Why China Should Feel Good About Taiwan
Recent developments in relations between Taiwan and China should bolster the confidence of Chinese leaders that Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-wen will eschew provocation in favor of pragmatism and accommodation with Beijing. Indeed, Tsai’s handling of the December 2nd congratulatory call to then President-elect Donald Trump, her administration’s reaction to Trump’s questioning of the “One-China” policy, Tsai’s end of year speech, and her administration’s treatment of her US transit all demonstrate that she seeks stability and predictability in cross-Strait relations. More significantly, these developments suggest that Tsai may even plan to keep Washington at arm’s-length to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing Beijing.
Tsai’s phone call to Trump probably occurred because she thought Taiwan needed, as one recent article put it, “symbolic gains” to “push back” against Chinese pressure on the island. Nevertheless, the call was treated with the utmost care by Tsai’s government, both in its execution and aftermath. According to the official Taiwanese readout of the meeting, the two leaders discussed “domestic economic development and national defense” as well as “views on conditions in the Asian region.” There was no discussion of Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis China, which certainly would have alarmed leaders in Beijing. Tsai later informed visiting US journalists that the call was “not a policy shift of the United States” in order to downplay the significance of the call. It is also important to note that Tsai astutely contacted Trump while he retained the status of President-elect, knowing full well that Chinese leaders would interpret a call to a sitting US president—which has never happened—as being far more provocative. And once Trump became president, Tsai was sure to keep her distance, opting to reestablish her Twitter account to offer a congratulatory tweet instead of making another call.
The Tsai administration was especially cautious after Trump noted on December 11th, in a Fox News interview, that the “One-China” policy might be up for renegotiation. Declining to directly address Trump’s comments, Tsai’s spokesman, Alex Huang, stated that Taiwan only seeks enhanced freedom and international space throughout its relationship with the United States. Huang further stated that Taiwan seeks to maintain positive and stable cross-Strait relations. To be sure, Taiwanese public opinion polling has consistently shown that the vast majority of citizens prefer to maintain the status quo in cross-Strait relations. Tsai probably recognizes this sentiment and worries that Trump’s comments might inadvertently provoke Beijing.
Tsai’s end of the year speech came on the heels of two separate Chinese bomber flights that circumnavigated Taiwan as well as Beijing’s decision to recognize the small West African nation of Sao Tome and Principe, which represented the second time in under a year that China broke the tacit moratorium on such behavior. These actions, coupled with Beijing’s quiet policy of sabotaging Taiwan’s economy by reducing the number of tourists it sends to the island, prompted Tsai to note that “Beijing is going back to the old path of dividing, coercing, and even threatening and intimidating Taiwan.” At the same time, however, Tsai continued to stress her desire for peace and stability by stating,
For the sake of safeguarding regional peace and prosperity, I want to once again reiterate that our commitments will not change, and our goodwill will not change. But we will not bow to pressure, and we will of course not revert to the old path of confrontation.
By eschewing the “old path of confrontation,” Tsai signaled her desire not to repeat Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s decision to push an independence agenda.