Beijing and Taipei are engaged in a difficult balancing act as they seek to manage relations with each other and with Washington. Cross-Strait ties, which improved considerably under Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency (May 2008–May 2016), have deteriorated since Tsai Ing-wen came to power last May. Dissatisfied with Tsai’s unwillingness to rule out Taiwan independence and state that the two sides of the Strait belong to “one China,” Beijing has gradually, but conspicuously imposed pressure on the new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government. Mainland China insists that Taipei, not Beijing, has changed the status quo.
There is a major cross-Strait trust deficit and mutual fears guide policies on both sides. Beijing fears that Tsai is pursuing a separatist agenda that threatens mainland China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Taipei fears that the Chinese will curb Taiwan’s autonomy and eventually close off all options other than reunification on Beijing’s terms.
Leaders in both Taiwan and China face complicated domestic political environments and neither attaches top priority to cross-Strait relations at present. Tsai Ing-wen’s attention is focused on reviving the island’s flagging economy. Xi Jinping’s priority this year is to ensure the success of the 19th Party Congress and use it as a springboard to consolidate his power base as China’s core leader. Neither president has much room to maneuver domestically when it comes to cross-Strait relations. Tsai faces growing pressure from pro-independence forces within the DPP, as well as from the social justice advocates in the New Power Party, which is likely to pose a challenge to the DPP in the 2018 local elections. Xi cannot afford to look weak on the sensitive issue of Taiwan if he hopes to maintain, much less strengthen his grip on power. Both presidents seek to avoid increased tensions that make cross-Strait relations a front-burner issue. For these reasons, a crisis between the two sides of the Strait can likely be averted.
Stabilizing and improving cross-Strait relations will require greater flexibility and creativity by both sides. Since Tsai assumed office, both sides have taken steps that have undermined mutual trust. Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen should demonstrate self-restraint, while seeking opportunities to provide reassurance and show goodwill to the other side. Taipei and Beijing will both need to enter into a process of incremental trust-building through reciprocal and positive words and deeds. The absence of effective, reliable communication channels hampers the ability of both sides to build trust and increases the potential for miscalculation.
As Donald Trump’s presidency begins, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China, which is bound to make managing cross-Strait ties more challenging. The preservation of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait remains an important U.S. interest. Responsibility for maintaining cross-Strait peace and stability lies primarily with Beijing and Taipei, but Washington also has a role to play.
Most importantly, the United States should do no harm. Radical changes in American policy at this juncture could create instability in relations between Beijing and Taipei. The United States’ “one China” policy is part of the foundation of the U.S.-China relationship that made normalization of diplomatic ties possible. It has served U.S. interests for over 37 years and should not be capriciously discarded. The “one China” policy—the Three U.S.-China Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Six Assurances—has provided a successful framework for managing U.S. relations with both sides of the Strait. Rather than damaging Taiwan’s interests, the “one China” policy, with its deliberate ambiguity, has enabled the maintenance of a robust U.S. relationship with Taiwan, including extensive diplomatic interaction, strong economic and people-to-people ties, and wide-ranging military and security cooperation.
Going forward, the United States should take the following steps to promote cross-Strait stability and further strengthen ties with Taiwan.
- The Trump administration should build on the significant achievements made by prior U.S. administrations to strengthen ties with Taiwan. An internal policy review should be conducted to evaluate what elements of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship can and should be improved. This could include consideration of loosening restrictions on some long-standing restrictions on official and military exchanges. However, the principle that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is an unofficial relationship should not be compromised because it would trigger a strong reaction from Beijing and would put Taiwan’s security in jeopardy.
- There is much that has been done and can be done between the United States and Taiwan within the framework of an unofficial relationship. Improvements in U.S.-Taiwan relations should be done without public fanfare, to reduce the possibility that Beijing feels compelled to react strongly.
- U.S. officials should strongly encourage Beijing to restore official cross-Strait communication and negotiation channels to minimize the possibility of misunderstanding and miscalculation, and to provide opportunities to narrow differences and address problems.
- The United States should warn Beijing against taking measures that are damaging to Taiwan’s economy and its participation in the international community. Should China pressure Taiwan in these areas, the United States should take actions to offset the negative impact of Chinese policies. For example, Chinese pressure aimed at preventing Taiwan from appropriate and meaningful participation in regional and international organizations should result in stepped-up U.S. efforts to work with like-minded countries to promote Taiwan’s involvement in cooperative diplomatic activities. Beijing’s exclusion of Taiwan from regional economic integration should lead the United States to accelerate negotiation of bilateral economic agreements with Taiwan and encourage other countries to follow suit.