China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

COVID-19 Brings Cross-Strait Relations to a Crossroads

Even more than Tsai’s landslide re-election, the outbreak spells major trouble for the CCP’s unification agenda.

By Chieh-chi Hsieh for
COVID-19 Brings Cross-Strait Relations to a Crossroads
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

When Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected by a landslide this January, one could argue that it was merely another hiccup for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After all, this marked the fourth time that the anti-unification Democratic Progress Party (DPP) had won Taiwan’s presidential election. Yet, what the CCP did not foresee was the devastating effect the outbreak of COVID-19 would have on cross-strait relations, especially at the societal level in Taiwan.

After successfully winning the presidency in 2016, Tsai had a clear policy agenda for cross-strait relations: reduce Taiwan’s economic dependence on China. Although in her inaugural address, Tsai stated that “cross-strait relations must be continuously promoted,” her refusal to recognize the “1992 consensus” led China to freeze official exchanges. Mutual trust between the two sides has collapsed.

To counter this, Tsai adopted a geopolitical strategy: reinforce existing relationships with Taiwan’s existing allies (i.e. the United States and Japan), and establish new relations with Southeast Asian countries. In the case of Taiwan-U.S. relations, Tsai has been able to capitalize on Washington’s growing concern about China as a “great power competitor” and the ongoing trade war between the two countries. Unlike former President Chen Shui-bian’s antics, which made U.S. President George W. Bush regard him as untrustworthy and a troublemaker, Tsai adopted a nonconfrontational attitude toward China that allowed Taiwan-U.S. relations to flourish. Examples include the enactment of the Taiwan Travel Act in January 2018, which encourages high-level officials from the United States and Taiwan to meet in both countries. In addition, President Donald Trump’s decision to proceed with the $8 billion sale of 66 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan in August 2019 not only enhanced Taiwan’s military capacity vis-à-vis China, but also demonstrated Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan and contain China.

As for Taiwan-Japan relations, Tsai and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s established personal relationship has allowed both sides to continue to strengthen their bilateral relations. For instance in January 2017, both Taiwan and Japan upgraded the names of their respective representative offices to include the word “Taiwan.”

Finally, Tsai’s “New Southbound Policy” has also shown signs of early success. Notably in December 2017, Taiwan and the Philippines (under the pro-China President Rodrigo Duterte, no less) reached a bilateral investment agreement to boost two-way investments.

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Yet Tsai’s domestic reform agenda faced greater difficulties, with a corresponding impact on the public’s attitude toward China. In hindsight, the DPP’s 2016 electoral success in securing both the presidency and legislature became a double-edged sword for Tsai. With the DPP holding a majority in the Legislative Yuan, Tsai was expected to implement bold domestic reforms. But her domestic political agenda on marriage equality, judicial and pension reforms, transitional justice, and phasing out nuclear power by 2025 has alienated her opponents and supporters alike. In addition, Tsai’s lukewarm attitude toward China also entailed substantial economic costs. For example, the sharp contraction of tourism from China after Tsai won her presidency in 2016 was broadly felt by the general public. On top of that, although Tsai’s government was able to improve Taiwan’s GDP growth rate from 1.4 percent in 2016 to 2.63 percent in 2018, this was not enough to halt the trend of Taiwanese youngsters “going west” to pursue greater opportunities in China.

The ambivalent attitude of Taiwan’s general public toward the DPP government’s China stance was exemplified in the annual survey conducted by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Centre. The self-identification of Taiwanese people as “only Taiwanese” continued to reduce from 60.6 percent in 2014 to 54.5 percent in 2018, whereas those identifying as “both Taiwanese and Chinese” increased from 32.5 percent to 38.2 percent in the same time period. Another public survey released last October illustrated that public support for unification increased from 20 percent in 2017 to 26 percent in 2018 (the highest rate since 1991).

Alongside these trends, Tsai and the DPP were devastated in the local elections on November 24, 2018, which saw the turnover of the mayorship in Kaohsiung after 20 years of DPP-rule. Tsai’s fortunes for re-election only altered after successfully establishing her image as the guardian of Taiwan’s democracy and human rights by firmly rejecting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2019 New Year speech and supporting the Hong Kong demonstrations that erupted in June 2019.

But now the outbreak of COVID-19 has further altered Taiwan’s public opinion regarding the CCP. Notably, there are two main factors that are currently devastating the CCP’s ambition to unify Taiwan. The first factor is the astonishing political measures adopted by the Tsai government in response to COVID-19. Although situated less than 100 miles from China, Taiwan has succeeded in mitigating the health risks imposed by the coronavirus to date, especially compared to neighboring countries such as South Korea and Japan. Taiwan’s early containment measures encompassed implementing on-board quarantine inspections for passengers flying from Wuhan as early as December 31, 2019, enacting export controls on medical-grade face masks on January 29, and passing a special budget to launch 60 production lines for producing medical-grade masks on February 1. Successful policy responses have boosted Tsai’s approval rate from 34.5 percent on January 21 to 69.4 percent on February 25. On March 30, a public survey released by the New Power Party showed that Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare Dr. Chen Shih-chung had the highest approval rate at 79.9 percent, followed by Tsai’s 75.7 percent and Premier Su Tseng-chang’s 74.9 percent.

The second factor is the negative perception of political actions taken by the CCP along with the World Health Organization (WHO). To begin with, the CCP’s initial refusal of Taiwan’s request to repatriate its citizens from Wuhan on January 28, together with controversies surrounding the first evacuation flight on February 3, led to the collapse of mutual trust between the two sides at both official and societal levels. There was a further backlash over what was seen as China’s provocative actions when the CCP deployed military aircraft on operational training around the Taiwan Strait and intruded into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on multiple occasions during this time period.

The WHO’s policy responses did not help China’s case. During the initial phase of the outbreak in Wuhan, Taiwan’s general public was forced to relive the collective memory of being isolated during the 2003 SARS outbreak, when China together with the WHO denied the country’s epidemiologists access to important data and information to fight against the virus. The WHO’s failure to respond to Taiwan’s early warning about signs of the human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus on December 31 while complimenting China’s “transparency”on the matter on January 28 created the negative perception that WHO’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is merely a mouthpiece for China.

These sentiments were demonstrated in a March survey by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which shows that 76.6 percent and 61.5 percent of Taiwan’s general public consider the CCP’s actions to be unfriendly toward Taiwan’s government and citizens, respectively. The same survey also shows that 91.6 percent of Taiwan’s public are against the CCP harming the health, safety, interests, and rights of Taiwan’s citizens by blocking the country’s participation in the WHO. And that survey came before China sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait on April 13, and Tedro accused Taiwan of coordinating a racist campaign against him during a press briefing on April 8. Taiwan’s negative perceptions toward the CCP and Tedro’s leadership in the WHO have likely only increased due to those events.

Cross-strait relations are at a crossroads due to the political effects of COVID-19. The outbreak has enabled the DPP government to mobilize substantial domestic support for Tsai’s foreign policy orientation (i.e. prioritizing global engagements), a force that had been absent during the majority of Tsai’s first term as president. The series of policy measures recently announced by Taiwan to provide assistance to the international community in the fight against COVID-19 has gained immense public support, and the general public has also witnessed positive responses from leading officials in the developed world including President Ursula von Der Leyen of the European Commission.

Recent events have shown that in face of the burgeoning public rejection of the CCP and heightened support for Tsai’s government, the CCP is considering resorting to military actions to unify Taiwan. Yet geopolitical dynamics as well as Tsai’s stance on Taiwan’s status will reduce the probability of the CCP actually adopting these coercive measures. For one, Washington has demonstrated its continuous support for Taiwan by unanimously passing the Taipei Act this March and deploying its guided-missile destroyer (DDG-85) and the Seventh Fleet to transit through the Taiwan Strait on March 25 and April 23 to deter China’s assertive actions. In addition, Japan’s increased criticisms against China and the WHO after the postponements of Xi’s state visit and the Tokyo Olympics have led to a reported discussion between the United States and Japan on enhancing military cooperation against China. Moreover, Tsai’s perception that Taiwan is already an independent country under the status quo indicates that she would not pursue any official change of Taiwan’s status during her second term. Thus, Tsai will provide no justification for the CCP to initiate warfare against Taiwan.

Eventually the COVID-19 crisis will pass, but the impact on cross-strait relations will last. The DPP has undoubtedly secured a substantial advantage against the CCP in shaping the political agenda concerning Taiwan’s future.

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Dr. Chieh-chi Hsieh received his Ph.D. from the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick. He also holds an MSc degree in International Political Economy at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science.