Taiwan Tensions Return

The Taiwan issue, which has been mercifully quiescent since the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s president in 2008, shows increasing signs of returning as a major source of geopolitical tensions.  That point was underscored this week when Zhang Zhijun, the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, the agency with primary responsibility for dealing with the self-ruled island, warned the Taiwanese that they must not return to “the evil ways of independence.”  He added that the Taiwanese people would “soon have to choose” between continuing the development of peaceful economic and political ties with the mainland that have taken place since 2008 or reigniting the animosity that existed during the administration of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Chen Shui-bian from 2000 to 20008.

That warning reflects growing worries in Beijing that the DPP is poised to return to power in next year’s elections.  Given the pervasive unpopularity of Ma and the governing Kuomintang Party (KMT) among Taiwanese voters, a DPP victory is indeed probable. That outcome has become even more likely with the entry of James Soong, chairman of the People First Party, into the presidential race.  Soong is certain to siphon votes from the already beleaguered KMT.

A DPP triumph does not necessarily mean an immediate crisis.  DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen is considerably more circumspect than Chen and less inclined to provoke Beijing.  Moreover, the surge of economic links with the mainland over the past seven years has benefited key DPP constituencies and dampened the enthusiasm for aggressively pushing the party’s official independence agenda.

Nevertheless, a DPP electoral victory will make Beijing deeply unhappy and increase cross-strait tensions.  China’s strategy toward Taiwan since Ma’s election has been to draw the island into an ever tighter economic embrace, with an underlying assumption that the growth of such ties will gradually erode support for independence and lead to a corresponding receptivity to political reunification with the mainland.  

It was always a flawed strategy.  Most Taiwanese show no enthusiasm for reunification, even as economic relations with the mainland have surged. Wide majorities prefer the status quo of de facto independence, and many would prefer formal independence, if they did not fear that Beijing would use force to prevent such an outcome.  Understandably, few Taiwanese want to merge their democratic capitalist society with a mainland ruled by a one-party dictatorship.  Indeed, given the economic and cultural differences between the two societies that have developed over more than a century, many Taiwanese would be reluctant to relinquish control of their own affairs and have their island become merely one small province of a vast country even if the mainland was fully democratic.

In short, a DPP victory would be strong evidence that Beijing’s hopes of eventually enticing Taiwan to accept reunification are illusory. Chinese officials are not likely to react well to that realization.   At a minimum, there is likely to be a drift back toward the tensions that characterized the Chen years.  With China’s growing regional military capabilities and global economic clout, the temptation may even emerge to adopt an overtly coercive policy toward the recalcitrant island.

Unfortunately, the United States would be more than an interested observer to such a development.  Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is committed to regard any coercive actions that Beijing might take toward Taiwan as a “grave breach of the peace” of East Asia and respond accordingly.   Although that commitment falls short of an obligation to defend Taiwan with U.S. military forces, few observers doubt that Washington would intervene in a Taiwan Strait crisis.  Yet a decision to intervene could well lead to a disastrous war with a serious military power–and a country that is a leading U.S. economic and financial partner.  Such a clash would be catastrophic not only for both countries, but for the entire international system.

U.S. officials need to assess the situation and have a clear strategy for dealing with a resurgence of the troublesome Taiwan issue.  They especially need to ask themselves whether protecting Taiwan’s de facto independence is worth risking a crisis, and perhaps all-out war, with China.  The past seven years did not mark an end to the Taiwan problem, it was merely a beneficial lull that now seems to be coming to an end.