As the rivalry between China and the U.S. escalates, a series of unpredictably dangerous developments have taken place recently with regard to Taiwan. Will cross-strait relations go from cold peace to cold confrontation, or even hot confrontation, after the re-election of Tsai Ing-wen? Will the situation deteriorate into more turbulence or trigger a new crisis?
To find the answers, it is necessary to look at the most important of all variables: Tsai’s policy toward the mainland. In her inaugural address on May 20, she said that Taiwan authorities “are willing to engage in dialogue with China” and “will continue to handle cross-strait affairs according to the Constitution of the Republic of China and the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area … for maintaining the peaceful and stable status quo in the Taiwan Strait.”
Given the intense cross-strait tensions, and especially the growing pressure placed on Tsai by hardcore proponents of Taiwan independence, her address seems like a goodwill gesture, showing that at least she is reluctant to be torn from the mainland. But a careful study of the address reveals a strong hint of the so-called two states theory, which deserves attention and vigilance.
First, the Chinese version and the English version have subtle differences in wording relating to the Chinese mainland. It is referred to as “对岸” (“duian” — literally “the other side of the strait”) in the Chinese version, but as “China” in the English version. Juxtaposing the terms “China” and “Taiwan” can give the impression that both are independent sovereign entities. Obviously, this is an approach driven by the two states theory.
Second, Tsai seems to be attempting to cut the historical ties between Taiwan and the mainland. It is widely known that the Republic of China was founded in 1911, but in her address Tsai intentionally highlighted its development “over the past 70 years.” In addition, she referred to the Republic of China as “the Republic of China (Taiwan),” which is a disguised way of saying “the state of Taiwan.”
Third, Tsai advances the concept of a “Taiwanese community” to bolster pro-independence forces. She uses that term throughout the address, seeming to challenge the mainland narrative that the two sides of the strait belong to “an inseparable community of shared future.” More important, by highlighting this notion, Tsai seems determined to inspire the people of Taiwan to adopt a “Taiwanese identity” in order to lead them to de facto independence.
These facts reveal that, deep inside, Tsai is sticking to the Taiwan independence theory, although she presents herself as “a driver of peace.” As the Democratic Progressive Party takes over the government of the island across the board, both the executive and legislative branches are in Tsai’s absolute charge. On the other hand, the Nationalist Party, suffering from declining morale, is not a strong counterbalance to the power of Tsai and her DPP. As a result, she is in a good position to pave the way for the independence of Taiwan on her own terms.
First is amending the Constitution. Tsai is taking a step-by-step approach to her independence agenda — soft independence followed by independence through legislation and ultimately independence through constitutional amendment.
In her first term, she tried to complete soft independence in sectors such as history, education and culture. She also pushed for independence through legislation by strengthening security laws and formulating an anti-infiltration act. Going forward, she may strive to delete phrases such as “national reunification” in the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, to facilitate the independence process. In the end, her goal is to achieve independence though constitutional amendment. So far, she has established the so-called Constitutional Amendment Committee and made preliminary staffing and institutional preparations for the organization. Over the next four years, this committee may become an important vehicle for her pro-independence activities.
Second is bolstering military force against reunification. In her address, Tsai stressed the need to “accelerate the development of our asymmetrical capabilities” and “strengthen our defenses against the threats of cyberwarfare, cognitive warfare and unrestricted warfare.” The text is marked by a strong confrontational tone, with the mainland as the imaginary enemy. In the future, the Taiwan authorities, driven by independence proponents, may engineer incidents to gauge the red line of the mainland, just as they did on July 1, 2016, when a Hsiung Feng III missile was “accidentally” launched toward Penghu.
Third is leaning on the United States. Tsai’s tough stance toward the mainland in recent years is not based on Taiwan’s military strength, which is no match for the mainland. The real driver is growing support from the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger and other senior U.S. officials sent congratulatory messages on Tsai’s inauguration day. On the same day, the United States approved arms sales to the island worth $180 million. Seeing Taiwan as a bridgehead in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, Tsai may stand ready to be tied to America’s apron strings by, for example, allowing U.S. warships to berth at the Port of Kaohsiung or Taiping Island, which poses a serious threat to peace in the region.
It is hard to imagine that over the next four years Tsai will maintain the status quo as she said. Instead, she is more likely to undermine the status quo in a manner that is destructive, extensive and intensive. On May 20, a poll by The China Times, a daily newspaper in Taiwan, found that 96.3 percent of the respondents were “not optimistic” about the prospects of cross-strait relations with Beijing. On the mainland, the government will continue to stay alert and ready to prevent pro-independence forces in Taiwan from making trouble.
On May 20, the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense issued warnings to the Taiwan authorities in written statements. And in the 2020 Government Work Report, which was published recently, keywords touching on Taiwan policy — including “peace,” “the 1992 Consensus” and “one country, two systems” are not mentioned in the sections on the Taiwan question. Instead, there is a strong focus on the need to contain pro-independence forces on the island. All these things point to constant vigilance on the part of the mainland and zero tolerance for any notion of Taiwan independence.
While the Taiwan authorities are seeking independence, the Chinese mainland is determined to contain such forces. Are they on a collision course that leads to the worst-case scenario? The signs are not encouraging. Given the many alarming developments, conflict could break out at any moment.
What can be done to manage and defuse crises and prevent the emergence of threats with potentially high impact? This is a question that the mainland, Taiwan and the United States should think over.