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Cooking Up a New Reality in Taiwan

May 25, 2020

Tsai Ing-wen’s second-term inaugural speech was less than exciting, but it did contain a series of new messages in a complex international context, and sending dangerous signals that may shape future relations with Beijing.

Read in conjunction with the various U.S. attempts to intervene in cross-strait relations around May 20, it rather clearly pointed to the involvement of Taiwan, whether active or passive, in the acute confrontation between China and the U.S. No prospect of resolving the deadlock is within view.

America’s unusual moves were designed to cook up a new reality in U.S.-Taiwan relations. Since the strategic shift in its China policy was made public in November 2017, characterizing its relationship with China as one of comprehensive strategic competition, the U.S. has engaged in an all-around strategic competition against China in many areas — economic and trade negotiations, a tariff war, social unrest in Hong Kong, elections in Taiwan and COVID-19 — leading to a steady worsening of bilateral relations.

Tsai’s second term is no big deal, but the U.S. has chosen to make a fuss about it. By trying to elevate relations with Taiwan, it has crossed a bottom line in China-U.S. relations.

First, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed congratulations to Tsai via the State Department’s official website and his personal twitter account. And he had his subordinates send a video congratulating her. Such explicit acts by the U.S. administration can only be read as a violation of America’s agreement to adhere to the One-China policy and three Joint Communiques.

Second, on May 20, the U.S. announced further arms sales to Taiwan, an obvious attempt to place Taiwan on the front line of a China-U.S. conflict and to upset China.

Third, in implementing the Taipei Act, the U.S. administration has increased its support for Taiwan’s joining the WHO and attending the World Health Assembly, and strengthened military ties and increased official interactions with Taiwan aim to raise Taiwan’s profile in America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. On this front, attempts to break free of long-standing agreements and commitments are ongoing.

Taiwan officials have already openly visited the White House National Security Council and participated in video conferences with the president and vice president. Earlier, William Lai visited Washington. The health ministers of the United States and Taiwan had a video conference. And then Pompeo and Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger publicly congratulated Tsai on her second inauguration.

These indicate clearly the U.S. intention to cook up a new reality or a new status quo, and even to pursue further violations and infringements after the angry Chinese protests die down.

Tsai’s speech revealed the Taiwan authorities’ new understanding of the island’s role as a geopolitical chess piece and the attempt to concoct a new status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

First, Tsai referred to the “Republic of China” in a declaration to overtly modify the island’s political identity. Second, she openly spoke of “constitutional amendment” and the creation of a “constitutional amendment committee” in the Legislative Yuan. Third, Tsai’s summary of Taiwan stressed the past 70 years since 1949, which was an obvious attempt to rewrite history with a Taiwan independence narrative. Fourth, her explicit mention of “aggression” was another attempt to redefine cross-strait relations from the perspective of independence.

These major concepts were treated in Tsai’s speech as a fait accompli. In her statement, cross-strait relations were placed in the section about national security, with an existing status quo of one country on each side. It was made abundantly clear that she intends to rely on military force to resist the mainland’s reunification effort and maintain that as status quo, implying that China and its leaders will be held accountable for undermining the status quo as she described it. Such as statement has never before been made by any Taiwan leader in a similar speech. It is clear that cross-strait relations have gone from cold confrontation to cold turbulence, with growing antagonism.

In our observation, the U.S. will make further attempts to cross the established bottom line in relations with Taiwan, and there will be developments along similar lines in the future. Moreover, these U.S. signals will have a multiplier effect in Taiwan, with pro-independence forces emboldened to more radically advance their agenda through “name rectification,” “constitutional convention” and “referendum.” Populist forces will also seize the opportunity to pursue independence unscrupulously and instigate hatred, antagonism and even hostility toward the Chinese mainland. Undoubtedly, this will in turn poison the China-U.S. relationship and brew new crises.

Taiwan bases its judgment on the assumption that the mainland will not strike so long as it perceives that the U.S. will intervene. The U.S. assumption is probably that China dares not engage in a war.

But believing that it has seen through America’s strategic intentions and the dynamics of cross-strait relations, China probably will not follow the calculations of either the U.S. or Taiwan.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, and with U.S. support and the manipulation of Taiwan authorities, anti-mainland sentiment rose to an unprecedented level on the island. The level of confrontation in mainstream public opinion between the mainland and Taiwan has also been unprecedented. More and more people on the mainland are calling for reunification by force. Whether such strong public opinion will prompt a change in the mainland’s policy toward Taiwan is worth close attention.

All this is important to watch and follow. Attempts by the U.S. and Taiwan to cook up a new status quo and force it on China may mark a turning point in cross-strait relations and lead to an earlier rather than later showdown.

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