Su Tseng-chang, a former Taiwanese premier, takes over as chairman of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on May 30. Following his election over the weekend, Su said the DPP would re-open its Department of China Affairs and seek to establish offices in the United States and Japan. With a contemplative eye on the 2016 presidential elections, Su is seeking to reinvigorate the DPP, and this requires falling at least partly in line with the ruling Kuomintang's (KMT) more cooperative policies toward the People's Republic of China.
The challenge for the DPP, like that for the KMT or any Taiwanese leadership, is how to balance the advantages of economic interaction and smoother political relations with China with the sovereignty risks of overdependence on the mainland. The potentially lessening recognition of Taiwan's security needs during times of relative cross-Strait calm must also be considered. And it is not just China, Taiwan and the United States that watch this relationship carefully. Taiwan's location makes it a critical component of regional maritime security, particularly for Japan.
Relations between Taiwan and China have gone through several phases since the end of the Cold War, with tensions running particularly high first in the 1990s with democratic elections in Taiwan, and then weakening further when the DPP's Chen Shui-bian became president in 2000. During his eight years in office, Chen directed a program to highlight Taiwan's identity (shorthand for clarifying its independence as a distinct nation from mainland China), toyed with the idea of a referendum on Taiwanese (formal) independence, and generally contributed to tense relations with Beijing. But Taipei's perceived provocations of Beijing also led the United States, a longtime supporter of the "status quo" of Taiwan's de facto independence, to take a more cautious approach to providing additional defense equipment to Taiwan, to help lessen cross-Strait tensions.
When current Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, he pursued more cooperative relations with China, pushing for stronger economic ties, backing off on the Taiwan identity initiatives and trying to use the closer relations to gain economic advantages and soften China's stance against Taiwanese participation in various multinational organizations. While the Chen administration had been accused of being too inflammatory toward China, Ma's administration has been accused of being too conciliatory. Ironically, the reduced tensions with the mainland have also lessened the perceived need for major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, as Washington seeks to maintain a relatively peaceful situation across the Taiwan Strait.
A calm Taiwan Strait is critical not only for the United States, which is trying to manage relations with China and avoid any significant escalation of tensions in the region, but also for countries like Japan and South Korea, whose natural resources and exports traverse the East and South China Seas. Taiwan occupies a strategic piece of real estate, serving as the link between the Southeast Asian archipelagos around the South China Sea and the Northeast Asian archipelago stretching from the Kuril Islands through Japan and the Ryuku Islands. These create the boundaries of the Sea of Okhotsk, the East Sea/Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Holding the line around the former two was critical to the United States during the Cold war, to keep the Russian Pacific fleet bottled up. Holding the ring around the latter two is critical today as China seeks to push the United States out of a potential blocking position to Chinese commerce and naval expansion.
Taiwan sits at a critical juncture. If the mainland reabsorbs the island, it gives Beijing the ability to readily interrupt transit and trade through the South China Sea to northeast Asia, thus leaving it theoretically capable of strangling the Japanese and South Korean supply lines. If Taiwan is fully independent and allied to the United States (or Japan or some other regional power), it would provide a near-shore base of operations just off one of the most economically important parts of mainland China, and could serve to forbid Chinese maritime trade between its north and south, which is important given the poor land-based north-south transportation infrastructure. A change one way or another for Taiwan's officially ambiguous status, therefore, would significantly alter the balance of power in the region, triggering a necessary reaction by the losing power.
And with this underlying reality, we see Su and the DPP sliding toward a more middle-ground, pragmatic approach to Taiwan's future. They are looking to move away from the more radical image of the DPP and find that balance not only between the economic benefits and security threats of the mainland, but also between Taiwan's desire for the international agreements and status that comes with formal independence, and the concerns of its neighbors and patrons. In looking to open a liaison office in Japan, the DPP is recognizing perhaps the most critical regional element of Taiwanese balance, that Japan — perhaps even more so than the United States — ultimately needs a Taiwan free of mainland Chinese influence, as it is vulnerable to any shift in the status quo.