The Debate

A New Perspective on Taiwan-China Relations

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The Debate

A New Perspective on Taiwan-China Relations

Taiwan should no longer be perceived as a problem-spot dating from the anachronistic Chinese Civil War.

A New Perspective on Taiwan-China Relations
Credit: Taiwan flag image via

Much is being written these days on whether tensions between Taiwan and China will increase come May 20. On that date, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who won an overwhelming landslide victory in January, will be inaugurated as Taiwan’s president.

Conventional wisdom has it that during the past eight years, the China-friendly policies of Kuomintang (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou led to an accommodation, resulting in a reduction of tensions. Ma has prided himself on his approach, which resulted in some 22 cross-Strait agreements, mainly focusing on trade and investment.

A fundamental problem with this perception is that this rapprochement across the Strait was built on quicksand: Ma’s policies gave Beijing the impression that Taiwan would gradually drift into China’s embrace, and that it would eventually lead into some sort of unification.

Ma’s approach was perhaps understandable from his point of view: his family was part of the Chinese Nationalist elite that came over with Chiang Kai-shek after World War II and governed Taiwan under authoritarian rule from the late 1940s through the late 1980s.  It wasn’t until the early 1990s that democracy set in under native-born President Lee Teng-hui.

But that China-focused narrative has now run headlong into Taiwan’s vibrant democracy. This became quite apparent already in March/April 2014, when the Sunflower student movement blocked Ma’s attempt to push through his ill-fated Service Trade Agreement with China through the Legislative Yuan.

The push-back against the rapprochement envisioned by Ma became even more obvious in the November 2014 local “nine-in-one” elections, when the opposition DPP swept the KMT out of a large number of local offices. And it culminated in the overwhelming victory in the January 2016 presidential and legislative elections, which gave Tsai’s DPP control of both the executive and legislative branches of government.

So, what would be a viable way forward for Taiwan? What do the people of Taiwan want for their future? In this context it must be emphasized that the rejection of Ma’s policies was not per se an anti-China movement: it was much more of a pro-Taiwan movement dedicated to preserving the hard-won freedom and democracy in Taiwan.

First and foremost, people in Taiwan are looking for a better, more effective and transparent government; they want to move away from the “black box” operations so symptomatic of the KMT years. They also want an accountable Legislative Yuan, not shady backroom dealings so prevalent in the past eight years.

Secondly, in terms of Taiwan’s place in the international community, the people of the island want their country to be treated as a full and equal member. In particular the young people resent the international isolation imposed on their country by the “One China” legacy dating back to Chiang Kai-shek.

The main drivers behind this new political landscape in Taiwan are twofold: it is the culmination of the transition to democracy in the late 1980s, and the subsequent strong shift to a new “Taiwanese” identity.

In the 1970s, when the current “One China” policies came into being, the choice was between two authoritarian regimes that both claimed to represent the “real” China. That contest was won by the CCP in Beijing: it is in de facto control of China, although — despite hopes of a liberalization in the 1990s and 2000s — its rule is still highly repressive.

But Taiwan went into a very different direction: in the 1980s and 1990s it morphed from being the seat of a repressive Chinese Nationalist regime into being a vibrant and even rambunctious democracy. The Taiwan of today thus has very little to do with the old Chinese Civil War. Its people want to leave the dark legacies of that conflict behind them and work toward a new future.

Also, from the early 1990s until the present, there was a fundamental shift in how people perceived themselves. The newfound democracy made it possible for the people to (re)discover their Taiwanese identity: in the early 1990s only some 20 percent identified themselves as “Taiwanese” (with the remainder either “Chinese” or “both”), while in opinion polls over the past years, more than 80 percent of the respondents identify themselves as Taiwanese.

It is important to understand that this refers to an inclusive definition of Taiwanese: not just those who are ethnically Taiwanese (some 85 percent of the population), but those who – irrespective of their origin – consider Taiwan their homeland.

So, what can be expected in the coming months (and years) ahead? Some U.S. analysts predict major problems, and even a possible conflict across the Strait.

While not discounting the possibility of increasing tensions, I do believe that the debate needs to be framed differently. Too often, observers conceive scenarios describing how the situation could get worse. No doubt, in military planning and strategy one needs to go through the various possibilities and prepare for contingencies.

In the present case of cross-Strait dynamics, one could indeed foresee a situation where President Xi Jinping and his government would increase the pressure on Taiwan, through economic boycotts, blockades, or even military means. This would certainly lead to a major crisis – and possibly even a conflict with the United States and its allies such as Japan – to the detriment of China itself. Not an attractive option.

Second, Beijing could continue a confrontational approach, but hold short of actions that would lead to a significant crisis. This would perpetuate the current unsatisfactory standoff for years to come.

But there is a third option, which is likely the only option that would lead to real reduction of tension and to a sustainable peace and security across the Taiwan Strait: Beijing could see the advent of a new government in Taiwan as a window of opportunity and start working toward a positive and constructive relationship across the Taiwan Strait, in which the two nations would work toward the normalization of relations and eventually recognize each other as friendly neighbors.

This may sound far-fetched at the present time, but human history is full of examples of neighboring countries that fought major wars, but now are the best of friends: Germany and France, the U.K. and the United States come to mind, while the PRC’s own relation with the West was “normalized” after many years of open hostility.

This third approach is the one that needs to be elaborated and discussed by observers in Washington and elsewhere. So, instead of decoding the latest remarks of China’s leaders, it would be better if the best and brightest minds in Washington would focus on helping the leaders in Beijing understand that this new Taiwan provides an excellent opportunity to let bygones be bygones and move forward.

This does require some out-of-the-box thinking and a change of mindset by policymakers in Washington, Beijing and elsewhere: the essence is that “Taiwan” should no longer be perceived as a problem-spot dating from the anachronistic Chinese Civil War, but be seen as a new and dynamic democracy that wants to find its own place in the international family of nations.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he also served as editor of Taiwan Communiqué, a publication based in Washington DC