On March 16, 2018, US President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which received unanimous support in Congress. The bill will encourage and allow for official exchanges between Taipei and Washington at all levels. Beijing expressed its strong dissatisfaction with the Act but has not clarified its countermeasures so far.
This is not the only recent case that may provoke Beijing on the Taiwan issue. In June 2017, Washington passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, which required US warships to conduct port calls in Taiwan, facilitated exchanges of senior military officials, and invited Taiwan to take part in US Red Flag air combat exercises. Adding a possible trade war between the two great powers, the Act casts a shadow on Sino-US relations.
What is more, in the first quarter of 2018, the world witnessed new dynamics in the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle, which could have far-reaching implications for regional security and stability.
Washington: Taiwan in its new China Strategy
The Act shows Washington’s efforts to reshape the status quo and power balance in the Strait. People’s Liberation Army air forces conducted several flights near Taiwan in 2017, and its only carrier group sailed through the Strait in January 2018. Although Washington can do little to reverse the military imbalance in the Strait, and its hands are tied by the One-China policy, it cannot simply give away the US’ traditional interests in Taiwan.
The Act is a move to expand US’ involvement to counter Beijing’s new moves in the Strait. Further moves probably include but are not limited to new arms deals, high-level official exchanges, and the signing of the Taiwan-US Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).
Behind the Act are rising anxieties in Washington over a proactive and assertive China. Strategists argue, after many years of economic reform and “keeping a low profile,” China has successfully made itself the only equal competitor to the United States in all areas. Particularly, Beijing did not democratize itself with the development of its economy, which was against the modernization theory’s prediction and the West’s expectation. As China became more proactive in expanding its influence in the regional and global economy and in security issues, Washington concluded its past China policy defined by engagement was a failure, through which China was actually buying time and waiting for the right moment to reclaim its status in the world community.
The US’ China strategy — probably characterized by Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy — is still under draft. Despite the lack of clarification, the new strategy will probably enhance the element of containment and the formation of a coalition to balance against China. While it is unclear whether Taiwan will be part of it, keeping Taiwan’s autonomous status is certainly in American’s vital interests.
Beijing: New Waves of United Front Tactics
As for Beijing, it is revitalizing its Taiwan interests. Many recent policy moves indicate changes in its strategy — from previously deterring Taiwan independence to a new strategy that aims at facilitating a natural or forced, if deemed necessary, unification.
Washington is possibly more inclined to use Taiwan as a bridgehead to contain China’s rising ambitions in the region, while Beijing — under domestic pressure — is working to make substantive progress in cross-Strait integration and unification.
It is widely believed that Beijing’s soft measures will get softer and the hard measures harder (软得更软，硬得更硬). On one hand, Beijing is more willing to limit Taipei’s international space. Beijing has tried to minimize Taiwan’s presence in intergovernmental organizations, including the World Health Organization, Interpol, and the International Civil Aviation Organization, and to limit its diplomatic relations with countries which used to recognize the sovereignty of the Republic of China. On the other hand, Beijing has announced 31 new measures to extend unprecedented benefits to Taipei, hoping more young talents in Taiwan would approach mainland China intensively.
In addition, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will now probably stay in power in the next decades, has an obligation to advance China’s Taiwan interests substantively. More political power means more duties. Failing to accomplish the mission will damage his political image significantly.
Taipei: The Paradox of Choice
Taipei under the leadership of Tsai Ing-wen faces a paradox of choice in the great power competition between Beijing and Washington. Although Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) tend to pursue Taiwan independence, they also clearly recognize the catastrophic consequences of declaring independence, including possible military invasion from mainland China and Washington’s possible reluctance to help.
However, separating Taiwan from China and establishing a new Republic of Taiwan was the ideological clause of the DPP which has helped it rally popular support, particularly in South Taiwan, and win local and presidential elections. During these elections, Tsai shored up the conflict between both sides of the Strait and exploited the identity differences among the Taiwanese who had strong China identity and who proposed independence. The domestic incentives to use cross-Strait relations politically will continue to destabilize the Strait and even push both sides to the edge of war.
Although independence may not be a practical option, it is in Taipei’s vital interests to take measures and guarantee its autonomy of choice in the future. Its key policies include developing cooperative relations with Washington and Tokyo, joining regional multilateral trade agreements, and military buildup.
The New Triangle?
Two years ago, some analysts argued that the cross-Strait issue was no longer a serious flashpoint in East Asian security, and that the dispute between Taiwan and mainland China had been stabilized, namely the status of the absence of either dispute escalation or peaceful resolution.
Several factors were highlighted in their analysis: the extensive cross-Strait exchanges; the political foundation between both sides, namely the 1992 consensus which admits both sides belong to one China; the US’ dual deterrence to contain both sides across the Strait from changing the status quo; and Beijing’s prioritization of economic development and a stable international environment which constrains any significantly proactive moves in the Strait.
Looking back at these factors nowadays, cross-Straits relations may enter into a new destabilizing era: social exchanges across the Strait remain active, but official exchanges have reached a deadlock; Washington is possibly more inclined to use Taiwan as a bridgehead to contain China’s rising ambitions in the region, while Beijing — under domestic pressure — is working to make substantive progress in cross-Strait integration and unification. It seems that the Strait will become an unstable and war-prone flashpoint in the region, and a litmus test on the wisdom of politicians in promoting peace.