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.
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.
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.