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How Taiwan and China Can Avoid Stepping on Each Other’s Toes

Feb 04, 2016

Since 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek fled China to Taiwan in defeat from the Communists there has been an awkward dance between China and Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a new dance partner in Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, and the two will have to learn not to step on each other’s toes.

Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, 59, Taiwan’s first female, newly-elected president, leads the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which has traditionally advocated for a strong Taiwanese identity. Her election comes just months after a historic first meeting in over 60 years between the former leader of Taiwan and President Xi of China. She vows to protect and defend her island’s sovereignty and dignity.

Incoming President Tsai is only the second president to not belong to the Kuomintang, the party that ruled Taiwan as a total authoritarian state until democratic reforms began in the late 1980s.

The PRC sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and has threatened to take back by force if necessary.

The cross-strait political dance will result in some toes being stepped on as the leaders of the two countries sort out their respective moves.

The PRC has a long view of the ultimate reunification of Taiwan with China but will have little patience and opposes any form of separatist activities much as they do with ethnic Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Any aggressive moves by Tsai for independence will be met at a minimum, with swift rhetorical flourish, if not a strong economic and saber rattling from China- or worse.

The Washington Post reports, “President Tsai vowed to work with China to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, but Beijing responded frostily to the results, saying good relations depended on her renouncing any prospect of Taiwan ever achieving formal independence from the mainland — something she is unlikely to do.”

The Washington Post article continues, “On the surface, this election was all about current President Ma Ying-Jeou’s failure to breathe life back into one of Asia’s former economic tigers. But at a deeper level, the vote was about Taiwan’s efforts to find its feet after two decades as a democracy and reimagine itself as a nation quite separate from its Communist big brother across the Taiwan Strait.”

Mandate from Heaven?

Taiwan’s growth has slowed to a trickle over the past several years. As big brother China loomed large over the election, Tsai seemed to steal a page out of the President Bill Clinton political playbook: “It’s the economy stupid!” She focused her campaign nearly exclusively on the economy, employment and housing, seeking ways her government could reconnect with the people.

Her strength moving forward will be contingent on the economy improving, which ironically may depend on her relationship and guanxi with China.

Yet China’s President Xi has his own domestic problems with a slowing economy and the Chinese stock market in a free fall, rattling the world economy. Xi Jinping is holding tight in order not to lose the “Mandate from Heaven” and treading lightly to maintain his support of the people.

Both President Xi and Tsai would be wise to open Deng Xiaoping’s play book and spend some time studying.  Deng changed the course of the world, believing that criteria for success was determined by common sense and flexibility rather than by following Mao Tse-tung’s rigid political ideology. Deng and the Communist Party knew the old ways were failing the people and without their support, the Party could topple. Prosperity was the ticket to staying in power—then as it is now.

In explaining this shift in thought Deng said, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice.”

By moving away from Mao’s ideological straitjacket and into the world of industrial growth and international trade, Deng began the process that has lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation in the world. Over 600 million Chinese have entered the China Dream of a significantly better life.

Yet, like Deng, President Xi can be cunning and ruthless. As Deng opened China to the world, he also slammed the door shut, ordering the People’s Liberation Army to crush the people protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Deng Xiaoping made it clear that day that certain freedoms to “grow rich” would be encouraged but political freedom – the freedom from total party control – would not be tolerated and would be forcibly suppressed. This lesson should not be lost on Taiwan.

Perhaps it is to be expected that a country struggling to overcome the horrors of Mao’s reign, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, would be convulsive as it transforms itself, but many mistakenly thought the days of being repulsive and repressive were waning.

Few in 1989 saw the harsh crackdown coming until too late.

All Politics are Local

There is a huge dose of nationalistic pride on both sides of the Taiwan Straits that both leaders will need to manage so as to not spill over and incite a confrontation. China’s economy, along with the world’s, is faltering. This can cause leaders to seek a “wag the dog” scenario to divert the domestic anger to forces outside one’s country and stir up nationalist pride.

In the coming month, leaders in Taiwan and China should follow the cautionary approach embodied in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, “Mozhe shitou guo he” or “Crossing the river by feeling for stones.”

China and Taiwan must continue to build the cross strait ties – educational, economic, scientific, governmental, and people-to-people – that enhances the friendship and trust necessary for the world to prosper.

Instability between China and Taiwan makes for an unstable world. America needs to monitor this dance and do what we can to assure that when toes are stepped on, the dance does not come to an abrupt end.

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