China and Taiwan's Uncertain Bond

4 MINS READOct 6, 2016 | 01:59 GMT
A Growing Ambiguity in China-Taiwan Relations
(Ashley Pon/Getty Images)
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, breaking with her predecessor's policies, wants to reduce her island nation's economic interdependence with China.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Despite Taiwan and China's avowed commitment to maintain the status quo when it comes to cross-strait ties, a number of recent developments point to undercurrents of change. Indeed, there is a growing uncertainty in the island state's relationship with its mainland counterpart. In an interview published Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen affirmed that the island would not "bow to pressure" from Beijing and called for reducing Taiwan's economic dependence on China. On Wednesday, it was announced that Tsai had nominated James Soong, head of a junior party in the Nationalist Party-led opposition coalition, to represent Taiwan at an Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) meeting in Peru this November. A month earlier, his appointment had been soundly rejected by Beijing.

For the most part, Tsai's comments represent an extension of, not a departure from, her administration's standing position on cross-strait relations. It is notable, though, that Tsai insinuates that Taiwan's economic relationship with China has become more competitive than cooperative, suggesting that the island should curb its dependence on the mainland market. Arguably, the comment is the most open challenge yet by a Taiwanese leader to the notion that the island's economic ties to China are less than beneficial for both parties. This is a move away from the position held by Tsai's predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, who heavily promoted trade and investment ties across the Taiwan Strait as a way to develop the island's economy.

Elsewhere in the interview, Tsai appeared to temper these comments by reiterating her commitment to the status quo in cross-strait relations — which confers a degree of autonomy without sovereignty for the island — and shied from anything approaching an open call for Taiwanese independence. But even such an ostensibly conservative and pragmatic position is apparently not enough to satisfy Beijing. Tsai has not made it explicitly clear that her administration's understanding of the status quo encompass what has come to be known as the "1992 Consensus" establishing a one-China doctrine, something Beijing has consistently made the precondition for formal communication between the two.

In light of this ambiguity, Tsai's call for the status quo itself marks, at least in Beijing's eyes, a break from Taipei's former neutral stance on independence. Given this, it is not surprising that cross-strait ties deteriorated shortly after Tsai took office, with Beijing severing official exchanges and moving to ensure the island's exclusion from international organizations and events. China also reportedly imposed indirect economic punishments, which included barring mainland tourists from traveling to the parts of Taiwan showing the strongest support for Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party.

This underlying uncertainty in cross-strait ties is also apparent in diplomatic squabbles over Soong's nomination to represent Taiwan at the APEC summit. On the one hand, he is known to have close ties to mainland China and is generally seen as a China-friendly politician, which would seem to make his appointment a gesture of goodwill toward Beijing. On the other hand, however, the Chinese government rejected Soong's appointment as recently as Sept. 6. After all, appointing Soong, who is a politician, cuts against Beijing's interests in preventing Taiwan from gaining political representation in international bodies. As such, the reiteration that Taiwan will send Soong could be seen as a provocative move on Taipei's part — especially if it emerges that Soong's appointment did not receive Beijing's implicit approval.

Ambiguities aside, what is becoming clear, and what Tsai's comments attest to, is that Beijing's strategy of resolving cross-strait tensions by increasing economic interdependence is not working as China's leaders had planned. After several failed attempts after 1949 at reunification through military means, Beijing in recent years has sought to use economic interdependence as a tool for achieving its long-term goal of reunification. China's leaders had hoped that closer economic ties would drive the perception among the Taiwanese that their interests were interwoven with the mainland's, decreasing the popular appeal of independence. But over the past five years, generational change within Taiwan and a rapidly shifting strategic environment have upended that effort.

Now, China's expanding military capabilities and growing willingness to use military means to secure its regional interests portend that the window for a nonconfrontational resolution to cross-strait relations is slowly but surely closing. This is exacerbated by the rise to political prominence in Taiwan of a generation with little personal connection to the mainland. These shifts make the kind of cross-strait diplomacy characteristic of Tsai's predecessors untenable in the future. At the same time, they do not necessarily indicate a clear and sharp reset in the tenor of cross-strait ties. More likely, they point to an era of growing ambiguity and ambivalence as Beijing mulls over its options. China must ponder how it can best reintegrate Taiwan at the same time as Taipei struggles to balance its economic dependence on Beijing with its desire for political autonomy.

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