Will China Accept Taiwan’s Political Revolution?

In one of the least surprising election results in Taiwanese history, Tsai Ing-wen has won the presidency in a landslide. Even more dramatically, the Democratic Progressive Party will take control of the legislature for the first time. Tsai’s victory is a devastating judgment on the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou.

With the imminent triumph of the Chinese Communist Party, Chiang Kai-shek moved his government to the island in 1949. For a quarter century Washington backed Chiang. Finally, Richard Nixon opened a dialogue with the mainland and Jimmy Carter switched official recognition to Beijing. Nevertheless, the U.S. maintained semi-official ties with Taiwan.

As China began to reform economically it also developed a commercial relationship with Taipei. While the ruling Kuomintang agrees with the mainland that there is but one China, the DPP remains formally committed to independence.

Beijing realizes that Tsai’s victory is not just a rejection of Ma but of China. Support even for economic cooperation has dropped significantly over the last decade.

Thus, China’s strategy toward Taiwan is in ruins. In desperation in November Chinese President Xi Jinping met Ma in Singapore, the first summit between the two Chinese leaders. Beijing may have hoped to promote the KMT campaign or set a model for the incoming DPP to follow.

Xi warned that backing away from the 1992 consensus of one China could cause cross-strait relations to “encounter surging waves, or even completely capsize.” While Tsai apparently plans no formal move toward independence, she also rejects the 1992 consensus of “one China, separate interpretations.”

As I point out in Forbes: “Washington is in a difficult position. The U.S. has a historic commitment to Taiwan, whose people have built a liberal society. Yet America has much at stake with its relationship with the PRC. Everyone would lose from a battle over what Beijing views as a ‘renegade province’.”

Washington should congratulate President-elect Tsai, but counsel Taipei to step carefully. Taiwan’s new government shouldn’t give the PRC any reason (or excuse) to react forcefully.

The U.S. should accelerate efforts to expand economic ties with Taiwan. Doing so would affirm America’s commitment to a free (if not exactly independent) Taiwan by other than military means.

America should continue to provide Taipei with weapons to enable it to deter if not defeat the PRC. At the same time, the new government should make good on the DPP’s pledge to make “large investments” in the military. It makes little sense for the U.S. to anger Beijing with new arms sales if Taipei is unwilling to spend enough to make a difference.

Washington should press friendly states throughout Asia, Europe, and elsewhere to communicate a consistent message to China: military action against Taiwan would trigger a costly reaction around the world. The mainland would pay a particularly high economic and political price in East Asia, where any remaining illusions of a “peaceful rise” would be laid to rest.

Finally, American officials should explore ideas for a peaceful modus vivendi. One possibility is for Washington to repeat its acceptance of “one China” and eschew any military commitment to Taiwan.

Taipei would accept its ambiguous national status and announce its neutrality in any conflicts which might arise in East Asia, including involving America and Japan. The PRC would forswear military means to resolve Taiwan’s status and reduce the number of missiles in Fujian targeting the island.

The objective would be to make it easier for both China and Taiwan to “kick the can down the road.” A final resolution of their relationship would be put off well into the future.

 The ROC’s people have modeled democracy with Chinese characteristics. Hopefully someday the PRC’s people will be able to do the same.

In the meantime, President-elect Tsai is set to govern a nation which has decisively voted for change. However, if the PRC’s leaders fear they are about to “lose” the island—and perhaps even power at home—they may feel forced to act decisively and coercively. International ambiguity remains a small price to pay to avoid a cross-strait war.