the capability and institutional support to counter China country by country. Taiwan is not represented as an independent country in any of the major international institutions and most of the powerful countries which continue to have interactions with Taiwan (the United States, India etc.) accept the One China Policy. Even though the United States is one the largest arms supplier to Taiwan and has promised to safeguard its sovereignty, the increasing economic cooperation between Beijing and Washington definitely worries Taiwan.

The Chinese pressure is not limited to the economically weaker nations only. A large number of countries have also been pressurized to change the name of Taiwan to Chinese Taipei. In July 2018, even India was pressurized to undertake similar action when the Air India changed the name of ‘Taiwan’ to ‘Chinese Taipei’ on its website. The pressure is not limited to India only. The United States also succumbed to similar push from Beijing and its airlines American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines also changed the name of Taiwan to Taipei. Such incidents further underscore the clout which Beijing has over the international community.

Under Xi, it appears that China is not interested in giving Taiwan any form of leeway and has undertaken a consistent plan to assert its ‘One-China Policy’. Such actions indicate that Beijing is at the end of its ‘patience’ with Taiwan and is employing every possible step to force the island for reunification. The Taiwanese response has been a proposal to increase the defence budget and acquire more defence equipment from the United States. However, the situation is further complicated because of the level of economic integration that China and Taiwan share. The bilateral trade between the two sides in 2016 was around USD 179.6 billion. Keeping in view the volume of trade, one needs to ponder over whether China would be ready to disrupt the status quo with a military action, though one cannot deny that Xi has been putting increased pressure.

Taiwan wants a formal recognition as a democratic state while China has been pushing for it to be perceived as Chinese territory. However, the difference in the government structure complicates this very idea. The 23 million Taiwanese perceive themselves as Taiwanese and not really Chinese. They have successfully managed to make the shift from an authoritarian form of government to a democratic system and are not too keen to become a part of the Communist structure. In addition to this, the process of ‘Taiwanization’ has transformed the general perception among the people. Keeping in view the Chinese military strength, the major argument has been in favour of maintenance of ‘status quo’. However, the pace with which Taiwan has been losing its diplomatic allies makes the situation quite dire for it. With the push for the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative under Xi, more and more countries will be coming under the gambit of Chinese financial might. To modify its position under the changing scenario will be a very challenging task for Taiwan.

This blog was originally published online as ‘Taiwan’s China Dilemma’  on Science Technology & Security Forum on 4 September 2018.

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