Tsai Leads Taiwan into Second Term: Beijing Grumbles but the Status Quo Remains Unchallenged

Tsai Ing-wen has been sworn in for a second term as Taiwan’s president. The first female leader in the island state’s history is currently enjoying high approval ratings, largely as a result of her government’s response to the coronavirus crisis but also because of its stance towards cross-Strait relations with China.

Tsai Ing-wen is adamant that there will be no ‘reunification’ between Taiwan and mainland China

I recently wrote about the potential global flashpoint on the Sino-Indian border but the ‘Taiwan issue’ – as it is often referred to in international forums – is a more conventional arena for analysts to predict local conflict spiralling out of control to involve all the major powers.

Having lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces fled across the Taiwan Strait to establish a new government, named the Republic of China (ROC). The communists of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have steadfastly refused to accept the ROC as an independent state, rather believing that it is a constituent part of the mainland, enshrined in its ‘one China’ policy, and reunification is one day inevitable.

Reluctant allies against the Japanese invaders in WWII, Mao Tse-tung (l) and Chiang Kai-shek (r) resumed their civil war in 1945, the former triumphing in 1949

Since the end of military dictatorship in Taiwan, its democratic leaders have blown hot and cold with regards to their relations with Beijing. Whilst they have generally followed the mantra of ‘peaceful co-existence’, some leaders have been far more pliable to the PRC, seeking closer ties that increase domestic fears of their eventual reunification. Others, like Tsai Ing-wen, have been adamant that Taiwan should continue to pursue its own path, although stopping short of declaring outright independence in the fear of a Chinese invasion.

Whilst Richard Nixon’s shock visit to meet Mao Zedong in 1972 opened the door for formal American recognition of the PRC, at the expense of the ROC, Washington remains committed to preventing China upsetting the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Freedom of navigation exercises through the Strait, in addition to hefty arms sales to Taipei, have reinforced this commitment to Beijing’s frustration.

There is a feeling now in some quarters that with American support and Tsai into a second and final term, Taipei may have the desire to declare a more formal split from Beijing, casting the ‘One China’ policy into the fire for good. Of course, Washington would disapprove of this move as much as China would detest it and the chances of such a bold unilateral development are slim, despite domestic pressures in Taiwan.

To employ a popular and oft-derided concept of international relations theory, a balance of power exists across the Taiwan Strait which will take a concerted, irrational effort to break. The last major stand-off – the 1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis – was ultimately defuzed by an American show of force and, even with its increasing military capabilities, the PRC is not in a position to invade Taiwan and consolidate its rule there.

Complacency is dangerous, nevertheless, and it is important that America continues its commitment to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, whilst maintaining a substantial military presence in East Asia. Beijing, meanwhile, has enough internal disquiet to worry about – Hong Kong proving a particular thorn in its side – whilst simultaneously seeking to expand its global influence through its Belt and Road Initiative, that destabilising relations with Taipei would be as counter-productive as Tsai Ing-wen declaring independence.

For now, at least, a nervous calm persists. The splintered consequence of China’s 19th century exploitation by the international powers, the demise of the Qing Dynasty, the country’s republican revolution under Sun Yat-sen, its descent into warlordship, its invasion by Japan and the subsequent civil war, is two Chinas not one. There is no reason why they cannot continue to live and prosper in opposing harmony.

Xi and Ma in Historic Summit: Status Quo on Taiwan Persists…for Now

Last Saturday saw an unprecedented meeting between the respective leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – Mainland China) and the Republic of China (ROC- Taiwan). Presidents Xi Jinping of the PRC and Ma Ying-jeou of the ROC shook hands and smiled for the cameras before their brief summit in Singapore, an historic but largely symbolic dialogue.

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An historic handshake

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) comrades to flee to Taiwan, there has existed a very tense cross-Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei whose rulers both claim their governments to be the true and sole representatives of all China.

Three serious ‘crises’ have broken out between the mainland and Taiwan since 1949. The first crisis occurred during 1954-5 when the PRC seized several islands from the ROC and conducted heavy shelling of KMT defensive positions. The US administration was so concerned by the aggression of the communists that the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended dropping a nuclear bomb on the Chinese mainland, a suggestion fortunately dismissed by President Eisenhower.

In 1958, the PRC again resorted to heavy shelling of KMT positions on several disputed islands in the Tawain Strait. The ROC responded with their own artillery with the end result being 2,500 dead on the Taiwanese side, compared with 200 PRC troops killed. America intervened on the side of the ROC by providing them with howitzers and air-to-air missiles, honouring an agreement of mutual defence that had been signed after the first crisis four years earlier. The Soviets, too, put diplomatic pressure on Mao Zedong to halt his assault, fearing the American response should the conflict intensify.

Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis
Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis

For the next four decades an uneasy peace existed across the Taiwan Strait, with both the PRC and ROC largely concerned with ensuring domestic stability and (after Mao’s death at least) economic development. In 1992, a Consensus was reached between Beijing and Taipei that unequivocally stated that there was only one sovereign state encompassing all of China, the disagreement remaining over which government was the legitimate ruler.

This seemed set to cement the peace but its impact was almost immediately undermined. In 1995-6, trouble flared up again as the PRC embarked on a series of provocative missile tests in the coastal waters off Taiwan. A response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s supposed agitation for independence – which of course went against the 1992 Consensus – Beijing’s actions prompted the Clinton administration to send two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest American military deployment in Asia since the Vietnam War. The PRC responded by undertaking live firing training drills in the build-up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election. The attempts to intimidate Taipei and the Taiwanese electorate failed, however, with Lee’s popularity receiving a boost in the aftermath of the scare.

Since 1996 the relationship has remained relatively stable, improving significantly during Ma’s tenure, with a renewed focus on economic engagement. This has led many Taiwanese to become increasingly wary about Ma’s intentions and his decision to meet with Xi in Singapore met with widespread disapproval back home. With only a few months remaining in office and no possibility of a further term given constitutional constraints, Ma’s gesture appears one of egotism designed to secure his place in history. For many Taiwanese, however, his diplomacy has simply led to a strengthening of the PRC’s hand and given the impression that Taipei’s resolve to oppose pressure from Beijing is failing.

Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma's China diplomacy
Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma’s China diplomacy

There was never any likelihood that the Xi-Ma summit would lead to significant policy change. In this respect, it is similar to the meeting that took place between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek at Chongqing in 1945. With the Japanese enemy defeated and World War Two ended, the US hoped that they could broker a peace deal between Mao’s communists and the Nationalist KMT government, which had been sporadically fighting a civil war for the best part of two decades.

The Double Tenth Agreement that arose from the three-month negotiations included the CCP concession that the KMT was the legitimate government of China and a declaration by the Nationalists that they recognised Mao’s group as an official opposition party.

Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing
Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing

Of course in reality neither party had any intention of stopping short of outright victory and the internal conflict would rage brutally for a further four years before Chiang eventually realised that his days were numbered and he escaped across the Strait where he would rule until his death in 1975.

There will come a time when the historical enmity between the PRC and ROC will explode again and it is likely to involve America when it does. At the moment the relationship is as strong as it is ever going to be, Ma’s efforts over the course of his presidency ensuring temporary peace even if it is at the expense of his people’s honour.

Make no mistake, though. The PRC views Taiwan as part of its territory and will ultimately be prepared to use force to secure this economically-vibrant island. When its leaders choose their moment, America will have a choice whether to enforce its traditional commitment to Taiwanese territorial integrity or allow a scenario similar to the one that resulted in Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Xi and Ma posed for the cameras, as Mao and Chiang did back in 1945. As with their predecessors, today’s leaders know that the status quo will not last forever.