Collision Course: The Looming U.S.-China Showdown Over Taiwan

Chinese coercion against democratic Taiwan would challenge the basic principles of the liberal regional order, as well as U.S. reliability.

A new crisis in relations between China and Taiwan is likely in the coming months, one that will pose more acute difficulties than in the past for Taiwan’s benefactor, the United States. China is relatively stronger than Taiwan, less inhibited from behaving assertively, and more insistent on attaining its objectives—which include ruling Taiwan. The people of Taiwan, however, are showing signs of evolving toward permanent opposition to political unification with China. Reaffirming U.S. willingness to protect Taiwan from forced unification would put at risk America’s relationship with the world’s second most important country. Abandoning Taiwan to involuntary absorption, however, would signal to the region the end of Pax Americana.

The rapid increase in Cross-Strait economic ties following Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s election in 2008 initially had a pacifying effect on China-Taiwan relations because it gave Beijing confidence in a natural, peaceful progression toward unification. It now appears possible, however, that the pacification returns from economic integration might diminish rather than grow over time. On the Taiwanese side, deeper economic dependence on China is leading to proportionately stronger opposition from the Taiwan public towards China. On the Chinese side, stronger economic ties increase the disparity between economic ties on the one hand, and demands for political integration on the other. This raises the temperature of simmering Chinese frustration.

For several years, some Chinese analysts have worried that Taiwan intended to take advantage of the generous economic terms offered by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while putting off political negotiations indefinitely. Their skepticism was justified. Economic integration and increased movement of people across the Strait will not necessarily lead to political integration. Taiwanese people may not prioritize an improved material standard of living over maintaining their civil liberties. Even if the sole concern is economic benefit, Taiwan arguably has an interest in delaying unification so as to wait for a point in time where China takes an economic loss and Taiwan profits disproportionately from their bilateral trade. Chinese magnanimity would likely decline after unification.

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The likelihood of Taiwan voluntarily choosing unification with China is waning. Opinion polls show that Taiwan’s sense of a separate national identity from mainland China is increasing. While a great majority have long favored the status quo of de facto independence over immediate unification, a majority now oppose even eventual unification.

With the Chinese government already disappointed in the lack of movement towards resolving Taiwan-PRC political issues, progress toward cross-Strait economic integration stalled in the spring of 2014. As Taipei and Beijing moved toward enacting a Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, a series of protests by students and other activists known as the Sunflower Movement not only blocked the agreement but ensured that future economic negotiations with China would be slower.

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Taiwan will hold presidential and legislative elections in 2016. In this newly charged atmosphere, even candidates from Ma’s relatively China-friendly Kuomintang Party will need to commit to moving cautiously in making future economic agreements with China. That means slower progress on an area that Chinese see as only preliminary to their real objective: political negotiations. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), fresh off gains in the municipal-level elections of November 2014, has a good chance of capturing the presidency in May 2016. Beijing would see such a government as “separatist,” instantly intensifying Chinese fears that Taiwan is slipping away and that dramatic PRC counteraction is necessary.

Because of the “rise” of China narrative, the Chinese increasingly expect wins in their disagreements with other governments. The Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping now appears less constrained than before by the need to appear accommodating. It’s not that Beijing has decided to be more aggressive. Rather, Chinese leaders have decided that China has reached a level of global influence where the gains from asserting Chinese preferences outweigh the costs. Triumphalism has pushed to the sidelines the Deng Xiaoping Doctrine that advocated keeping a low profile and avoiding friction with adversaries. A result of this is impatience in China’s cross-Strait policy. Many Chinese elites are unsatisfied with the results of the soft policy of trust-building and increased economic ties as means of greasing the tracks for eventual political union. The perception in China of a lack of progress toward unification could be a particular problem for Xi, who has promised that Taiwan’s de facto independence cannot continue “from generation to generation.” Failing to deliver on Taiwan could create a vulnerability for Xi that his enemies would be quick to exploit. This could impel Xi to demand that Taipei open political negotiations, leading to a quick rebuff and humiliation for Xi.