Taiwan’s world in 2019 is one of heightened uncertainty. The behaviour of its main security ally, the US, has become increasingly unpredictable under the presidency of Donald Trump, and Taiwan risks being tangled up in the escalating tensions between the US and the People’s Republic of China. From the trade war between Washington and Beijing which started in mid-2018 to the geopolitical tensions in the South and East China seas, the complexity of Taiwan’s external environment has undoubtedly had an impact on its domestic politics. This accounts for the results of the island’s 2018 local elections, and the strong evidence they gave of local concern about not just economic but also diplomatic issues.
The task for Taiwan now is to ensure that it maintains as much flexibility as it can in its international relations, and that it does not suffer because of heightened tensions in the region. While the Trump administration’s more forceful China Policy does offer short-term opportunities to restrain Beijing’s own more assertive tendencies, it is also illustrative of the challenges that arise from Taiwan’s perpetual balancing act.
Taiwan’s politicians now need to speak to a far more diverse and often divided polity
President Tsai Ing-wen must also try to satisfy a population that is clearly divided. Understandably, people want to see strong economic performance while also maintaining their autonomy, but achieving this in a situation in which China accounts for so much of Taiwan’s growth often leads to sharp dichotomies and difficult choices, a situation that will not change.
This briefing considers these issues in the context of recent developments within Taiwan’s domestic politics, the current status of its relationship with the US and with China, and its efforts to increase its presence in the international community – or ‘international space’ – through the New Southbound Policy (NSP). It makes the case that, through policies such as the NSP, Taiwan has a new opportunity to preserve the status quo. The changing dynamics now mean that Taipei has a greater need than ever to operate a prudent, cautious diplomacy, and to be prepared for all eventualities. It can continue to demonstrate that it is a highly realist, pragmatic actor, and avoid being dragged towards reactive policy positions that are not in its long-term interests – the most serious being the risk of becoming over-friendly with the US and over-antagonistic towards China.