Rising Uncertainty in the Washington-Beijing-Taipei Triangle in 2019
A supporter at a Taiwan elections rally (AFP).
By Xiaolin Duan

Rising Uncertainty in the Washington-Beijing-Taipei Triangle in 2019

Jan. 18, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Within three days, Washington, Taipei and Beijing announced their latest policies on the Taiwan issue, which does not seem to be a coincidence.

On December 31, 2018, US President Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative (ARIA) into law, which reassured America’s commitment to counter the rising influence and aspirations of a stronger China and engage other Indo-Pacific countries. The initiative welcomed the closer economic, political and security relations between Taiwan and America, encouraged US high-level officials to visit Taiwan, reiterated America’s traditional interest in the status quo of the Taiwan Strait and requested the President to “conduct regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan that are tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People’s Republic of China”.

On the next day, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen made her first New Year’s Day Speech since she took power in May 2016. The speech was partially a response to outside critics against her low-profile leadership style and reluctance to communicate with her people frankly, and, what is more, to restate her cross-Strait relations policy before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming speech on January 2, 2019 on cross-Strait relations at the 40th anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan, which marked the formal ending of the military confrontation between mainland China and Taiwan in 1979.

Tsai urged Beijing to respect the differences between their political systems, values, beliefs and lifestyles, and criticized China’s hostility against Taiwan under her administration. Tsai also emphasized it was the central government’s authority to handle the cross-Strait relations, and it is “not only immoral but even illegal” for the KMT-administered local governments to engage mainland China directly. Huanqiu (Global Times) believed her speech was the most hostile one against Beijing since Tsai took power, and de facto reflected her pro-independence beliefs.

Beijing’s schedule was not disrupted by Tsai’s statement. On January 2, Beijing held its high-level meeting, in which Xi Jinping delivered the speech, along with other national leaders including the Chairman of the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress Li Zhanshu, the Chairman of the National Political Consultative Committee Wang Yang, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, and Vice-Chairman Wang Qishan, and the top leaders in the United Front systems. Apart from reaffirming Beijing’s commitment to engage Taiwan comprehensively, and its determination to deter Taiwan independence, Xi highlighted the necessity and urgency to think about possible ways of political unification. This was widely considered as Xi’s public demonstration of his determination to resolve the Taiwan issue within his term as the Chinese leader.

As mentioned above, it was not a coincidence for all the three major actors to release their new policies respectively. Tsai and Xi’s speeches and Washington’s ARIA were only part of a series of changes in the Taiwan Strait.

On American side, since Donald Trump took power, the cross-Strait relationship seems to have increasingly served as a diplomatic leverage to counter the rising power and regional aspirations of China. From a broader perspective, this only mirrors the rising suspicions and tensions between the two great powers. Theorists and pundits have raised their worries about a new cold war. The tariff war, the military standoff in the South China Sea, Washington’s suspicions of China’s disturbance of the resolution of the North Korea issue, etc., have reshaped their bilateral relationship. ARIA came after the Taiwan Travel Act which encouraged high-level official exchanges between Taiwan and America, the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2019 which vowed to maintain the military power balance, and President Trump’s approval of a second arms sale to Taiwan worth USD 330 million since 2017.

In Taiwan, a great majority respect the current constitution of Republic of China and do not support independence. Mainland China has become more positive in the popular perceptions of the Taiwanese, and cross-Strait engagements have reached a new level with the rise of economic interdependence and people-to-people exchanges.

For Beijing, it has continued to adopt the principle of “Softening the soft, and hardening the hard” (软的更软,硬的更硬). On one hand, it kept utilizing the united front tactics, and unilaterally surrendered the economic benefits to the ordinary people and corporates in Taiwan. In February 2018, Beijing released 31 preferential policies to attract more Taiwanese to work, live and study in mainland China by granting them equal treatment with their Chinese “compatriots.” On the other hand, the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Forces have circled Taiwan to demonstrate mainland China’s rising military capacity and resolve to deter Taiwan separatism. Beijing further limited the international space of the Republic of China by establishing formal diplomatic relations with small countries which used to acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign state.


Under the shadow of great power competition between China and the United States, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-ruled Taiwan chose to respect the status quo in the Strait but manage its economic dependence on mainland China by promoting economic cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, gradually de-Sinicizing Taiwan, and trying its best to weaken and delegitimate the Kuomintang, the major opposition party with a stronger China identity and which has accepted the 1992 consensus. Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-independence stances and subtle policies made Beijing conclude that Tsai is leaning towards and using Washington to deter Beijing’s strategies of peaceful unification, and if possible, pursue independence.


In 2019, the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle will further complicate the Taiwan issue and raise the possibility of regional instability.


First, the Taiwan presidential elections will be held in 2020. Tsai’s popularity crises in Taiwan, the revival of the Kuomintang, and the rise of non-partisan candidate and the present mayor of Taipei city government Ko Wen-je, will raise the intensity of political competition in Taiwan. Cross-Strait relations will surely be a major focus in the election. Second, despite the termination of the tariff war between China and the United States, the great power competition seems to have irreversibly slipped into a dangerous zero-sum game. The tense great power competition will destabilize the Strait and elsewhere in East Asia. Third, Xi Jinping is determined and eager to resolve the Taiwan issue under his rule. Beijing will push for political negotiation across the Strait, and if unsuccessful, may conclude that the hope of peaceful unification is diminished and that the use of force is the only effective policy option.


However, there are still reasons for optimism, particularly across the Strait. In Taiwan, a great majority respect the current constitution of Republic of China and do not support independence. Mainland China has become more positive in the popular perceptions of the Taiwanese, and cross-Strait engagements have reached a new level with the rise of economic interdependence and people-to-people exchanges. This only makes Beijing more comfortable with the status quo and stick to the peaceful unification strategies rather than use force. Out of the same concerns, the pro-status quo political forces including the Kuomintang and the non-partisan candidate Ko and the social groups will grow stronger. It is even possible that the pro-independence DPP reconsiders their mainland China policies and reiterates its willingness to respect rather than alter the status quo. If so, the Taiwan Strait will less likely be a flashpoint despite the rising great power competition in East Asia and beyond.

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