Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent visit to the United States, en route to Paraguay and Belize and back, has significantly raised tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
Tsai’s two-day stopover in Los Angeles included a banquet for Taiwanese-Americans, where she urged the audience to be united and make Taiwan strong.
She also visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and delivered another public speech, proclaiming that “we will keep our pledge that we are willing to jointly promote regional stability and peace under the principles of national interests, freedom and democracy”.
This is a veiled reference to efforts from Beijing to further curb Taipei’s dwindling international space, including poaching of the latter’s diplomatic allies and demands to airlines to refer to Taiwan as Chinese territory.
Indeed, just two days after Tsai’s visit, news broke of El Salvador – one of Taiwan’s few remaining allies – announcing its decision to cut ties with the island and establish a diplomatic relationship with China. This leaves Taiwan diplomatically isolated with only 17 remaining partners.
What is also worrying is Washington’s acquiescence to Tsai’s activities. Besides delivering a political speech in Los Angeles – the first allowed by a Taiwanese leader in the U.S. in 15 years – Tsai visited NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Texas during her delegation’s return stopover in Houston. She is the first Taiwanese president to enter a U.S. federal building in her official capacity.
Tsai’s high-profile visit to the U.S., amid the deeper geopolitical undercurrents across the Taiwan Strait, has fundamentally shifted the dynamics of Taipei’s triangular relationship with Beijing and Washington.
But this is in fact a shrewd strategy by Taiwan to seize the initiative – and upper hand – in cross-strait relations with China. The confluence of three events have inadvertently laid the groundwork for Taiwan to do so.
How has Taipei seized the initiative against Beijing?
First, over the past year, there has been a sea change in American attitudes toward China.
The strong anti-China sentiment is not restricted to the White House and the Trump administration, although admittedly the administration’s hawkish stances labelling China as a ‘strategic competitor’ and a threat to American preponderance have helped push the tide in this direction. These policy positions are clearly laid out in its National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review – key documents outlining U.S. foreign and defence policy.
Indeed, the anti-China view is a bipartisan one, and permeates both Houses of the U.S. Congress. This is evidenced by the unanimous passing of the Taiwan Travel Act in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in March, and the passage of the 2019 National Defence Authorisation Act in August. Both pieces of legislation contain provisions seeking to strengthen ties with Taipei while posing a strategic deterrent against Beijing’s growing military prowess.
Taiwan understands that this tide is favourable to its national interests, and has sought to leverage this bipartisan sentiment towards its goal of enhancing ties with the U.S., as can be seen from Tsai’s latest visit to the U.S..
Second, Tsai’s visit comes on the back of Chinese moves that many in the U.S. deem as unfriendly, if not outright hostile.
These include Beijing’s toughening – and escalatory – stance by matching the trade tariffs the U.S. have imposed, and the heightening security tensions in the South China Sea where the U.S. Navy has been conducting increasingly frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations.
A rift between the two great powers proffers an opportunity for Taiwan to close ranks with the U.S. – its de facto security guarantor – in retaliation against China.
And this is what the Tsai administration has done – as U.S.-China trade and maritime conflict have caused relations to fall into a nadir in recent months, Taiwan has seized the initiative to stand with its American ally against the perceived Chinese threat. It is worth noting that Beijing has never renounced the use of force against Taipei, should the latter choose to declare independence or when reunification of Taiwan with the mainland is no longer possible through peaceful means.
Third, Taiwan has of late emphasised repeatedly in public statements about the sanctity of democracy, tying it to ‘common values’ that it shares with America.
These – while undoubtedly meant to anger Beijing, who continues to practice authoritarian governance with single party and strongman rule – are mainly intended to invoke feelings of brotherhood with the U.S. and ingrain the notion among American policy-makers that they should support Taiwanese interests over Chinese interests.
After all, as the Tsai administration has eloquently articulated, it would make sense for the U.S. to side with the party that practices the same values of democracy and human rights, instead of a Chinese regime that pays scant attention to these issues.
What lies ahead for cross-strait relations in 2018?
Therefore, the combination of factors – an increasingly hawkish U.S. stance against China, Beijing’s antagonistic retaliatory actions against Washington, and Taiwan’s successful pitch of itself as a valued American partner – have allowed Taiwan to enhance its leverage in cross-strait relations.
This is despite China taking pains to restrict Taiwan’s diplomatic space by convincing the latter’s allies – El Salvador being a case in point – to break off ties with promises of investment and economic growth.
Looking at the current trajectory, cross-strait conflict – at least economic and diplomatic coercion on Beijing’s part – looks set to continue. This is especially as Taiwanese municipal elections, traditionally an indicative barometer of public sentiment toward the ruling party, will be held in November this year. At about the same time, America will hold midterm Congressional and local elections.
The issue of the ‘China threat’ will feature strongly in both elections. As campaigning leading up to elections proceeds, it is very likely that the U.S. and Taiwan will ramp up anti-China rhetoric as they appeal to their respective voter bases concerned – or disgruntled – about Chinese actions in recent months.
With this backdrop, it is no wonder that analysts are increasingly pessimistic about cross-strait relations. One can only hope that common sense will prevail over the domestic political need to win elections – and avoid triggering the next episode of cross-strait conflict.