China, the US and the paradox of tension in the Taiwan Strait
Emanuele Scimia says Taiwan’s newly elected president Tsai Ing-wen appears determined to maintain good relations with Beijing, but that might change in the coming months, leaving Washington to play the role of peacemaker
Though she is the chairwoman of a pro-independence political force, the Democratic Progressive Party, newly elected Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen appears determined to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. In Tsai’s view, the self-governed island and mainland China share a common interest in nurturing peaceful and stable relations.
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Tsai’s manifest cooperative approach to cross-strait affairs should not only calm China’s fears of the emergence of a potential independence-leaning leadership in Taipei, but also the fears of the United States.
The US government would rather Tsai’s future cabinet uphold and upgrade the progress made with China by outgoing president Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang.
There is widespread conviction in Washington that a closer economic relationship between Taipei and Beijing may be more helpful in advancing a Pacific coexistence in the Taiwan Strait than military deterrence.
Chinese leaders could be suspicious of Tsai, who does not accept the “one-China” policy, the principle that Taiwan is a part of China. Beijing has been considering Taiwan a breakaway province since 1949, when the KMT lost the Chinese civil war to the communists and fled to the island, founding a de facto state entity.
China has often threatened to take the island back, with force if needed. Relations between Beijing and Taipei deteriorated in particular between 2000 and 2008, when then Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, strived to move the island toward de jure independence.
The situation has changed over the past eight years with Ma, who has been working to normalise relations with Beijing and reassure the leadership on the mainland about his opposition to any pro-independence initiative.
Ma’s political and economic overtures to the mainland eliminated, at least temporarily, a point of friction between the US and China. With Tsai’s election victory, the balance across the strait again becomes precarious.
It might be shattered if Tsai were to change tack on independence down the road – like Chen did during his presidency – or if Beijing were to assume a hostile posture against an interlocutor that it perceives as unreliable.
Strained cross-strait relations would probably mean more enmity between China and the US, while Washington has been doing its best to ward off conflict with Beijing over Taiwan.
Even the recent approval by the US government of an arms sale to Taipei under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act is seen among American political circles as a limited move that should not hurt Beijing’s core national interests.
However, in the face of escalating tensions across the strait, the geopolitical scenario for the US might not be so dramatic. The triangular relationship between Taiwan, China and the US could in fact move towards a “paradox of tension”, with Washington possibly assuming the role of indispensable broker between Taipei and Beijing.
Given this background, US-China mutual dependence on the handling of cross-strait dynamics might extend to the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where maritime border disputes pit China against a number of increasingly confrontational neighbours, which are ultimately backed by the US.
Easing tensions between China and Taiwan is a task Washington successfully accomplished during Chen’s tenure. It was hard work, but George W. Bush, then US president, managed to keep the situation in check on both sides, helping to contain the conflict between the mainland and the self-ruled island.
It was probably Bush Jnr’s only foreign policy achievement, a diplomatic heritage the incumbent US administration and its successor should draw on.
Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign affairs analyst