Is Trouble Brewing in the Taiwan Strait?

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Is Trouble Brewing in the Taiwan Strait?

Amid President Trump’s other moves, don’t forget the possibility of the frozen conflict over Taiwan turning hot.

Is Trouble Brewing in the Taiwan Strait?

A demonstrator holds the flags of Taiwan and the United States in support of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during a stop-over after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, U.S., (January 14, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Taiwan enjoyed a brief stint in the headlines late last year, with leading U.S. Republicans, the island’s independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen, and Beijing all signaling that a shift to a much tenser period of inter-strait relations has arrived. Of course, relations between Taipei and China began to deteriorate over a year ago, after Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) soundly beat the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), China’s preferred interlocutor, in January 2016. But things really became heated after President-elect Donald Trump broke with longstanding U.S. diplomatic protocol in December to hold a telephone call with Tsai. This prompted fears in Beijing that a pro-independence minded Taiwanese leader had emerged at the same time as a protectionist U.S. president, undermining support in both countries for the hoary one China policy which China’s ruling Communist party still clings to as a symbol of its nationalist credentials.

Recent moves by the new Trump administration, particularly a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, have taken the spotlight off the Taiwan issue. However, the factors heating up the long-frozen Taiwan crisis remain very much in play, and should not be overlooked

Although Trump’s pick for secretary of state has denied rumors that the administration intends to question the one China policy, the longstanding basis of U.S.-China relations, Trump has made no secret of his hostility toward China. With the president sounding off on social media over issues like free trade or Beijing’s expansive South China Sea policy, Beijing fears that Trump sees Taiwan as a bargaining chip, a tool to apply pressure on China. The Chinese government has been keen to stress this is not an issue over which it will negotiate. Beijing has also re-started its diplomatic war against the DPP, continuing to use its checkbook to pick off Taiwan’s shrinking band of allies in the developing world. The tiny African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe was the latest to switch allegiances from Taipei to Beijing. The mainland is hoping that a show of strength now will deter either Tsai or Trump from reaching an accommodation with the other in 2017.

However, such shows of force may backfire in Taiwan. Tsai was elected partly because ordinary Taiwanese feared their country was becoming too economically entangled with an autocratic Beijing. It is instructive to remember that only a few years ago, under the KMT administration of Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) was signed but left unratified by Taiwan’s legislators. This was after protesters from the Sunflower student movement occupied Taiwan’s parliament in 2014 because they felt that the treaty would damage the Taiwanese economy and leave it too vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. The subsequent emergence of reports about Chinese efforts to silence critics of the communist elite in supposedly autonomous Hong Kong have added fuel to these fears. The general DPP position that any surrender of political independence under a Hong Kong type “One Country, Two Systems” deal would only end in the erosion of Taiwanese institutions has seemed vindicated.

Under Tsai and the DPP, Taipei has turned away from China and back toward building up Taiwan’s profile in the outside world. Partly to keep its remaining allies away from Beijing, Tsai began 2017 by visiting four Central American states. But her visit sparked great anger in Beijing when it emerged she had coordinated her travel arrangements in order to receive a visit from U.S. Republican Senator (and former Trump rival) Ted Cruz. China responded by sending its only aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in a blunt reminder to Taipei and Washington that it is a much stronger military power than in 1995-96, the last time the three countries faced off over the status of what Beijing still calls a rogue province.

The legacy of the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis was the political calculation in Beijing that Taiwan can best be reabsorbed into the motherland through a combination of the carrot and the stick. The carrot has been ever greater economic integration with China and the wealth this brings to Taiwanese society. The stick is the fact that a wealthier China is ever more economically and militarily powerful and can withstand the costs of retaking Taiwan by force ever more easily. Following the failure of the CSSTA “carrot” however, Beijing is reaching more often towards the stick of coercive policies such as parading military hardware off Taiwan’s coast. By doing so Beijing also aims to deter any future U.S. intervention to protect the island in the face of a crisis by demonstrating it has raised the costs of coming to Taiwan’s defense to unacceptably high levels for Washington.

Beijing has clearly signaled that cross-strait relations will be rocky for the duration of any DPP leader’s time in office. But Tsai’s main challenge during her term may actually not come from Beijing but from Washington, where the bipartisan consensus on the free trade model of globalization has broken down with the election of the protectionist Donald Trump on the Republican party ticket. With the new administration convinced that China has been perpetrating “an economic war” against the United States, Trump and many of his advisers are adopting a more belligerent tone on China’s territorial disputes with other Asian states, as well as warning they may declare China a currency manipulator or levy tariffs on Chinese goods as a way of reducing the huge U.S. trade deficit with China.

Cynics may dismiss Trump’s flirting with anti-Chinese positions as diplomatic posturing by a U.S. president famous for his love of deal-making, with the ultimate aim of horse-trading U.S. concessions over issues like “one China” for a recognition of American concerns on trade. But Trump has already nominated a series of hardline advisers such as Peter Navarro, who will lead his newly created White House National Trade Council. According to the U.K.-based Economist magazine Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has spoken openly to visitors about his desire to reduce sanctions on Russia to secure its help in constraining Iran and eventually China. Trump’s pick for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, even discussed blocking Chinese access to its militarized man-made islands in the South China Sea dispute during his confirmation hearing. Tsai will need to be wary of American officials cozying up to Taiwan, only to later use this as leverage in any future U.S.-China disputes.

Indeed, with the election of a Republican administration that is strikingly hostile to previous free trade agreements, the United States and China appear to have temporarily swapped political agendas. With the election of Trump, President Barack Obama’s painstakingly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with America’s Asian allies was pronounced dead on arrival. As promised, Trump officially withdrew from the deal soon after taking office, announcing Washington would instead focus on bilateral trade deals with U.S. allies in the region. Now, it is Beijing that is positioning itself as leading supporter of economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region while Trump’s America now searches for wedge issues it can use to divide China from potential partners. Tsai should therefore welcome greater support, such as military aid, from the new U.S. leader, but remain aware that any policies begun under a Trump administration may not last long under his successors.

She should also be aware that developments in the United States are likely to impact Taiwan. Since the fall of disgraced former DPP president Chen Shui-bian there has been a period of relative silence on the status of Taiwan in Sino-American politics. But with Trump in office the course of events can be expected to speed up. China traditionally likes to test new U.S. presidents soon after they assume office, as it did George W Bush with the Hainan Island spy plane incident in 2001 and Barack Obama by harassing the ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in 2009. This time Taiwan is the obvious place to choose for a provocation, both because Beijing perceives Tsai and the DPP as needing to be cut down to size, and because Trump has hinted at challenging the Sino-American understanding over the island’s disputed status.

Given Trump’s provocative remarks on social media and elsewhere regarding China’s behavior there is no reason to suppose that Beijing, unlike Putin, will hold back in the hopes of a U.S.-China reset that turns its back on Obama’s half-finished Pivot to Asia. After Trump’s threats to “negotiate” over the decades-old “one China” policy on Taiwan, China has responded belligerently to the diplomatic “rookie” Trump, saying that his words “seriously concerned” Beijing.

Taiwan may wind up caught in the middle of these spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing. Sadly for Taipei, the coming year could soon see the heat turned up in the Taiwan Straits once more.

Neil Thompson is a Contributing Analyst at geostrategic analysis and business consultancy Wikistrat and a blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. His work has appeared in the Diplomat, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the International Security Network, the Independent, and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and is presently based in London.