Taiwanese Society and Cross-Strait Relations: An Interview with Shelley Rigger

Shelley Rigger is the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College and a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Rigger is one of the leading experts on Taiwan and is also a Director of the Taiwan Fund, a fund that specifically invests in Taiwan-listed companies.

 Rigger received her PhD in Government from Harvard University and a BA in Public and International Affairs from Princeton University. She was a visiting researcher at National Chengchi University in Taiwan (2005) and a visiting professor at both Fudan University (2006) and Shanghai Jiaotong University (2013 & 2015). Rigger was recently a Fulbright Senior Scholar and spent the 2019-2020 academic year in Taiwan.

Rigger has published two books on Taiwan for general readers Why Taiwan Matters (2011) and most recently The Tiger Leading the Dragon: How Taiwan Propelled China’s Economic Rise (2021). She has also written two academic books on Taiwan’s domestic politics, Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy (1999) and From Opposition to Power: Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (2001). 

First, could you give a brief introduction of yourself and how you developed an interest in Taiwan?

I’m Shelley Rigger. I am a professor of political science at Davidson College and my area of expertise is East Asian politics. My research focus is Taiwan, its domestic politics, and the relationship between Taiwan and the PRC. I have written two academic books about Taiwan’s domestic politics and two books for general readers. The first, Why Taiwan Matters, is a general overview of everything to do with Taiwan. The other, which just came out in June, is called The Tiger Leading the Dragon. It argues that the Taiwanese helped, perhaps even enabled, China’s emergence as a manufacturing center in the global economy. The book, which is mostly about business and economics, explains Taiwan’s economic development and how Taiwanese entrepreneurs carried their experiences to the mainland. But it also includes chapters on non-economic factors like consumer tastes, philanthropy, religion, and law. In fact, Taiwanese lawyers actually wrote much of PRC commercial law.

I know you were in Taiwan from 2019 to 2020, so what is the public attitude towards China in Taiwan and how has it shifted recently?

We have just an enormous amount of data about how Taiwanese have viewed the PRC over time. There are surveys that address this topic going back to the 1980s. I think that allows us to see trends, but it also in some ways obscures important aspects of the question you’re asking because surveys give people fixed responses to choose from. For a lot of people in Taiwan, thinking about mainland China is very complicated. It’s a pervasive idea within their media and politics.

Overall, the way Taiwanese think about their relationship with the mainland has gone through a maturing process. At first, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this was the first time Taiwanese were able to visit the mainland since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Some were going to Shanghai and Beijing, but many of them were going to rural places to take elderly relatives back to visit their hometowns.

What they saw was that the mainland was very backward. As the PRC economy was emerging from the Maoist era, there was a lot of opportunity for Taiwanese investors. They needed technology, capital, management expertise, everything. So, at first, the Taiwanese were not thinking too hard about the PRC state, and were instead developing their ideas about the mainland from the experiences of Taiwanese entrepreneurs.

Another phenomenon that was going on in the ’80s is Taiwanese were talking about what “China” means in Taiwan. In Taiwan, there are two Chinas. On one hand, there is the PRC and, on the other, there is the China that’s inside Taiwan. From the ’40s through the mid ’80s, you had to call yourself Chinese if you lived in Taiwan because this was the mandate of the Taiwanese government. But what you see in the ’80s is a blossoming conversation about Taiwanese identity: What makes us Chinese? Who says we’re Chinese? Why can’t we just be Taiwanese? It is inevitable that one of the manifestations of this conversation was a budding desire for independence.

But if you look at the data from the 1980s, you won’t see that. At that time, most people call themselves Chinese and very few people say they’re supportive of Taiwanese independence. In many ways, the high point of the Taiwanese independence movement was in 1996 when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominated a presidential candidate who made Taiwan independence his platform. It was the worst performance of the DPP since the second time they had ever competed in elections. They got clobbered because a lot of people thought, “That’s really dangerous. That’s not the right direction for Taiwan.”

Ever since 1996, even the DPP has been trying to figure out how to balance its desire to secure Taiwan as its own entity, in which Taiwanese identity is valued and celebrated, without moving over into that dangerous territory of calling for independence. Today, about two thirds of Taiwanese call themselves Taiwanese while the rest call themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese. Depending on the survey, roughly one or two percent call themselves Chinese. Chinese identity has effectively disappeared from Taiwan. What remains is about 35% to 40% of people who say, “I am Taiwanese, but my identity also incorporates a Chinese component.” Still the strong preference is neither for independence nor for unification. 

The external part of your question, “How do Taiwanese view the PRC?”, has also changed. Fast-forwarding through the ’90s and into the 2000s, the PRC’s emerging internal strength is accompanied by an increase in political confidence and a military buildup as well. That initial impression of the PRC as backward and in need of help has transformed into the idea that the PRC is powerful, prosperous, and a source of danger to Taiwan. It is still a source of opportunity, but the risks are edging out the benefits.

The overall sentiment toward mainland China is somewhat negative in Taiwan. But, again, it’s complicated. Taiwanese do not like the Chinese Communist Party. They do not like the PRC state. But if you ask them about the people who live in mainland China, they’re much more positive. In a survey that I just finished conducting with some co-authors, about 62% of respondents said their impression of the PRC government was either bad or very bad. They believe that the PRC government is unfriendly towards Taiwan, and that the impact of the PRC state on Taiwan is negative. But if you ask them, “Is there a cultural similarity between Taiwan and the PRC?”, a majority say yes. I think the more the PRC state becomes confident and wields its power in international affairs and in its relationship with Taiwan, the more Taiwanese develop negative sentiment toward the PRC state. That eventually spills over into the Chinese people as well.

Xi Jinping continues to stress his goals of fulfilling the “China dream” and achieving “national reunification”. In your view, is his plan motivated purely by a drive to further legitimize the CCP? Or, are there other motives involved such as reaping the benefits of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry and its diverse economy?

We used to say that the PRC was perhaps motivated by economic interests. Then, for a long time, I disagreed with this perspective as China benefits much more from Taiwan under the status quo than they would if they tried to take over. As we are seeing in Hong Kong, the most vibrant and entrepreneurial elements of the Taiwanese economy would find someplace else to go.

Now that question is coming back, I think, because Taiwan’s strategic industry, specifically semiconductor manufacturing, is pushed to the tip of the spear of US policies that are aimed at denying mainland companies access to cutting-edge technology. It is interesting to see how quickly that rationale came back into the conversation. That’s not to say that it’s inaccurate, but I’m not sure I agree with the notion that, “If I can’t buy it, then I have to get it by force.”

There is a long-standing debate about what makes Taiwan so important to PRC politicians. “Winning” on this issue does not necessarily mean annexing Taiwan to the PRC. It means being able to tell a story about their own accomplishments that aligns with the expectations they have created. That is where I think the most powerful motivation comes from. It comes from having created expectations and sold them, to some extent, to the PRC people, but more importantly to the Communist Party itself.

Now, they must deliver on that promise. They have made subduing Taiwan, one way or another, a central goal of the PRC state. I think that Taiwanese independence is truly an existential threat to the current leadership of the PRC. That’s why the PRC leaders are so adamant that Taiwan cannot be independent and that the international community must not view Taiwan as an independent country. To the extent that Taiwan could claim to be some kind of independent state in the future, that would violate the narrative of the PRC leadership.

The “sufficient” way to really satisfy this goal is to somehow incorporate Taiwan under the same flag as mainland China. I think for this PRC leadership, that absolutely means annexing Taiwan to the PRC under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party with Xi Jinping at the core. That is not the only way that PRC leaders have conceptualized unification or could conceptualize unification. They have hinted in the past at other possibilities such as a grand coalition of China which could include autonomous political entities within it.

But for Xi Jinping, that’s not good enough. The story he is telling, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, includes Taiwan. But even Xi Jinping, I think, recognizes that denying Taiwan independence is a necessary condition for his political survival. The sufficient condition for the achievement of his ultimate goals is unification, but as long as the necessary condition is met, the sufficient condition can be deferred.

The Biden administration has begun reinserting the US into the international community, reviving its relationships with allies, and adopting a more globally active role. In light of statements that affirm America’s “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan, are there concerns that there will be a fundamental change to the US position of “strategic ambiguity”? What are the risks of “strategic clarity” and what is the right choice?

I think part of what was driving “strategic clarity” was concern that the Biden administration would retreat from the Trump administration’s approach to Taiwan. A lot of American China watchers and Taiwan specialists were pretty satisfied with the Trump administration’s policy because it reflected the rapid increase in signs that the PRC was headed in a more worrisome direction.

By the end of the second Obama administration, I think there was a desire for a change in US policy toward Taiwan. Many feared that Biden was going to return to the Obama era and that the progress made in acknowledging the negative turn in PRC behavior would disappear. So maybe that’s part of what motivated people to advocate for “strategic clarity”.

Well, Biden has not been Obama 2.0. If anything, Biden has been Trump 2.0, although with a lot more strategic thinking and more appreciation for the importance of allies. For example, the Biden administration has gotten Japan to sign on to the idea that the Taiwan Strait is important to Japan. That is something that Japan has resisted saying since the Nixon administration. I think the Biden team has put to rest the idea that Biden was going to reverse back to a more sanguine approach to China policy.

I am relieved to see that there is less discussion surrounding “strategic clarity” recently because, from my vantage point as a Taiwan specialist, “strategic clarity” is a bad idea for three reasons. Number one, to make it declarative policy is like throwing away a card. You lose the ability to use it in the future and it will not make any difference in the present. The PRC does its military planning on the assumption that the US will intervene. That’s basic military planning logic. You don’t hope for the best, you prepare for the worst. At the same time, we need to recognize that the US cannot make a credible blanket commitment because we don’t know what our capabilities will be when the moment arrives.

The thing about “strategic ambiguity” that’s so smart is that it leaves room for judgment. If the cost is nuclear winter over the entire world, we ought to think about whether that is a cost worth paying on any foreign policy question. So, for one thing, I don’t think strategic clarity would change the PRC’s calculations, but it definitely would constrain the US.

The second reason I don’t like “strategic clarity” is I think it emboldens people in Taiwan. There are still plenty of people who would prefer to be independent if they could. With an unconditional security guarantee from the US, maybe it would be a little easier to campaign on a Taiwan independence platform — the US really does not need Taiwan picking a fight with Beijing.

Third, in order for any US security commitment to Taiwan to have credibility, Taiwan must have some capacity to resist the initial military onslaught. The US does not have any personnel or equipment in Taiwan. So, the US cannot be there when it starts and we need for Taiwan to take care of its own defense as much as possible. The US has been putting pressure on Taiwan for decades to do more toward its own defense, but it is a hard sell politically. Their current president, Tsai Ing-wen, has really tried to increase military spending and beef up its defense capabilities. That case would be impossible to make if the US made an unconditional guarantee.

As you mentioned, President Tsai has raised the military budget but Taiwan’s defensive capabilities still fall short and military interest among the Taiwanese youth continues to fall. What do you think the Taiwanese government can do to bolster its military in the face of this malaise among its youth? And, aside from pressure, do you think there is anything the US can do or is pressure the best option?

I think the question of malaise among youth about military service is interesting. They are trying to phase this out, but right up until today, every Taiwanese man leaving high school has mandatory military service. How many friends do you have who are in the military or would consider joining the military?

Zero to one, I think.

Zero to one, yeah. So, it’s relative, right? It’s not surprising that people are not lining up to join the Republic of China Armed Forces when they’re not lining up to join the armed forces anywhere. Americans, we think we love the military, but we love the idea of the military as a concept of strength and patriotism. If every American man had to go into the army for a year and find out what it’s really like, it might be a different story. Certainly, the last time that was the case, which was during the Vietnam War, the reputation of the military and the enthusiasm of American men for military trappings was greatly diminished.

At the same time though, just as in the US, there is a subset of Taiwanese families who have a tradition of military service and are overrepresented in the professional military. But they are associated with some bad politics in history which makes it hard to expand the recruiting effort beyond that hereditary military class.

A military career is not generally viewed as a good option for a young individual in Taiwan. But in the US, we see people pointed in the direction of military service because that’s what they truly want. Also, in the US, the way we lionize the military does create a sense of pride and achievement among everyone who manages to complete basic training. None of that is really working very well in Taiwan. I think that’s where the recruitment efforts maybe need to improve. Something the US could do is provide opportunities for Taiwanese youth, who show aptitude or interest, to do some basic training in the US, or to participate in summer programs that introduce military life as it is here.

It does feel like a cultural shift is required and getting the shift to be top down is difficult. In addition, there are also problems at the upper levels of the Taiwanese military like competition among the service branches and inflexible doctrine. The US works on it constantly with Taiwan, but it is not easy.

Historically, Taiwan has relied heavily on trade with China. President Tsai has sought to diversify Taiwan’s economic relationships with initiatives like the New Southbound Policy. What effect will this economic decoupling have on future cross-strait relations and is economic decoupling even possible? Do you think it will fail due to China’s overwhelming presence in the region?

Taiwanese firms went to Mainland China for its low cost. But if the PRC had not been cheap, Taiwanese would not have gone there. They went there to save money and they still go there to save money. Also, there is a whole subset of Taiwanese investors whose motivation is selling into the PRC market and they will never decouple. They may be decoupled by PRC competitors who take their market share, but they are not going to leave voluntarily.

Likewise, the manufacturing companies that are using the mainland as a manufacturing platform will leave when the economics make them. For example, the trade war increased the actual price of goods manufactured in China by roughly 20% or 25%. All of a sudden, the cost advantage that the PRC had evaporated. The Taiwanese manufacturers know that their international clients want cheaper prices, so they look outside of mainland China. In some cases, they went back to Taiwan and automated processes so that they could keep prices down. In other cases, they went to places like Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. It’s really economic for Taiwan, more than political. But the politics of others trying to extricate themselves from dependence on the PRC affects the behavior of Taiwanese firms.

Integrating Taiwan into the international community seems to be a logical solution to mitigate China’s economic influence. But how do you think countries can go about doing so when faced with an increasingly assertive China? What can Taiwan do?

I think one thing that will make a big difference is if the US and Taiwan can reach a trade agreement of some kind. I don’t want to use FTA necessarily as the language because there are various kinds of trade agreements that better integrate Taiwan and US economically. But some kind of trade agreement with the US would help. Other trade agreements with other countries would also help, but I think the biggest challenge for Taiwan is its exclusion from multilateral economic agreements. Taiwan has WTO membership, but the WTO’s importance is eroded by the proliferation of regionally defined trade blocks.

For example, Taiwan is excluded from RCEP. Taiwan is also not in ASEAN or similar Southeast Asian regional associations. So, it’s hard for Taiwan. This is why the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, now revived by some of the original participants as CPTPP, was given such high importance by Taiwan watchers during the second Obama administration.

I think that for all of the good things the Trump administration did for Taiwan, one bad decision equated to all the good things they did: declaring US participation in TPP dead. TPP was the mechanism that was going to provide Taiwan another shot at being included in multilateral economic forums and Trump killed it on his first day in office. Biden is not going to bring it back as of now because it’s understood to be a toxic property and that is a catastrophe for Taiwan. There’s not going to be another option.

If China becomes enough of a pariah internationally, it’s possible that CPTPP could make a space for Taiwan. But without the US in a leadership position prioritizing that outcome, the likelihood is greatly diminished. I think what the US can do now is negotiate some kind of trade agreement with Taiwan. What the US should have done and might yet be able to do, is a multilateral agreement and the most likely candidate is CPTPP.

Do you think trade and the economic realm are the best options for trilateral cooperation between the US, China, and Taiwan? Do you think that trilateral cooperation is even going to help ease tensions in the region?

Trilateral cooperation is not an option because the PRC will not allow Taiwan to sit down with the US. Washington and Beijing can talk, but Taiwan cannot be in the room ever. You can arrange trilateral conversations in China and sometimes in Taiwan at the Track II or Track III level where PRC institutions will invite Taiwanese. It’s even hard in those situations for them to also invite Americans. However, at the official level, it will never occur because PRC officials insist that they speak for all of China, including Taiwan province.

So, trilateral cooperation, if it happens, will happen tacitly through the actions that we do, but it cannot happen through official channels. We should all be cooperating in economics, in the environment, in public health, in all of these forums because it’s good for the world’s people to do it. I think that’s probably the platform on which the conversation about how we can help ourselves and each other thrive needs to be rooted. As long as we understand this issue in geo-strategic terms, it is a zero-sum game. But if we can understand it as, “How do we make sure that we are giving our peoples the best life available to them with the resources and technology that we have?”, that’s where cooperation happens.