Beyond Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan: uncertainties about stability across the strait

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S. Philip Hsu is a long-time observer of cross-Strait relations and domestic developments in Taiwan. A professor of international relations and comparative politics at National Taiwan University, he is currently a resident visiting scholar at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings while participating on a Fulbright Fellowship. In this written conversation with Ryan Hass, Brookings Senior Fellow and Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwanese Studies, Hsu provides a Taiwanese perspective on the sources of rising tensions across the Strait, particularly at the following China’s growing response to US President Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei and the lessons Taiwanese are learning from the war in Ukraine.

Ryan Hass (@ryanl_hass)
Senior Researcher, Center for East Asia Policy Studies and John L. Thornton China Center

There has been growing pessimism in Washington and elsewhere about the sustainability of peace and stability across the strait. What do you think of the sustainability of the status quo? What factors do you weigh the most to inform your judgment?

S.Philip Hsu
Visiting Scholar, Center for East Asian Policy Studies

Relations between Taiwan and China have undergone crucial transformations since 2016. These changes are largely due to internal changes in China, Taiwan and the United States, and changes in regional and global orders. There is now a particularly acute short-term threat of fierce conflict in the Taiwan Strait fueled by internal factors.

This convergence of forces was visible in the wake of President Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. In response, the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] launched live ammunition military exercises from 4 August. Beijing appears determined to try to normalize the PLA’s power projection across the midline of the Taiwan Strait and into waters even closer to Taiwan than those already entered by the PLA before the visit. Such actions greatly increased the likelihood of unexpected military clashes due to miscalculations or limited time and space for adaptation and self-control.

Even before Pelosi’s visit, however, tensions across the strait had steadily escalated due to Beijing’s increased aggressiveness on the economic, diplomatic and military fronts since 2016. China was triggered by the president’s reluctance Tsai Ing-wen to adhere to the cross-narrow formula that her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, maintained. Ma embraced the “1992 Consensus,” an agreement reached by Chinese and Taiwanese officials in 1992 that there was one China with differing interpretations as to what constituted one China. This served as the basis for relative stability, a diplomatic truce and the expansion of economic exchanges across the Taiwan Strait between 2008 and 2016.

It is often ignored outside of Taiwan, however, that President Tsai’s failure to recognize the 1992 Consensus does not equate to her outright rejection of it, as President Chen Shui-bian [2000-2008] did. Tsai has publicly reiterated that his cross-strait policy remains in line with the Republic of China (ROC) constitution, as well as other statutes that are based on the “one China” principle. She did not pursue independence de jure, the red line not to be crossed in the eyes of Beijing.

While preventing Taiwan’s de jure independence seemed to be the driving goal of Beijing’s offensives at first, a vital shift – sometimes overlooked in the West – occurred during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s second term. On January 1, 2019, he delivered a speech in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Beijing’s enactment of its “one country, two systems” formula for unification. While promising to prevent Taiwan independence, his speech placed greater emphasis on: 1) the inevitability of ultimate unification; 2) rejection of the indefinite shelving of political differences across the Strait; 3) an allusion to the desirability of a unification calendar; and 4) a recharacterization of the 1992 Consensus not as a goal in itself, but rather as a necessary premise for moving towards unification. In other words, Beijing shifted its focus from deterring independence to promoting unification, thereby attempting to unilaterally alter the cross-Strait status quo.

Xi called the unification of Taiwan a key part of his “Chinese dream” and “the great restoration of Chinese nationality”. This commitment becomes all the more binding as he is now seeking a third term at the head of the party-state. Xi may seek to increase his legitimacy to govern by pursuing steps toward the unification of Taiwan. As Xi’s authority is further tested by domestic challenges related to declining economic growth – which many people associate with Xi’s zero COVID policy – ​​and multiple potential economic crises (rising unemployment , housing market crash, swelling local debts, bank runs in various provinces, etc.), Xi may feel greater pressure to demonstrate progress in tilting the cross-Strait status quo in Beijing’s preferred direction.

Along with the push for unification, Beijing has also tightened its criteria for determining Taiwan’s independence efforts. Chinese leaders now side with Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] various domestic government policies and the search for international support as leading directly to independence. Certainly, the DPP government has since 2016 employed a myriad of tactics in areas such as school education and media regulation to reshape the identity of new generations in ways that are increasingly hostile to the concept of China through historical, cultural, ethnic and political terms. Such efforts have reinforced an exclusive Taiwanese identity. However, Beijing’s coercive pressure on Taiwan has done even more to solidify this identity. Growing mutual antagonism can also be seen in mainstream societal views in China and Taiwan. This is partly explained by Beijing and Taipei’s reduction of social exchanges and the tendency towards polarization of opinions in the interactions of their Internet users, a global phenomenon particularly evident among the younger generations.

Notably, the last wave of cross-Strait escalation between 2000 and 2008 was not accompanied by such intersociety antipathy. One of the consequences of these internal transformations could be that, despite its rhetoric, Beijing loses faith in its prospects for peaceful unification.

Opinion in the United States has also become more refined towards China. For most American elites or ordinary citizens, China under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) poses a major threat to America’s vital or material interests. The opinions of Congress testify to this. Pelosi’s visit might not have happened had it clashed with the prevailing preferences of American society, regardless of personal factors.

Regarding the sustainability of peace and stability across the strait in the medium to long term, domestic factors are certainly relevant, but regional and global competition between the United States and China could play a more crucial role. and structurally decisive. China’s growing global capabilities and its shift in focus from deterrence to independence to achieving unification are causing growing tensions. The United States believes it cannot afford the CCP’s takeover of Taiwan, given Taiwan’s geostrategic position, its key status in global microchip supply chains, and its democratic political system, among others. Taiwan is also seen as an indicator of the credibility of US security commitments in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

As part of its strategy on global competition with China, the Biden administration introduced the Taiwan question as one of the channels for integrating and deploying the resources and powers of regional allies. This is seen by Beijing as a so-called “internationalization” of the Taiwan issue, which would shatter Beijing’s longstanding claim and position on the Taiwan issue as being categorically national. All of the above heavy stakes for Washington and Beijing are likely to lead to Taiwan becoming an ever greater source of zero-sum competition between the United States and China.

Ryan Hass
What is the impact of the war in Ukraine on public opinion in Taiwan regarding cross-Strait relations?

S.Philip Hsu
Three facets of the war in Ukraine have particularly caught the attention of Taiwanese. They were first shocked by all the disasters in Ukraine covered by the media, then very impressed by the strong will of the Ukrainian people to fight, then increasingly aware of the increasing Western military assistance, directed by the States States, through arms supplies and other means to Ukraine.

The impacts on Taiwanese public opinion can be observed by comparing separate surveys before and during the war. According to surveys conducted in September 2021 and March 2022, there is not much change in citizens’ willingness to participate in Taiwan’s defense, reflected through positive, negative and neutral positions.

When asked about confidence in the self-defense capability of the Taiwanese military, the positive opinion increased from 58% to 54% and the negative opinion increased from 37% to 41%, with the change in positive opinion being within the range of statistical error. .

In its assessment of whether the United States will send troops to assist Taiwan in an armed conflict across the strait – under the pervasive perception that the United States has failed to do so in Ukraine – in 2021, 57 % of respondents were optimistic and 40% were pessimistic. In 2022, optimists and pessimists represented 34% and 49% respectively.

Interestingly, the correlations between the willingness of the Taiwanese people to fight confidently in the Taiwanese military and the expectation of direct US intervention are markedly different; self-confidence is a much stronger factor than waiting for outside help to strengthen the will to fight. This suggests that self-reliance is more important than finding allies for the Taiwanese people to decide to join in the fight, a choice of heavy personal stakes.

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