Main Image Credit Tsai Ing-wen, president-elect of Taiwan.
Taiwan’s leader has proven to be a deft political player and a great political survivor. But she will need all her skills to navigate the island through the stormy seas which lie ahead.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has started her second term in office on a high note. She won re-election with over 56% of the popular vote, a landslide in Taiwanese terms. Her government also did very well in containing this year’s other major challenge, the coronavirus pandemic. Her government’s successful handling of the pandemic – despite being excluded from the World Health Organization – has rightfully garnered praise, and world leaders like EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen thanked Taiwan for its donations of 5.6 million masks.
However, other serious challenges lie ahead. The US–China relationship has deteriorated to levels unseen in decades. The US is examining ways to exert pressure on China, such as through the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, and the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. Conversely, support for Taiwan in the White House and Congress alike are growing, with bills like the TAIPEI Act and Taiwan Travel Act now in place.
In Taiwan, even the opposition Kuomintang Party is reportedly re-examining its position of a more China-friendly policy after its significant defeat in the January presidential elections. Taiwanese voters have closely followed Hong Kong’s diminishing autonomy under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement, which Beijing has offered to Taiwan as the only viable future for cross-strait relations. It is a future that President Tsai firmly rejected in her inaugural address. Unsurprising, given that opinion poll results in February 2020 show that a record number of respondents (83.2%) identify as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese (5.3%) or both (6.7%).
Rising Anger on the Mainland
None of this will sit well with Beijing. In his address at the 2020 National People’s Congress, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang omitted the traditional reference to a ‘peaceful reunification’ with Taiwan. Premier Li and the Taiwan Affairs Office – the Chinese government body which deals with the island – later made references to cross-strait relations and reunification, but this will offer little reassurance to the Taiwanese or others wary of China’s growing military power.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police Force to imagine worst-case scenarios to national security and scale-up training and battle preparedness. China’s National Defence Minister, Wei Fenghe, also stated that the US and China had entered a ‘period of high-risk’ and that China needed to strengthen its ‘fighting spirit, be daring to fight and be good at fighting, and use fighting to promote stability’.
And not to be outdone, China’s Chief of the PLA Joint Staff Department, General Li Zuocheng, underscored Beijing’s determination to ‘resolutely smash’ any separatist moves by Taipei. Add to this the new National Security Law for Hong Kong, and it is no wonder that Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu expressed concern that Taiwan is next on China’s coercive agenda.
Foreign Minister Wu is not wrong. Reunification has not been wiped off Beijing’s lists of core priorities as the 2049 centenary of the People’s Republic’s founding approaches. However, now may not be the right time. The host of internal and external challenges currently facing China may mean that forceful reunification takes a back seat – for now. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must be seen to deliver on socioeconomic priorities in light of the upcoming 2021 anniversary of the CCP and other domestic economic strategies. To a certain extent, Beijing will seek to mollify the mounting global anger and criticism of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, its position as a ‘systemic rival’ or ‘strategic competitor’, and the latest outrage over the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong.
So, the cost of a military operation in Taiwan may currently be considered to be too high, as posited by PLA National Defence University Professor Qiao Liang. China’s military modernisation and economic reform remain uncompleted, and the international environment facing China is increasingly uneasy about Chinese military assertiveness. Barring a Taiwanese move viewed by Beijing as swaying irrevocably towards independence, Beijing’s bellicose words and military intimidation gestures actually serve to keep conflict under the threshold of war.
A Delicate Balancing Act
Still, this requires the maintenance of a delicate balance across the Straits and it will take little to upset it. One such potential issue which has hitherto escaped significant attention is the recent attempt by several legislators of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan to amend an act governing relations between the people of the island and the mainland by proposing to remove references to ‘the unification of the nation’. The bill, and another proposal to remove the mention of ‘reunification’ from the preface to the Additional Articles of the Constitution of Taiwan, was withdrawn on 15 May, with DPP legislator Tsai Yi-yu stating that the time was not right in the lead-up to Tsai’s inauguration and had the potential to be destabilising.
Indeed, China could have easily interpreted the move as a step towards independence and used this as a pretext for some form of retaliation as envisaged under Article 8 of China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law. Such a move would have also placed President Tsai in a tricky position, given the promise she made in her 2016 inauguration address to conduct cross-strait relations in accordance with Taiwan’s constitution and the Act – a position she maintained in her 2020 inaugural address. While Tsai did mention the need to create a constitutional amendment committee, observers have already noted that this will not likely rule on the island’s legal identity.
The Centrality of the US
Tsai will thus likely continue her calm and cautious approach to Beijing, while being steadfast in protecting Taiwan’s autonomy. For this, continued US support will remain crucial. Under the Trump administration, support for Taiwan’s self-defence capabilities is stronger than ever; Washington has proposed the largest-ever arms sale package to Taiwan, including an additional sale of 18 submarine torpedoes for Tsai’s indigenous submarine programme. However, the US has held an ambiguous position on how it would react to any move to ‘resolve the Taiwan issue’ through non-peaceful means, which is a politer way of referring to a Chinese attack on the island. While US support is expected and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper recently reiterated that the US would ‘live up to its commitments to Taiwan’ in arms sales, a question mark remains over how the US would respond if Taiwan were perceived to be upsetting the status quo with China, especially in an election year in the US.
The fact that the Trump administration is famous for viewing alliances and partnerships in transactional terms is also relevant to Taipei. Furthermore, not all of Trump’s policies on China benefit Taiwan. For example, attempts to decouple supply chains in strategic technologies like semi-conductors have negative implications for leading Taiwanese companies which are interlinked with both the US and Chinese markets. Despite political tensions across the Strait, both sides have benefitted from their commercial relationships.
Nevertheless, at a time when Taiwan is afforded more positive news coverage and calls for the island’s global involvement are growing, the attempted bill illustrates the growing debate in Taiwan on identity and on how to manage the island’s future. Indeed, one recent opinion poll shows a widening generational gap domestically over the future direction of cross-strait relations, with nearly 60% of Taiwanese under the age of 30 supporting independence and over 60% of older Taiwanese supporting the status quo. This trend is unlikely to be reversed. Matters like those addressed in the proposed bill by DPP lawmakers will likewise not disappear.
In her latest inaugural address, Tsai noted that ‘leadership means calmly taking the right course in a changing world’. How she handles the growing divide amongst the Taiwanese population on the island’s future amid unprecedented US–China tensions will define her second term. And perhaps the fate of Taiwan’s people.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Senior Research Fellow
International Security Studies