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Turbulent Undercurrents in Taiwan

Jan 29, 2024
  • Li Huan

    Deputy Director at CICIR's Institute of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, and Distinguished Research Fellow, Xiamen University

On Jan 13, Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim — dubbed the “pro-independence duo” of Taiwan — defeated candidates of the Kuomintang and the People’s Party in the island’s leadership election. While the results were widely expected and in line with pre-election polls, Lai’s victory still stirred up concerns. He is known as a pragmatic pursuer of Taiwan independence who could aggravate cross-strait relations. In addition, the presidential election campaign in the United States is gaining steam, and China-U.S. relations will be more prone to fluctuations.

Will the Taiwan question send China-U.S. relations into a nosedive? Fortunately, the two countries appear to have the will to exert efforts to keep the situation regarding the island under control, but as they have different ultimate goals — complicated by Lai’s political philosophy and headstrong character — the situation remains fraught and fragile.

Cross-strait relations have dropped to a historical low in the past few years, even to the point of saber-rattling, as happened in the wake of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The mainland does not trust either Lai or his deputy, Hsiao, a diehard Taiwan independence separatist twice sanctioned by the mainland. The victory of Lai and Hsiao will throw relations with Beijing into a more sensitive situation.

In this election, the DPP received fewer than half the seats in the Legislative Yuan, making it a challenge for Lai to amend the island’s constitution for de jure independence. That said, Lai will stick to the goal and continue to pursue independence by any means, fair or foul.

Lai’s attitude toward the 1992 Consensus remains a litmus test of whether he is genuinely responsive to public opinion and willing to engage in exchanges with the mainland on the basis of “one China.” If he carries on the policies of Tsai Ing-wen and refuses to recognize the 1992 Consensus and remains bent on his separatist endeavors, the mainland will certainly increase economic and military pressure on Taiwan authorities to keep the worst-case scenario at bay. Any change in cross-strait relations will inevitably be reflected in the relationship between China and the United States.

Frosty cross-strait relations are not what compatriots on either side of the Taiwan Strait aspire to have, but “cold peace” leaves room for the U.S. to use the Taiwan question as a tool to contain China. Lai’s rise to power meets U.S. expectations, but the U.S. wants zero surprises, meaning that the Taiwan authorities’ actions should be fully in line with U.S. interests. Therefore, the U.S. has supported the DPP through arms sales and initiated Taiwan-related resolutions in Congress, stepping up its influence on Lai.

Before the election in Taiwan, U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed that the U.S. “does not support Taiwan’s independence.” Soon after the election, the American Institute in Taiwan followed “the precedent of inviting former senior officials to visit Taiwan in a private capacity.” Former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and AIT Chairman Laura Rosenberger arrived in Taiwan on Jan. 14, and the U.S once again affirmed its U.S. position of “support” and “continued close cooperation.”

Steinberg said, “Whether it is a Democratic or Republican administration, the United States has a long-standing and consistent policy … of insisting on peaceful solutions to cross-strait issues, valuing dialogue and avoiding any unilateral changes to the status quo —believing that this policy is beneficial to all the people in the region. Rosenberger similarly stressed that she “opposes unilateral changes to the status quo, does not support Taiwan’s independence and supports cross-strait dialogue.” These platitudes were repeated after Lai’s election victory to caution him against rushing to independence, steering clear of Beijing’s red line.

In fact, Lai has been preoccupied with balancing forces within Taiwan, which has distracted him from going all-out in pursuit of Taiwan independence. Lai, a pro-U.S. politician, will also refrain from stirring up too much trouble in a U.S. election year. After all, the Biden government has a full plate. It is already swamped with the Russia-Ukraine war and the Palestine-Israel conflict, both of which generate substantial strategic pressure for the United States. So maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is the most sensible option for the U.S. in its own interest.

However, the Biden government can only constrain the U.S. executive branch and restrain Lai’s rhetoric and actions only temporarily. The same cannot be said for members of Congress, especially those from the Republican Party, who have been consistent supporters of Taiwan independence forces and create trouble for the Biden administration — even though they serve America’s strategic goal of containing China. After the election machine starts to roll full-speed, the Biden administration’s policy toward China — including its position on Taiwan — will be a subject of heated debate between the two parties.

Over the past few years, the United States has launched trade wars and tech wars against China, ranging from decoupling and severing chains to the “small yard, high fence” doctrine, as well as from “de-Sinicization” to “de-risking.” The fallout not only harms the economic growth of the two countries but the whole world at large. China and the United States are the world’s largest developing and developed country, respectively. The fact that they can get along peacefully without conflict or confrontation is in itself an important contribution to world peace.

The Taiwan question has been an important issue in China-U.S. relations since diplomatic ties were established. In recent years, the two have held many dialogues on the Taiwan question, and they understand each other’s bottom lines quite well. China has repeatedly affirmed its hope that the United States will put into practice its commitments not to support Taiwan independence, two Chinas or "one China, one Taiwan,” and not to seek to use the Taiwan question as a tool to contain China.

If the United States is truly committed to these statements — not treating them as a stopgap measure for the sake of political elections, but as a long-term policy with the overall interests of China -U.S. relations in mind — then the so-called “Taiwan question” will simply boil down to how the two sides of the Taiwan Strait can be peacefully reunified. In that case, the turbulent undercurrents brought about by Lai’s election victory will not turn into surging waves. 

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