How China-US rivalry is hastening the marginalisation of Taiwan 

Tian Feilong says America’s use of Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its tussle with China is upsetting the status quo of cross-strait relations. With the DPP government in Taiwan also becoming more provocative, Beijing is being forced to respond

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 3:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 7:25pm

Taiwan received a special “gift” on Labour Day this year – the severance of its diplomatic relationship with the Dominican Republic. This was a blow to the Democratic Progressive Party-led government. 

It would be no exaggeration to say that the island faces severe challenges both at home and abroad. Just days earlier, anger over a proposal for pension reform for military veterans led protesters to storm the parliamentary building, recalling the Sunflower Movement of 2014, in which students occupied the Legislative Yuan. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education’s decision not to approve the appointment of National Taiwan University president-elect Kuan Chung-ming led to an outcry of interference in academic freedom. 

Herein lies the irony in Taiwan’s democratic development. The DPP, which rose to power as a champion of democracy, is now resorting to institutional violence to keep control and hurting the core values of Taiwanese democracy. The fact is that, although the United States described Taiwan as a “beacon of democracy” in its Taiwan Travel Act, which was signed into law last month, this leading light has dimmed and the island appears trapped by its internal and external problems. 

No doubt Taiwan’s fascination with the myth of independence plays a role in its predicament, but the main reason is the changing global order inspired by the rivalry between China and the US. 

Any serious discussion about Taiwan must be framed by the larger context of China-US relations.

The US approach is shaped by its two contradictory policies on China. The first is its “one China” policy, the result of three Sino-US joint communiqués and in place since president Richard Nixon’s time. The second is America’s special relationship with Taiwan, centred on its 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and a basis for its geopolitical strategy to check and contain China’s rise. 

In foreign policy circles in the US, the doves favour engagement with Beijing while the hawks lean towards containment.

Don’t let Sinophobia define the US policy towards China

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up. Over the past 40 years, US policy has tended towards engagement, on the belief that a good relationship with China would not only enable Chinese integration into the Western democratic system, but also open up the lucrative Chinese market to American business. 

However, China’s development since the 18th Communist Party congress in 2012 has punctured the optimism of the China doves, who noted Beijing’s efforts to consolidate political authority at home and seize greater control of its own growth by building a market network through the “Belt and Road Initiative”. 

This shift in direction was given political and legal legitimacy at the 19th party congress last year and through the constitutional revision this year. China has entered a “new era” founded on “Xi Jinping Thought”, the president’s political theory. 

The new era has two main goals. One is to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, where unifying with Taiwan is a must. The other is to build a “community of common destiny” that rivals and transcends the US-led global order. The bottom line is, China has not become a democracy as the US had wished. It has followed its own path by developing socialism with Chinese characteristics, for which the party’s leadership is key.  

The US is increasingly worried that China’s growing clout could evolve into animosity and aggression. The worry that the two powers are locked in a “Thucydides Trap” has encouraged the rise of the China hawks. Late last year, the US named China a key rival and a revisionist power in its new national security strategy. This year, the Taiwan Travel Act was introduced and President Donald Trump is acting on his threat to launch a trade war with China.  

Against this backdrop of China-US rivalry, Taiwan has become an important part of the US strategy. 

On Taipei’s part, attention from the US is welcome at a time when the island is coming under mounting pressure from Beijing. Since the DPP returned to power in the 2016 elections, the island has become more active in its push for independence. The DPP government has also abandoned the “1992 consensus”, a cornerstone of cross-strait peace. 

Even powerful China cannot sever Taiwan’s links to the world

The Taiwanese may see the Taiwan Travel Act – which encourages high-level exchanges between US and Taiwanese government officials – as a security guarantee. But it is only a bargaining chip the US uses in its negotiations with China.  Just as Syria is being used as a fulcrum for the US to confront Russia in the Middle EastNorth Korea and Taiwan are being used by the US as a fulcrum to confront China. 

The Taiwan issue is a “leftover problem” that originated in China’s civil war, and Beijing regards Taiwan as a core interest that it will never give up. However, for the reasons outlined above, political reconciliation between the two sides, and ultimately reunification, has become increasingly unlikely. And the provocative behaviour of the independence-leaning DPP will only increase the possibility that China would take control of Taiwan by force. 

Is Beijing planning to take Taiwan back ... by force?

With these question marks hanging over Taiwan’s security, foreign investors are likely to stay away while local investors find greener pastures elsewhere. This is the inescapable larger trend. Yet, the DPP has failed to appreciate that the 1992 consensus is a prerequisite for the sustainable development of the Taiwanese economy. 

Both the 1992 consensus and the “one China” policy are important. The 1992 consensus must remain valid for the US to stop the mainland from unilaterally resolving the Taiwan issue, and the “one China” principle must be in force for it to rein in Taiwan’s radical independence forces. 

The China hawks in the US blame the failure of the country’s China policy on its misunderstanding of Chinese intent. But in fact, the fault lies in the DPP’s abandonment of the 1992 consensus and moves towards independence, as well as the US enactment of the Taiwan Travel Act, which gave Taiwan unrealistic expectations of its political future. 

Thus, the US and Taiwan have jointly upset the status quo that has existed for decades, and are forcing Beijing to seriously consider taking control of Taiwan by force, under the provisions of its Anti-Secession Law. 

By aligning itself with the US, the DPP government in Taiwan has turned its back on being part of the Chinese nation. It could be called a separatist regime. In short, the DPP’s decision to stand against the people on both sides of the strait will only hasten Taiwan’s marginalisation, weakening the economic strength, geopolitical clout and global position of this so-called “beacon of democracy in Asia”. 

 Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing