The Buzz

Taiwan Enters the Cross-Strait Relations Danger Zone

Taipei, Republic of China - The Republic of China (ROC), better known as Taiwan to most Americans, has been in the headlines since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was sworn in as the nation's first female president on May 20.  The DPP derives most of its support from ethnic Taiwanese and is generally considered to be pro-independence. The opposition, Kuomintang Party, or KMT, which traces its roots to General Chiang Kai-shek's supporters, who fled the mainland ahead of the Communists in 1949, believes Taiwan to be fundamentally Chinese.  Although it differs starkly in ideology with that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the mainland, the KMT is generally in accord with the CCP that Taiwan is part of "one China."  Accordingly, the PRC is not amused by Ms. Tsai's and the DPP's landslide win and the general excitement her inauguration has generated in Taiwan.

And it seems Taiwan’s security challenges are back in the headlines as well. Retired U.S. Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix wrote in National Review last week that “China’s strategy [in the Pacific] mirrors Russia’s actions in Georgia, the Crimea, and Ukraine” and asks, “is war with China is inevitable?” Bridge Colby and Walter Slocombe took to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal last week to urge the Obama Administration to deter Chinese cross-strait challenges by “openly and forthrightly specif[ing] that the U.S. would defend Taiwan against unprovoked Chinese aggression.’  Over the weekend, J. Michael Cole in The National Interest advised President Tsai “to prepare against the eventuality that China could resort to force of arms to break the status quo” and laid out several weapons systems that Taiwan should deploy to counter the PRC threat.  

Facts on the Ground:

Since my arrival in Taipei last week, the English-speaking press here has heavily covered the PRC's reaction to President Tsai's election.  Beijing is referring to Tsai as "that woman" rather than use her name. The PRC has also made Taiwan's participation in the World Health Assembly difficult by requiring the WHO to refer to Taiwan as "China - Taipei" and sitting the nation's delegation on the back row with the NGOs. This is the tame stuff. If President Tsai will not expressly adopt the "1992 consensus," which essentially acknowledges a "one China" status-quo, local commentators expect Beijing to ratchet up the pressure on Taipei.  So far, Ms. Tsai has avoided taking a position on the 1992 Consensus. Absent a nod from Ms. Tsai to "one China", among other steps, the PRC will likely make a concerted effort to convince the 22 nations that still recognize Taiwan as the government of China--primarily in the small nations in the Pacific and Central America--to cut off diplomatic relations with the ROC and recognize the PRC. China could also hold big military exercises across the strait.

Perhaps because they have faced Chinese belligerence for almost 70 years, the locals do not seem phased by the latest round of PRC pronouncements.  Further, folks from cab drivers to law firm partners, are supremely confident that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense should China engage in serious saber rattling or actually make preparations for a cross-strait attack.  I am at a bit of a loss to understand this attitude given the Obama Administration's poor treatment of much closer American allies over the past seven and a half years (see e.g. the disregard of Israel's views on the Iran nuclear deal or POTUS's reference to the British Falklands as "Las Malvinas"). There is a charming naïveté in this Taiwanese view of America. They think of the United States as an old and trusted ally going back to the fight against Japan in World War II, a fellow democracy led by men who would not be intimidated by Beijing--Reagan, the two Bushes, even Bill Clinton. They do not seem to have absorbed the lessons of President Obama's very different foreign policy goals and determination to seemingly “end war,” Hillary Clinton's now total support of President Obama's foreign policy and Donald Trump's yet-to-be-spelled-out “America First” approach to international affairs.  

What is very clear from conversations with a range of Taiwan's citizens is that there is no interest whatsoever in reuniting with the mainland. Taiwan is developing into a mature democracy. Its people view themselves as part of the liberal international economic order and as part of what we used to called the ‘free world.’ They see Japan, South Korea, America, Singapore and Europe as their friends and peers--not China. Taipei is a beautiful and growing city. City-dwellers are out at night. There is music on the street. The cinemas are full. The theater scene is lively. Night markets, full of stalls selling all types of food and diverse goods buzz with luxury malls abound. The Internet is uncensored. There is even a multistory 24-hour bookstore downtown. There is no possibility such a dynamic people will ever willingly throw in with the Chinese Communist Party.