I. Current security situation across the Taiwan Strait
In a nutshell, there is tension and a rising security risk, but not yet a crisis.
Since taking office in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen has refused to accept the 1992 consensus and pursued the so-called flexible Taiwan independence, gradual Taiwan independence and cultural Taiwan independence, again pushing cross-Strait relations into serious political confrontation. Against the backdrop of worsening China-US relations in the past year, the Tsai administration has attempted to join forces with the US against China, seeking advanced weapons and security protection from the US, further poisoning cross-Strait relations.
From the very beginning, the US has been partial to the misguided policies of Tsai, arguing that she was not Chen Shui-bian (leader of Taiwan from 2000-2008) and would maintain the status quo instead of rushing for independence. America tried time and again to dissuade the mainland from exerting pressure on Taiwan. With Donald Trump in the White House since 2017, America’s China policy has undergone very dangerous changes. Over the past two years, a number of Taiwan-related acts have been adopted by the US Congress, proposing joint military exercises, normalization of arms sales, exchange of visits between senior officials and naval port calls with the island. These measures seriously challenge the United States’ long-standing One-China policy and the One-China principle held by China.
In the face of policy changes in Taiwan and the US, the Chinese mainland has intensified its countermeasures. Besides joint military exercises, flights by military aircraft and navigation by military vessels around the island have increased and become routine as deterrence against pro-independence forces and foreign intervention—these acts serve as a form of military training in preparation for a military struggle against Taiwan independence.
In this situation, the trend of peace and development since 2008 has been disrupted and tension has returned to the Taiwan Strait, with increasing security risks. The responsibility for the tension should be borne by Taiwan and the US.
Although the situation across the Taiwan Strait is tense, no crisis has broken out. There are three reasons for that. One, Tsai didn’t risk a rush to independence as Chen Shui-bian did. Two, the US government has stayed fairly cautious with regard to enforcing the relevant clauses in those Taiwan-related acts. And three, although there are increasingly loud voices calling for urgent unification by force among the public, the Chinese central government has not changed the basic policy of promoting cross-Strait peace and development while pursuing peaceful reunification. It has adopted policies to more powerfully promote cross-Strait economic and cultural exchanges as well as integrated development while strengthening its efforts against Taiwan independence.
II. How will the cross-Strait situation develop?
There are three possible scenarios for the coming year and beyond.
First, continued tension. With Tsai remaining in power and China-US relations staying very unstable but without further deterioration, this is the most likely scenario.
Second, crisis. There are now several serious factors that may cause a crisis across the Taiwan Strait. In the future, any substantive steps taken by the US to implement those clauses in the Taiwan-related acts, be it obvious enhancement of the quality and quantity of arms sales, live-fire joint military exercises, a naval port call to Taiwan, a visit by senior American official or agreement by the US to a visit by Taiwanese leader, will generate storms across the Strait. Another major risk lies with Taiwan independence forces making desperate attempts to remain in power during the election year of 2020, provoking a backlash on the mainland. In addition, as all three parties have been increasing their military activities in and around the Taiwan Strait, the possibility of a contingency caused by accidents or miscalculation is also on the rise. In the current tense situation, an emergency could quickly escalate into a serious crisis.
Since its founding, the People’s Republic of China has gone through three crises with the US over the Taiwan Strait. All three involved the mainland’s military forces targeting Taiwan, as well as crisis gaming and management between China and the US.
It is worth noting that, compared with the three previous instances, a future Taiwan-Strait crisis will be much more difficult to manage and have a much greater impact on cross-Strait and China-US relations. This is because the context and status of China-US relationship have undergone major changes. A new crisis, once it has broken out, might well drag the two big countries into a new cold war, or more dangerously, a military conflict and full-blown war if it spirals out of control. Either way, the impact on cross-Strait and China-US relations would be disastrous.
The third possibility: a renewed relaxation in tension. If a crisis can be avoided in the near term, and if the KMT or a ‘third force’ supporting the 1992 consensus wins the 2020 election, the situation may again move towards relaxation and peaceful development. This would be the prospect most conducive to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
III. How to achieve relaxation in tension
Relaxing tension and maintaining peace and stability serve the long-term interests of China and the US, and the two sides of the Taiwan Strait in particular. Towards this end, I would like to propose the following.
First, for Taiwan, there are two critical points to remember. A, the rulers must avoid misjudgment or any move to play with fire using cross-Strait relations in an election year. And B, it is hoped that the new Taiwanese leader-elect will return to the basic position that both sides belong to one China, which will create important conditions for relaxation of tension.
Second, for the Chinese mainland, a firm belief that time is on its side is critical. Proceeding from this belief, China should persist in its basic policy of peaceful reunification and continue pursuing common development across the strait to tangibly benefit the Taiwanese people while intensifying the struggle against Taiwan independence. This will have a significant positive influence in shaping peaceful development across the Strait.
Third, for the US, America would serve its own interest by sticking to its long-term One-China policy without hollowing it. As such, it should not give any signal to the Taiwan independence forces or attempt to play the Taiwan card against China. It must be somberly aware that for China the Taiwan question is different from any other territorial dispute and brooks no compromise.
Fourth, for some time to come, China and the US should prioritize the avoidance of crisis across the Taiwan Strait, as it is central to stabilizing their relations and preventing a new cold war. Further efforts to strengthen the development of crisis management and relevant mechanisms will be of great practical significance to preventing and controlling potential new crises across the strait.