Taiwan’s future: responding to a strategic dilemma
As the 2018 local elections have shown, the challenges facing Taiwan in terms of party affiliation, attitudes towards national identity, and reactions to social change have had increasingly complicated and unpredictable political outcomes. The fall of the DPP in Kaohsiung is a particularly dramatic example of how old lines of alliance are now disappearing. In this context, the present government – and its successors – will best meet the needs of the people of Taiwan by developing creative, imaginative and sustainable policies that can provide answers to people’s security and economic concerns in a way that demonstrates how action on the one can help with the other. The era of neat party affiliations, with the kind of political messaging that this entailed, is clearly over. The greatest dilemma for Taiwan in this context is that China, its largest partner for growth and economic development, is also its most important strategic competitor and impediment. Meanwhile, the Trump presidency in the US has given rise to a complex set of opportunities and risks for the Tsai government. But the underlying structural issue remains. Taiwan is a de facto state that cannot refer to itself as such, and nor can others without immediate reprisals from Beijing. And the dynamics of nationalism in mainland China – with its own narratives of onward progress and renaissance – impinge on Taiwan’s sense of agency by restricting its autonomy. Despite the Trump administration’s current posture towards Beijing, Taiwan knows well the danger of misinterpreting Washington politics. Tsai herself has had direct experience of this: when visiting Washington as a presidential candidate in 2012, she was indirectly criticized by US officials for her position on cross-Strait relations – something she was careful to avoid on her second, successful run for the presidency four years later. Today’s open doors may be expected to close tomorrow. The fundamental security guarantee that the US offers to Taiwan can never be something to be complacent about.
President Xi may seem all-powerful from certain perspectives, but in reality he too is subservient to China’s domestic politics. Falling consumer confidence and slower growth are likely to intensify the nationalist trope of the Communist Party’s messaging. On a rational calculation, however, Beijing would be risking far too much geopolitically by ratcheting up cross-Strait tensions. Any kind of military action against Taiwan would do incalculable damage to China’s international image, and could well be met by some form of international response premised on the assessment that China’s rise is indeed a threat to global peace and security. For a China that is so economically dependent on positive relations with the wider world, this would be a massive setback and might prove fatal for the Communist Party’s grip on power.
In different ways, therefore, Xi and Tsai are heirs to the strategic ambiguity inherited from previous generations of leaders. In Beijng, Xi is custodian of the conviction that the Taiwan issue needs to be resolved through reunification in a Greater China – a near-mythical mission. Taiwan’s leaders, meanwhile, have cleaved to the notion that that they too would have legitimate rights over a reunified Greater China. Given her political background in the DPP, President Tsai does not of course subscribe to this view. But she has had to deal with the constant obfuscation of the language of the ‘1992 Consensus’, and the blurring of boundaries so that the incendiary red line of declaring Taiwan independent can be avoided.