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All Quiet in the Taiwan Strait in the Coming Years?

On December 2, 2016, then-President-elect Trump received a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of the Republic of China (ROC), also known as Taiwan. The phone call triggered a political storm in DC, prompting many former foreign policy makers to question President Trump’s rationale in dealing with China and managing US-Taiwan relations. While Trump has not changed his bellicosity on trade issues with Asian countries, and China in particular, his administration has largely opted to follow the traditionalist policy approach in East Asia in other areas. Since February of last year, the Trump administration has honored the “one China” policy to which all previous American presidents since 1972 have adhered.

In following with the “one China” policy and the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the Trump administration has stated its intent to honor its commitment “to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion,” according to the recently released National Security Strategy. Last year’s arms deal with Taiwan was valued at $1.42 billion, including technical support for early warning radar, high speed anti-radiation missiles, torpedoes, and missile components. While the sale was targeted at improving existing defensive capabilities in Taiwan, China has expressed its displeasure at the continued American support for Taiwan. Additionally, the recent passage of the Taiwan Travel Act by the House of Representatives and the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations also reflects continuing congressional support for Taiwan under the TRA.

In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen has focused on stabilizing cross-strait relations based upon the status quo rather than pursuing Taiwanese independence, a stance largely supported by public opinion. According to the Military Balance’s annual report, President Tsai is committed to developing the local defense industry as a sustainable source of national security, rather than relying upon the arms sales of other countries. In particular, President Tsai intends to develop indigenous submarines, training and combat aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Meanwhile, China has reaffirmed its stance and commitment towards its territorial sovereignty and integrity. In his speech to the 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping restated the Chinese pledge to defeat separatist efforts for “Taiwanese independence” and promoted the maintenance of a single, cohesive China. Last December, Chinese diplomat Li Kexin told US officials that China would activate its Anti-Secession Law, which would allow China to use force in reunifying with Taiwan, should the US send navy ships to Taiwan. In addition, recent military actions by China in sending its aircraft carrier, Liaoning, through the Strait for training missions and the Chinese implementation of new commercial flight routes (notably, the M503 route) that are close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait, have signaled escalating security tensions in the Strait.  Since President Tsai entered office, China has also restarted diplomatic “warfare” with Taiwan, establishing diplomatic relationships with Panama and São Tomé and Príncipe.

contested air routes through the Taiwan Strait (Taipei Times 2018)

While military and diplomatic tensions have risen, the increase in people-to-people and trade interactions have ameliorated attitudes in the cross-strait relationship.  This is shown by the growing willingness of residents of Taiwan to work and study in China – a result of an increasingly favorable impression of China and the economic growth that China has experienced. Additionally, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council stated that trade volume between China and Taiwan has increased by 11.3 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year. These shifts reveal the increasing complexity of the relationship that appears to be deteriorating.

In the near future, Taiwan is likely to maintain attempts to keep the status quo, at least until the next presidential election in Taiwan in 2020. At the same time, America is also likely to maintain the traditional “one China” policy, unless provoked by actions from either China or Taiwan. As a result, the most likely actor for game changing provocation in cross-strait relations in the coming years may be China.

China may be the agent of provocation due to two issues: the Chinese dream and the growing alienation of Taiwanese from the Chinese identity. The Chinese dream is a political pledge laid forth by President Xi to make China great again. The two relevant dates for the Chinese dream are 2021 and 2049, the 100th anniversaries of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Republic of China, respectively. One of the 14 items that President Xi uses to describe the new era of Chinese supremacy is the reunification of Taiwan, under the twelfth item of “upholding the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ and promoting national reunification.” This adds a certain urgency to the unification issue and manufactures a timetable that may upset the status quo.

*includes all types of status quo options
Taiwan public opinion polls 2008-2017 (Mainland Affairs Council)

Following Taiwan’s shift to democratization in the 1990s, a new generation of ROC residents are growing up without the influence of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) martial law. According to the Mainland Affairs Council of the ROC, the majority of ROC residents support the maintenance of the current status quo of cross-strait relations. This trend is marked in the above chart, drawn from the public opinion poll data from the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, in which public support for maintaining the status quo ranges from 80.9% in June 2017 to 88.9% in August 2016. The more extreme stances of unification with or independence from China remain in the minority of public opinion, as the opinion polls have never recorded either stance gaining 10% or more of public support. While Taiwan lacks the military and economic independence to fully break apart from China, the maintenance of the status quo of cross-strait relations would allow Taiwan to gradually grow apart from China. The growing alienation of Taiwanese from the Chinese identity has intensified the pressure that President Xi experiences in terms of his timeline for the reunification of Taiwan.

Due to the combined pressures of the Chinese dream and the strengthening of Taiwanese identify, China may adopt drastic measures to attempt reunification. However, at this point, unless there is a grand bargain between China and the United States, Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan will not change. As long as the TRA remains in force, it is inconceivable for China to use force to reunify with Taiwan. Taiwan understands that if it takes steps to unilaterally declare independence, Beijing will attack regardless of what Washington will do. All it can aspire for is de facto independence. The only way for Taiwan to become part of China is for China to persuade Taiwan that it can guarantee the “one country, two systems” by rule of law. If all three factors stay unchanged, the triangular relationship will not change for a long time and all will be quiet in the Taiwan Strait.