As Tsai Ing-wen officially takes office as Taiwan’s first female president, she will face the difficult task of balancing the competing interests of her political supporters in Taiwan and an increasingly antagonistic China. The Cipher Brief sat down with Bonnie S. Glaser, Director of the China Power Project and Senior Advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to talk about the future of Taiwan’s foreign relations.
The Cipher Brief: How worried should the U.S. be about this change in leadership exacerbating cross-strait relations or inflaming South China Sea disputes? From the U.S. perspective, where do our concerns lie?
Bonnie S. Glaser: The U.S. has a strong interest in the cross-strait relationship remaining stable. U.S. officials are undoubtedly in close communication with both Taipei and Beijing, and will try to encourage the continuation of some forms of dialogue and cooperation.
I think that Washington has a degree of confidence in Tsai Ing-wen’s ability to manage this cross-strait relationship, but it’s not one-sided. We have yet to see Beijing take a more pragmatic approach and try to find some new basis on which to have a relationship with Taiwan under the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party). It is simply trying to impose the old formulation on her. I just don’t think that’s going to work.
The people of Taiwan, through public opinion polls, appear to support Tsai Ing-wen’s decision to not embrace the “One-China principle” or the 1992 consensus. So I think that president elect Tsai feels that she has popular will behind her. The U.S. takes no position on the “one China principle” as it applies to Taiwan or the 1992 consensus.
TCB: What about the potential for military action?
BG: I think the U.S. is somewhat concerned about how the cross-strait relationship will develop under Tsai Ing-wen, but I do not think there is a high level of concern that there would be Chinese military pressure against Taiwan. So there is no alarm, but some concern, and also recognition that Xi Jinping has an enormous number of problems at home. I doubt that he wants to have a crisis with Taiwan at this point. It cannot be ruled out, however, that an increase in cross-Strait political tensions could escalate to a military crisis.
TCB: Do you think that the way Beijing recently pressured Kenya to deport Taiwanese citizens allegedly engaged in a massive fraud scheme to mainland China was meant to send a signal to Taiwan about sovereignty?
BG: In the past, the two sides of the strait have had very good dialogue channels, and they would have discussed the situation; they would have consulted. They might even have come up with a mutually acceptable way of handling this. But Beijing did not do that this time; instead, the Chinese put pressure on the government in Kenya to force those Taiwanese on the plane and send them directly to Guangdong. And that is something that I think, yes, was a signal to the DPP that China can play hardball if it is indeed necessary.
TCB: In general, the fact that Taiwan lacks diplomatic relations with many countries is a challenge. What does Tsai Ing-wen need to do to be able to participate in the international community and gain more international recognition?
BG: In the face of Chinese pressure, it is very difficult for Taiwan to play a role in the international community. To increase its voice and involvement, there is a need for more creativity in Taiwan. There may be ways for Taiwan to work with other countries in addressing regional and global problems that do not go through UN-affiliated organizations, for example. The UN is the bar that’s the highest one for Taiwan because that is where China’s leverage is the greatest. Taipei should seek informal ways to work with other countries. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) would be a good example of that. It has nothing to do with the UN, and actually Taiwan contributed a few times to PSI, even though it isn’t a formal PSI member.
It became clear to the world in 2003, when we had the SARS epidemic, that not including Taiwan in the World Health Organization posed a major risk, not just to the people of Taiwan but to the entire world. To create stronger networks to benefit global health, or to create stronger networks to prevent terrorism, you can’t have this broken link and expect to achieve progress throughout the world.
TCB: What changes in Taiwan led to Tsai Ing-wen’s election?
BG: In the first five, six years of Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, the Taiwan economy was doing well, but that prosperity was not trickling down to people in the middle class, let alone lower levels. The gap between the rich and poor was widening; young people couldn’t find jobs; housing prices sky rocketed. People did not see a bright future for themselves.
There was also a lot of emphasis on improving relations with the mainland, and some people thought that there was not enough effort to expand relations with other countries as well. To my mind, it was the combination of what was perceived to be a government at home that wasn’t transparent enough about what it was doing with China and the sense that Taiwan’s economic situation was deteriorating, which led to a desire for a policy that was less dependent on China.
TCB: Why are Taiwanese so wary of closeness with China?
BG: First, the people of Taiwan live in a vibrant democracy and cherish their freedoms. In recent years, China has become more repressive and freedoms have been increasingly restricted. There is limited access to information, for example. So if you’re living in Taiwan where you can access the Internet and be on Facebook and you can watch people on TV every night criticize your president and your president’s policies, which is what they do on these talk shows in Taiwan, you realize that the mainland is not the kind of place where you want to live.
The majority of people in Taiwan don’t want to have any kind of peace treaty with that government, because they don’t trust that China would allow Taiwan the autonomy that it even has today, let alone give Taiwan more. China’ s policies in Hong Kong do not provide much optimism. People in Taiwan do not want “one country two systems. “This is especially true of Taiwan’s youth, who want to live their lives in ways that aren’t possible in China unless the political system is transformed.
TCB: How long do you think the status quo, the anomalous position of Taiwan as an autonomously ruled part of China, can be sustained?
BG: I think a long time. I would say at least the next 10 or 20 years. I don’t think the Chinese are really that impatient to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. It should not surprise us that any leader of China is going to continue to state that reunification is the objective, but I think that China still believes time is on its side so it can wait. Taiwan cannot, I think, in the foreseeable future, become the independent sovereign state that many of its people really want to have. That’s just a reality. If Taiwan truly declared independence, I believe that China, under those circumstances, might attack. And I honestly think that there wouldn’t be support in the international community for an independent Taiwan. Under both the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, the U.S. has said that it does not support Taiwan independence.
I think that Taiwan’s future will in part be decided by what happens on the mainland. I don’t think a democratic China will be less nationalistic and attach less importance to sovereignty than Xi Jinping. But perhaps if China were to become more democratic, the people of Taiwan would say, “Ok, we want to be a part of this greater China.” That’s a possibility. And that’s not something that in my view, the U.S. would oppose. As long as reunification is not achieved through coercion, why should the U.S. oppose it? It would not be against American interests in my view. Ultimately, I really think it is up to Beijing to win over the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan. And so far they’re just not doing a good job.