As Tsai Ing-wen crossed the hundredth-day mark after assuming the office of the President of Taiwan, a recent poll showed that public approval of Tsai’s performance dipped below 50 percent, to 45.5 percent, while the disapproval rate climbed to 39.8 percent. The reasons for increasing public disapproval were complex and mainly stemmed from her domestic underperformance and administrative inefficiency. The median and dark-green voters were believed to be the most dissatisfied with Tsai owing to their high expectations.
In cross-Strait relations, Tsai has vowed to implement a policy of “no provocation, zero surprises, and more communication.” So far, Taipei seems to be fulfilling its promise despite the freezing of cross-Strait communications. Although Tsai has refused to admit the 1992 consensus directly — it is seen as the political foundation of cross-Strait engagement by Beijing — the new administration did declare the historical fact of the 1992 meeting. The administration also kept a low profile and acted with caution at the 69th World Health Assembly in March and during Tsai’s later visit to Panama. All these came at a price as Tsai suffered loss of support from dark-green supporters and conservative forces within the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that she led. It seemed that Tsai had honoured her pre-election promises with regards to cross-Strait relations and it was unlikely she would make proactive moves to alter the status quo. At least, Washington was satisfied with Taipei’s cross-Strait policy.
However, by making some subtle yet significant changes, Tsai has planted a time bomb in cross-Strait relations, precipitating a future tit-for-tat clash.
Status Quo in the Strait
Status quo is an important theoretical and policy concept in international security. At a time when Sino-US relations and East Asian security are characterized by a great power competition between a rising China and an established power (the US), China is increasingly being labeled as a revisionist trying to change the status quo the US has inherent interests in. Simply put, Washington intends to defend the status quo by deterring either the Taiwan independence movement or the mainland’s efforts to force unification. Beijing used to be fine with the status quo when it was relatively weak and promised not to use force as long as its red-line (Taiwanese independence) was not violated.
Some analysts believe that the Taiwan Strait is no longer a flash point for regional stability, because the majority of Taiwanese and politicians do not see independence as realistic, and also because Beijing is unlikely to initiate a proactive war due to the risk of confronting Washington.1 However, such arguments bypass two points of great importance: firstly, there is no clear boundary between the status quo and revisionists’ behavior; and secondly, the status quo does not speak for itself, but needs outside interpretation.
On the first point, Beijing and Washington built a de facto co-management partnership in deterring Taiwan independence during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency. However, there is ample grey space before the red-line where Washington will tolerate, acquiesce, and even favor while Beijing suffers. This grey space is also where pro-independence political forces in Taipei can exploit out of self-consciousness or under the pressure of conservatives within the island.
Tsai revised the Sino-centric guidelines for social and history textbooks. This was seen as a de-Sinicization effort and the promotion of localization.
On the second point, Washington used to define what the status quo was in cross-Strait relations, when Beijing was relatively weaker. The two nations tested each other’s determination and intentions during the 1995-1996 cross-Strait crises, which ended with Washington and Beijing’s later mutual accommodation. Beijing shifted its policy objective from pursuing earlier unification to a pro-status quo anti-independence position, while Washington abandoned its unconditional security commitment. The Bush administration adopted a new dual-deterrence strategy to deter both Beijing’s unification war and Taipei’s independence movement.
However, with the rise of China’s economic and military strengths, Beijing gradually seized the initiative in defining the status quo of the Strait.2 Beijing raised its expectations in cross-Strait relations hoping that both sides would unify in a “natural” manner. This explained why Beijing tended to cede its economic interests to Taiwan in bilateral economic exchange; facilitated social and cultural exchange; and encouraged young Taiwanese to study and work in the Mainland.
The two points are mutually reinforcing and together create a dangerous scenario of war in which Beijing but not Washington will perceive certain moves by Taipei as changing the status quo. War is very likely when Beijing witnesses Taipei continuously edging away from the one-China framework of pursuing de facto unification in a subtle and gradual way. When Beijing finally loses its patience and witnesses the diminishing hope for peaceful unification, it will not be difficult for Beijing to choose war.
What Did Tsai Do?
Tsai seemed to be unwilling to tell Beijing and Washington what her cross-Strait policy was. She did little to antagonize Beijing except refusing to admit the 1992 consensus. Actually it was hard for Beijing to drop its belief that Tsai was pro-independence, because she used to be one of Lee Teng-hui’s most important consultants in drafting the “Two-Chinas” theory, and she later became the chairwoman of the DPP, a pro-independence political party. In her 100 days as President, Tsai signaled her pro-independence stance by making some subtle but significant moves.
Beijing wasn’t surprised by Tsai’s refusal to acknowledge the 1992 consensus. It was even possible that Beijing knew and understood how much pressure Tsai faced from the DPP and pro-independence conservatives by admitting the historical fact of the 1992 consensus, declaring to deal with cross-Strait relations based on the constitution of the Republic of China, and acting with caution and a low-profile in diplomatic activities. However, all these had not been enough to let Beijing see Tsai’s behavior as favorable. Beijing might reasonably see Tsai and the DPP conservatives as simply playing the “good cop and bad cop” trick of sending mixed signals, but acting together to gradually push Taiwan towards independence.
Several subtle but significant moves are reinforcing Beijing’s perception. Tsai revised her predecessor President Ma Ying-jeou’s Sino-centric guidelines for social and history textbooks. This was seen as a de-Sinicization effort and the promotion of localization. The Tsai administration also dropped charges against protesters in the Sunflower movement who had aimed at blocking the passage of a treaty to build closer economic ties with mainland China. She also spared no effort to revive the “Go South” policy by promoting economic cooperation with Southeast Asian countries to reduce Taiwan’s economic reliance on the mainland.
The DPP also lowered the threshold for public votes. Chen Shui-bian had launched several referendums in order to split Taiwan from China but failed. These referendums would have been successful if this lower threshold law had been approved then. What’s more, the newly passed “Ill-gotten Party Assets Law” allegedly targeting the Kuomintang (KMT) — an anti-independence and pro-China party — will weaken the KMT permanently.
Further such moves are possible in the future. So far, the Tsai administration seems to have achieved little in improving Taiwan’s economy, raising starting salaries, or improving social welfare. If Tsai and the DPP government cannot improve the economy, stirring up the waters of cross-Strait issues in social discourse will become an attractive option for them to boost their domestic support for the next election.
Catalyst for Crisis
The blame should not be borne solely by the DPP and the Tsai administration. A crisis or even war in the Taiwan Strait has become more likely due to other structural factors.
On one hand, what is Xi Jinping’s level of patience with cross-Strait relations? It is widely believed that Beijing is becoming increasingly impatient and even frustrated with the political gridlock in the Strait. Xi is strongly motivated and ambitious in striving for a historical breakthrough in cross-Strait relations. It is very likely that Xi will use an action by Taipei as a justification to push back hard and change the status quo in Beijing’s favor. In that case, Beijing may be expected to break the stalemate in the name of reacting to a crisis that Taipei had provoked, and force a political negotiation.
On the other hand, the tense great power competition in East Asia between China and the United States makes Taipei a hotspot of concern. When Taipei does something controversial which is perceived to change the status quo in Beijing’s eyes but is considered acceptable by Washington, Beijing would probably act in order to restore its position in Strait issues and rebuild the status quo. However, Washington and Tokyo will certainly see Beijing as a revisionist and an expansionist. When both sides (Beijing on one side, Washington and its allies on the other) believe they are fighting for just causes, war becomes a reality.
To avoid the worst-case scenario, both sides across the Strait should demonstrate political wisdom in tackling the dilemma. Beijing needs to figure out ways to reward Tsai for exercising self-restraint in cross-Strait relations and for facilitating cross-Strait dialogue in a smart way, while protecting Beijing’s interests in the Strait. For Washington, it is necessary to keep Taiwan out of its “Rebalancing to Asia” schemes to avoid sending the wrong signal that it intends to use Taiwan to deter Beijing, which will only make cross-Strait relations even worse. For Tsai and the DPP, they need to know what kind of cross-Strait policies serve Taiwan’s long-term interests. Most Taiwanese want the status quo rather than independence now, so freezing the party’s “independence clause” will probably be a good start for the DPP to signal its goodwill and contribute to the stability of the Taiwan Strait.
1. Kastner, S. L. (2016). Is the Taiwan Strait still a flash point? Rethinking the prospects for armed conflict between China and Taiwan. International Security, 40(3), 54-92.
2. Bush, R. C. (2016, March 17). Decoding Xi Jinping’s latest remarks on Taiwan. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/03/17/decoding-xi-jinpings-latest-remarks-on-taiwan/