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Crosshairs on the Strait: the Taiwan flashpoint heats up


Crosshairs on the Strait: the Taiwan flashpoint heats up


Tensions between China and Taiwan have increased with newly re-elected President Tsai Ing-wen denouncing Beijing’s “one country, two systems” stance on the self-governing territory.


– The Tsai administration will not legally declare independence from China within the next four years
– Taiwan will continue to develop its military capabilities, emboldened by its close relationship with the US
– Taipei will push for official diplomatic ties with major powers, but these powers will likely avoid such ties for fear of provoking Beijing
– Expect Taiwan to receive qualified support from the US, Japan and the EU in a push for greater inclusion in international organisations


In late May 2020, Tsai Ing-wen delivered her second and final inauguration address as president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), reaffirming that her administration “will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-Strait status quo.” Though Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has consistently opposed reunification with the mainland, it is still unclear how aggressively the administration will push for formal Taiwanese independence during Tsai’s term.

Tsai’s renunciation of the “one country, two systems” policy prompted a quiet backlash from Beijing. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang removed a line referencing “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan from the PRC’s annual work report and tensions between Taiwan and the mainland have only increased since Tsai’s inauguration. On June 11, several Chinese fighter jets entered Taiwan’s unofficial air defence identification zone after a US military aircraft flew through Chinese-claimed airspace over Taiwan. The following day, a Chinese fighter jet crossed the median line (the unofficial boundary between Taiwan and the mainland) in response to a Taiwanese missile test. These competing shows of force come as shows of support for the DPP by both domestic and international actors become increasingly prominent.

Though there are a whole host of questions that define Taiwanese independence, the following are central to understanding the future of cross-Strait relations:

1. Will Tsai’s administration formally declare Taiwan’s legal independence from China?

2. To what extent will Tsai’s government continue to build up military capacity with which to defend Taiwan against a possible attempt at forceful reunification by the mainland?

3. To what extent will the Tsai administration establish formal economic, political and strategic ties with other nations?


Photo: @tsaiingwen/Facebook

The current debate over Taiwan’s political status traces back to October 1949, when Chinese communist forces expelled the ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces — representing the pre-war Republic of China (ROC) — to Taiwan and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. At this point, two competing definitions of “China” emerged. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) argued that the PRC was the legitimate government of the Chinese people and that Taiwan should be reunified under PRC control. On the other, the KMT argued that the ROC was the legitimate government of the Chinese people and that the mainland should eventually reunify with Taiwan under ROC control. In 1992, the PRC and the (KMT-controlled) ROC formally agreed to the “1992 Consensus”, recognising that there was only “one China” but that there were multiple ways to define this singular China. This consensus facilitated cooperation between the PRC and KMT, as both parties shared a vision of a singular, unified China.

The DPP offers a third perspective: that the Republic of China is the official name of the independent country more commonly referred to as “Taiwan”. In a 2019 speech, Tsai denounced the 1992 Consensus and the “one China” policy, later arguing that “China must face the reality of the existence of the Republic of China (Taiwan).” As such, Tsai and the DPP advocate for international recognition of a politically independent Taiwan and eschew calls for reunification with the mainland. Though the Tsai administration has not legally declared independence from the mainland, recent polling finds that the majority of ROC citizens self-identify as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” or “both”. PRC leaders fear that the Tsai administration, emboldened by Taiwanese nationalism and an increasingly close diplomatic and strategic relationship with the US, will push for legal Taiwanese independence on the domestic and international levels.


Photo: @tsaiingwen/Facebook

Will Tsai’s administration formally declare Taiwan’s legal independence from China?

Tsai and the DPP’s position has historically been that Taiwan is already an independent entity from China, and, as such, there is no point in introducing a constitutional amendment formally declaring independence. Though this position rejects the PRC-preferred path towards reunification, it does not cross Beijing’s “red-line” — Beijing has indicated that it would use force to seize Taiwan if the island were to declare independence. Tsai has not publicly indicated that she plans to deviate from this grey zone between de facto and de jure independence.

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By holding off on a legal declaration, Tsai can bide time and build up the ROC’s asymmetric defence capabilities against a significantly better-equipped mainland. Moreover, recent international pushback against “one country, two systems” in the wake of the controversial Hong Kong national security law suggests that holding off on formally declaring independence has enhanced Taiwan’s status in the international community. By putting the ball in Beijing’s court, Tsai can increasingly bet on international support for Taiwanese independence in the event Beijing unilaterally decides to take assert its dominance over the island.

In addition to the strategic benefits of forgoing a legal declaration of independence, a lack of clarity regarding growing Taiwanese nationalism may disincentivise disrupting the cross-Strait status quo. Though public polling and the DPP’s victory in the most recent election clearly indicate that Tsai’s vision of an independent Taiwanese identity is popular, there has not been a groundswell of support for candidates and parties explicitly advocating Taiwanese independence. Tsai’s administration has benefited by solidifying the island’s de facto independence, and it is highly unlikely that Tsai will push for rapid legal independence over the next four years.

To what extent will Tsai’s government continue to build up military capacity with which to defend Taiwan against a potential attempt at forceful reunification by the mainland?

The Tsai administration will certainly continue to build its military capabilities over the next four years. As mentioned, the Tsai administration has prioritised purchasing and developing weapons systems that contribute to a strategy of asymmetric defence. This may deter the PRC from using force again Taiwan, and it also demonstrates that Taipei is a legitimate security guarantor to the Taiwanese citizenry.

The US’s evolving strategic partnership with Taiwan is facilitating this build-up. In addition to selling arms to Taiwan, US lawmakers have recently hinted that Taiwan may replace the PRC at “Rim of the Pacific Exercise” (RIMPAC). If Taiwan is formally invited to RIMPAC, it is very likely that Tsai will accept, since taking part in the exercise would both directly contribute to her mission of building a highly-trained armed force and — possibly more importantly — would signal Taiwan’s legitimacy as an international actor. As Sino-US tensions simmer, Taipei will continue to build up its military sophistication in alignment with its strategic benefactor.

To what extent will the Tsai administration establish formal economic, political, and strategic ties with other nations?

Much to Beijing’s chagrin, the Tsai administration will aggressively pursue more formalised relationships with other countries. While it is unlikely that any major power (except maybe the US) will commit to forming official government-to-government ties with Taiwan, current trends suggest that both the US and Japan will continue to cultivate unofficial ties through their de facto embassies in Taipei in the coming years. It is highly unlikely that the international community will move to formally recognise Taiwan as an independent state, but the US, Japan and the EU have started pushing for Taiwan’s inclusion in international organisations for which statehood is not a prerequisite, as seen in recent calls for the World Health Organization to give Taiwan non-state “observer” status after the island’s success at mitigating COVID-19. Based on this growing international support for Taiwanese participation in multilateral organisations, expect Tsai to prioritise integrating Taiwan into the international community over the next four years. This will come at the expense of bilateral PRC–ROC ties in which the ROC enjoys a certain level of economic and strategic security ensured by the PRC in exchange for ROC commitments to not pursue international sovereignty.

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