The Buzz

China Won't Budge, and Taiwan Won't Back Down

Since Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ing-wen gave her inaugural address on May 20 and refused to publicly embrace the principle of “One China, Two Systems”, China has significantly escalated its nonkinetic “three warfares” campaign against Taiwan in an effort to bring the “renegade province” to heel.  This campaign involves a “legal warfare” kerfuffle over an alleged “1992 consensus,” a deeply-wounding economic warfare involving highly targeted and politically sophisticated trade quotas, and a Cold War-style psychological war that includes the severing of key communication links and diplomatic ties between Taiwan and the mainland.

With boots on the ground in Taiwan interviewing key stakeholders, I have found this situation to be significantly worse than is being reported in the western press. The deteriorating situation is further complicated by the fact that China and Taiwan appear destined to move further and further apart over time as Beijing takes an even more authoritarian turn and Taipei sees a thousand sunflowers bloom.

At this delicate and precarious point, the fundamental question explored in installment two of this series is whether a kinetic war can be avoided if Taiwan refuses to bend to Beijing’s will.  The answer to that question will in large part hinge on the behaviors of Beijing, Taipei and Washington. To handicap how this is all likely to turn out politically and militarily, here’s what you may want to know.

Just as the United States is divided along “red state” Republican and “blue state” Democratic lines, Taiwan’s electorate is split between a “pan blue” coalition led by the conservative Kuomintang Party (KMT) that dates back to the days of Chiang Kai-shek and a “pan green” coalition led by the Democratic Progressive Party. While the KMT and DPP are split along fairly traditional conservative and liberal lines just as the American Republican and Democratic Parties are, the real differentiator in Taiwan politics is each of the party’s platforms on cross-strait relations with the People’s Republic of China.

For its part, the KMT has long embraced the “One China, Two Systems” policy favored by Beijing. From this philosophy has emerged deepening economic ties with China and at least the appearance of relative stability in the Taiwan Strait. The problem, however, is that an increasing majority of the people of Taiwan self-identify with being Taiwanese (over 70 percent and rising), and this supermajority has, over time, expressed less and less interest in unification with the mainland. There are two very powerful forces driving this trend—and driving the Taiwanese away from mainland control.

The first force is Beijing’s increasingly brutal subjugation of Hong Kong. Here, while Hong Kong was supposed to be a shining showcase of a successful “One China, Two Systems” world, Taiwan has instead witnessed Beijing’s manipulation of the Hong Kong electoral process, the arrest and kidnapping of dissidents, the quashing of all opposition and comically brutal spectacles like Chinese special forces kidnapping elderly booksellers deemed to be enemies of the state. With all of these authoritarian malignancies dutifully reported in publications like the Taipei Times and China Post, the well-read Taiwanese have increasingly said “no” to “one China,” much less “two systems.”

The second force driving a new Taiwanese cultural and national identity—and the fall of the House of the KMT—is pure economics. Put simply, the deepening cross-strait economic ties promoted by the KMT, particularly during the 2008–16 presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, has not resulted in a “trickle down” effect to the benefit of Taiwan’s middle and working classes. Instead, most of the wealth associated with cross-strait trade effectively, an offshoring of much of Taiwan’s production to China—has accrued to the business and corporate power base of the KMT while both GDP growth and wage growth on the island has stagnated. Politically, the KMT has borne the brunt of its bad bet on the China trade as Taiwanese younger voters in particular have shunned the party like the plague.

Enter stage left the Democratic Progressive Party and its pan-green coalition. In the 2016 election, President Tsai Ing-wen crushed her KMT opponent, winning 56 percent of the vote compared to the 31 percent of the KMT’s Eric Chu. Alarmed, and as part of its escalation of “lawfare” against Taiwan, Beijing has been demanding that President Tsai adopt a highly disputed and tortured construct known as the “1992 Consensus” as a first principle of cross-strait relations.

Beijing’s view of this so-called 1992 Consensus is that is fully commits Taiwan to the “One China, Two Systems” principle, with the eventual goal of unification. The problem however, is that there are no historical facts to support the existence of such a “consensus.”  Rather, the facts merely indicate that a semiofficial meeting took place in Singapore in 1992 between midlevel representatives of China and Taiwan, but there was no formal written agreement or even reference to a 1992 Consensus.

Instead, this term was coined in 2000 by another midlevel Chinese bureaucrat. It then took on a life of its own as the KMT leadership and President Ma embraced it. However, the DPP leadership has always rejected it, and former President Lee Teng-hui dismisses out of hand the claim any such “consensus” was agreed to during his presidency.