by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: DPP

IT CERTAINLY DOES seem to be true that Taiwan is caught between China and the US. It would be that China’s territorial claims on Taiwan call for its annexation into China, by military means if need be. The threat of possible US intervention is a key factor preventing China from annexing Taiwan, but the US has no legal obligation to defend Taiwan. And the US has up to this point in time kept Taiwan in a state of limbo about whether it would, in fact, intervene to defend Taiwan from Chinese assault. This is justified as “strategic ambiguity” on the part of the US, but it also serves as a means to leave the US free from the obligations of militarily defending of Taiwan.

How, then, are we to understand Chinese and American reactions to Tsai Ing-Wen’s election as president of Taiwan? We might begin with China’s responses, which are seemingly easier to understand. Seeing that China views Taiwan as a renegade, breakaway province and the DPP as committed to a separatist, Taiwanese independence ideology, we have seen invective from state-run media, such as the Global Times and People’s Daily, attacking Tsai in the harshest of terms in past days.

But even if China is compelled to criticize Tsai in harsh terms in almost performative fashion, China is not stupid enough to fail to realize that its Taiwan policies have backfired, as we see all too visibly in the past year’s worth of protests and the overwhelming defeat of the KMT in elections. China is also not so stupid as to genuinely think that Tsai Ing-Wen is committed to independence ideology above all rational considerations either, Tsai having done no shortage of telegraphing to America that she would not be a pro-independence warmonger as her predecessor as DPP president Chen Shui-Bian was perceived in Washington as being. 

PhotoCreditETodayPhoto credit: ETToday

Namely, Tsai has also telegraphed Beijing that she would not be unwilling to work with China in some form. Tsai expressed that she would be willing, in fact, to go to Beijing to meet with Xi Jinping during the meeting between Ma Ying-Jeou and Xi Jinping which took place in Singapore in November.  

So although Beijing is compelled now to criticize Tsai, almost ritually, this does not actually rule out efforts at rapprochement with Tsai by Beijing. Xi Jinping’s rhetoric is actually that Taiwan will be retaken by the end of his presidential term in 2020. But given the scale of the naval invasion which would be required to take Taiwan, that invasion would be utterly disruptive of regional stability in sending neighboring countries into panic mode about becoming the next target of China, and that the socioeconomic shockwaves following the invasion would cause catastrophic havoc in the Chinese stock market, it is questionable whether China actually has the ability to launch a military invasion of Taiwan in the present without this invasion proving severely disruptive to its own internal stability.

China may decide it best to continue its current strategy of eroding at Taiwan’s de facto independence through economic encroachment. China may try to wait it out for four years in the hopes that the KMT may come back to power. But it is actually also possible that China may realize that, despite Tsai coasting into office off of the wave of civic activism to resist the CSSTA trade bill the KMT tried to sign with China, Tsai would not be ideologically opposed to signing trade agreements with China. This is a publicly expressed position of Tsai’s, just one she has not played up very recently. Yet it is still possible that ideological blindness will prevent more rational consideration from winning out, meaning China will refuse to work with a DPP government on the basis of the continued perception that the DPP is intrinsically defined by pro-Taiwanese independence ideology, never minding that the DPP has seen much retrenchment on that front.

On the other hand, apart from the usual American platitudes about congratulating Taiwan for another successful democratic election, American attitudes towards Tsai Ing-Wen remain hard to divine. There are elements of the American security establishment whose hackles are raised by the fact that Tsai Ing-Wen is a candidate of the DPP. This is not so different from China possibly being unable to see the DPP as anything other than a pro-independence party; in fact, there may be an ideological blindness within the American security establishment which leads to continued perceptions of the DPP as a party bent on achieving Taiwanese independence.

And, actually, there may even be elements of the security establishment which seem to begrudge Taiwan on the basis of being an unwanted wrinkle in America strategic planning. Tsai’s 2012 run for president was dealt a blow when an anonymous call from the American state department to Financial Times expressed that American officials did not have confidence in Tsai’s ability to handle China. It is unknown as to whether this was deliberate sabotage by Washington, not wanting a DPP victory in Taiwan, or that this could have even been a rogue individual acting on their own initiative to sabotage Tsai’s campaign. There reports that this was a rogue individual in the State Department. But both possibilities are troublesome.

11312933_10152727718441065_5453757095477428002_o (1)Tsai Ing-Wen meeting with John McCain (R-Arizona), Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). Photo credit: 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen Facebook PageTsai Ing-Wen meeting with John McCain (R-Arizona), Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). Photo credit: 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen Facebook Page

So it is that Tsai Ing-Wen was firmly conscious of the fact that she would have to win over Washington for her run this time around. Tsai thus proactively visited the US and has deliberately made it a point not to project an image in which she might be seen as a pro-independence warmonger as Chen Shui-Bian was perceived. And Tsai’s strategy seems to have worked. Tsai is to date generally depicted in international media in terms which make American support of Taiwan fairly amenable, as a candidate who won through democratic support, and not as a candidate who rose to power on the basis of dangerous independence ideology. 

In December, the first arms sales to Taiwan in four years took place. Although on a smaller arms sale than has occurred in the past, this illustrates that America still takes an interest in Taiwan. The arms sale may or may not be connected to the fact that Tsai victory seemed all but inevitable, a connection some have drawn. It remains a question as to whether America would cement more direct ties with Taiwan, or would allow Taiwan to remain trapped in the limbo of “strategic ambiguity.” 

If too much focus has gone to only considering the “China factor” and the “America factor” in Taiwanese foreign relations, there are also other nations which must be taken into consideration. Tsai Ing-Wen has made efforts at outreach to Japan, for example, in going to Japan and meeting with Nobuo Kishi, the brother of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. A suspected clandestine meeting between Tsai and Abe is thought to have taken place while Tsai was in Japan. Probably it will be that Tsai, as a DPP president, will not have a hard time building ties with Japan. Apart from the fact that a KMT president would be unlikely to seek to build ties with Japan, the Chinese nationalist ideology of the KMT contains a strong anti-Japanese element which would prevent or at least impede a KMT president from building ties with Japan. This is why the KMT has, in fact, at several points in the past raised the comfort women issue as a means to impede alliance between Taiwan and Japan. 

Lastly, if Tsai Ing-Wen’s “New Southwards Policy” has vowed to build stronger ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries, it remains to be seen how the building of stronger ties will be accomplished. But, we will see as to how the Tsai administration relates to the constellation of international actors Taiwan navigates between in foreign policy. Before she assumes the presidential office, we cannot yet tell.

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