The Collapse of China’s Taiwan Strategy

The good news is that it has indeed collapsed. The bad news is that its replacement may be even worse
Peter Enav

In April of 2010 I participated at a glitzy event in Hong Kong-sponsored by the investment arm of a large Australian bank. It was a day-long conference convened to discuss the lucrative opportunities created by the growing economic ties between Taiwan and China. My role was to talk about the political aspects of the process, particularly as they related to Taiwan. I tried to introduce a note of caution to the assembled bankers, hedge fund managers and stock analysts, insisting that while many Taiwanese were quite happy to do business with China, only a small minority wanted to engage it politically. Referencing the most recent polls from the Mainland Affairs Council and contemporary academic research on Taiwanese identity, I said that rather than backing any precipitous rush toward unification with Beijing, the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese favored an open-ended continuation of the political “status quo,” which sanctified Taiwan’s status as an independent political entity, free from Chinese control.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but my views were widely derided. Virtually all of the smart money in the room (and there was really quite a lot of it) believed that a Chinese political takeover of Taiwan was inevitable — probably within 10-15 years. My detractors insisted that rather than concentrating on the supposed “anti-Chinese” sentiment of ordinary Taiwanese, I should be thinking instead about China’s strategy of using large amounts of money to buy their political support. The evidence for this was almost everywhere, the detractors said — from cash-rich Chinese purchasing missions traipsing around the island like there was no tomorrow to the scores of Chinese businesses offering Taiwanese farmers and merchants sweetheart deals and other enticing concessions. Together with the strong support of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the detractors said, what this meant on the ground was that Taiwan’s political integration into China was no longer a question of if, but rather one of when. The deal was already sealed.

In the wake of these depressing assertions, I returned to Taipei both chastened and confused, wondering if perhaps I hadn’t fatally overestimated Taiwan’s capacity to maintain its de facto independence and its key democratic institutions. And why shouldn’t I have? After all, in the spring of 2010, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) vision of a single Taiwan-China economy did seem almost unstoppable, what with surging trade volumes and a landmark trade deal that was very close to completion. Even more to the point, I told myself, was Ma’s apparent support for cross-strait political dialogue, paced by a Taiwan-China peace treaty and the initiation of far-reaching measures to build political confidence between the two sides’ militaries. Particularly in light of strong U.S. backing for this accelerating rapprochement exercise, I was struck with the notion that perhaps my detractors were right, and that at the end of the day there was really nothing anyone could do to stop eventual political union between Taiwan and China, including the Taiwanese opposition, which at that point seemed out of the game.

As everyone now knows, this was a ridiculous judgment, reflecting an unjustifiably negative assessment of Taiwan’s political will. Today it is Ma’s China-friendly KMT that are suddenly feeling the heat, poised to lose not only the Taiwanese presidency, but possibly the legislature as well, though that remains to be seen. The U.S. is also changing its views, having effectively jettisoned the Robert Zoellick-inspired notion of China as a “responsible stakeholder” in regional and world affairs, this against the background of China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and its fraught relations with Japan. The result of all of this has been a thorough-going revision of the U.S.’ once unbridled support for President Ma’s version of cross-strait rapprochement and a revaluation of Washington’s formerly hostile attitude to the Taiwanese opposition. Anyone doubting this need look no further than the warm welcome that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) received during her recent visit to Washington, which contrasted sharply to the stab in the back she got there just four years earlier, when an anonymous administration official effectively deep-sixed her presidential aspirations by telling the Financial Times newspaper that her cross-strait views were deeply troubling to American policy makers.

There is no need of course to rehearse the background to these transformative developments — we are all familiar with the redemptive political impact of the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, the Occupy Central Movement in Hong Kong, and the manifestly aggressive nature of Chinese foreign policy. Far more important to Taiwan’s future is understanding their significance for China’s policy makers, who must now be aware that their decade-long policy of leveraging KMT support, taipan political finagling (think Cher Wang [王雪紅], for example, or Terry Gou [郭台銘]) and oodles of ready cash has failed to deliver the goods. After all, not only is the KMT staring down at a massive electoral defeat, but their growing proclivity for ideological self-immolation could well keep them out of the presidency for many years to come — enough years at any rate to allow for a further deepening of Taiwan’s already profound antipathy toward China.

This conclusion was neatly underscored by a recent poll published by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, which showed that Taiwanese are now embracing Taiwanese identity with a newfound vehemence and rejecting union with China out of hand. According to the poll, a record low 9.1 percent of the respondents now support unification with China, while only 3.3 percent — another record low — define themselves as Chinese. (The center has been collecting data since 1992). These numbers serve to highlight the large and growing gap between Taiwan and China and make it clear that after almost a decade of using money to try to buy Taiwanese loyalty, China has failed in its efforts. It didn’t get what it paid for.

So where does that leave China’s hard-pressed Taiwanese policy makers now? At least for the time being in quite an invidious spot, though in fairness to them it should probably be stated that their current confusion is largely the result of a desire to wait at least until the late evening of January 16 before starting to plan for Taiwan Policy 2.0. Their recent decision to post intimidating Internet images of a military assault on a building clearly modeled on the presidential office complex in downtown Taipei is not so much a cross-strait strategy as it is a show of pique, but it is still quite useful in understanding the immense challenges they face. Confronted with the political eclipse of their KMT allies, these people must surely understand that time is working against them, which cannot be a comforting thought for them, particularly in light of Xi Jinping’s (習近平) unambiguous dictum from October 2013 that the Taiwan “issue” cannot be kicked down the road indefinitely, but must be dealt with soon. The fact that the vast majority of Taiwanese want nothing to do with China politically only makes the problem worse for them. They have to come up with answers.

One possible approach for them of course is to try to cozy up to the DPP, which given Tsai Ing-wen’s relative moderation on the China issue (relative, that is, if one compares it to Chen Shui-bian’s [陳水扁] all too frequent brinksmanship) seems a reasonable choice. Unlike Chen, Tsai is the very apotheosis of China policy sobriety, strongly disinclined to play the pro-independence card with impunity. Rather than brinksmanship, she has thoroughly embraced a vague range of status quo policies, albeit without reference to Su Chi’s (蘇起) famously fictive 1992 Consensus. This presumably means lots of trade and investment, lots of cross-strait flights and the occasional agreement to deal with commercial issues of a purely technical nature. What it doesn’t mean of course, is anything even remotely related to politics — military confidence building measures, for example, or a China-Taiwan peace treaty. Those are not on the cards.

While it is true that Chinese officials have sometimes been willing to hold informal discussions with DPP leaders like Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) and former party chairman Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), China’s overall attitude toward the party remains hostile, not least because of its refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus, which explicitly recognizes that Taiwan is part of “one China.” As China’s recent defense white paper has it: “’Taiwan independence’ separatist forces and their activities are still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-straits relations.” For “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces” here, read DPP — Chen Shui-bian, Tsai Ing-wen, it really doesn’t matter — and for “activities” read principled opposition to China’s longstanding attempts to bring Taiwan to heel.

What all this means on the ground is that anyone holding his or her breath in anticipation of an early China-DPP reconciliation is likely to be disappointed. A far more likely scenario is a reprise of the same sort of nasty treatment that was meted out to Chen between 2000 and 2008, focusing on crude cross-strait saber-rattling and angry interventions with the U.S. All of this would likely be abetted by China’s right wing allies within the KMT (or New Party), who are usually more than happy to lend their weight to Chinese political assaults.

The problem for China now is that in stark contrast to the situation in 2008 this kind of approach has only the remotest chance of success. Not only is Tsai far from being the alluring target that Chen was during most of his presidency — after all, her very fiber emits nuance and well-modulated statecraft — but even more importantly, the majority of Taiwanese are no longer willing to accept that closer ties with China will work to Taiwan’s advantage. Today China-skepticism in Taiwan is strong and getting strong, reflecting not only the crudeness of Chinese behavior in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, but also, China’s self-defeating shortsightedness in failing to give Ma very much to work with when most he needed their help. Consider, for example, the crucial issue of Taiwan’s international space, which in the early years of Ma’s presidency, became the poster child for his oft-repeated boast that working constructively with China was very much in Taiwan’s interest. But at the end of the day, what did he get for his efforts? A peripheral appearance or two at the World Health Assembly? The un-remarked upon retention of serially inconsequential diplomatic relations with Paraguay and other Central American minnows? Not exactly the stuff of cross-strait fantasies, are they? They hardly counted at all.

Given this treacherous landscape, it is not at all unlikely that the DPP will win the presidential election again in 2020, always assuming that the Taiwanese economy doesn’t tank in the interim, and that Tsai avoids the rhetorical and other excesses that helped place Chen in a corner. It is at this point that things may start to get dangerous for Taiwan, particularly if China should feel that its military finally has the ability to mount a successful invasion across the Taiwan Strait. Many analysts believe that on the back of double-digit Chinese defense budget increases this is likely to be the case. So the 2020 time frame becomes critical here, not least because Xi Jinping will still be China’s leader and will almost certainly still be committed to solving the Taiwan issue quickly. Unlike predecessors Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Jiang Zemin (江澤民), Xi is hardly a cipher, having already shown great resolve in dealing with a whole range of contentious issues, including corruption in the Chinese Communist Party and boisterous anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hong Kong. There is no reason to believe he will be less assertive when it comes to Taiwan, particularly in light of his October 2013 warning that its de facto independence cannot continue indefinitely, and similar statements since. He seems to mean what he says.

With all this in mind, it is by no means out of the question that a 2020 DPP victory in Taiwan will provoke Xi to begin thinking seriously about moving against Taiwan militarily. He would obviously have to consider the possibility of U.S. intervention, and depending on the state of the Chinese economy, he might decide to forego it. But at the same time he would also have to factor in the profoundly negative consequences of an even more pronounced Taiwanese drift away China’s orbit, which in light of prevailing political vectors can probably be taken for granted. As perverse as it may seem to many Taiwanese, he might be tempted to act, despite the price he would pay. It could seem a reasonable choice, particularly for someone who fancies himself such an historically transformative figure, not only in China itself, but also outside its borders.


Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.

6 Responses to “The Collapse of China’s Taiwan Strategy”

August 02, 2015 at 8:32 am, Jeremy said:

Great analysis. It assumes that Ms Tsai will win next presidential elections which is a general assumption but I think it forgets to warn that KMT will try every possible means of destroying DPP candidate as they tried with Taipei major without success. We’ll experience it in the coming weeks as there’s so much at stake.


August 02, 2015 at 10:45 am, Brian said:

Not exactly hiding his partisanship, is he? I mean, Tsai’s the most attractive candidate the DPP’s ever fielded but her very fiber emits nuance and well-modulated statecraft” is an astounding leap given the inability to formulate a coherent China policy that isn’t just hoping it’ll go away.


August 02, 2015 at 11:07 am, Michal Thim said:

What exactly is so incoherent on Tsai’s China policy? And when we are at it, how more coherent is China policy of current government. They are all the same ambiguous to me. Both are status quo policies in essence. Of course, there is a reason to that: ambiguity, not clarity, is the best way how to deal with the issue. That Tsai/DPP does not have coherent China policy is one of those old tired truisms that should go away. Most of the time it is just a slightly dishonest attempt at forcing ‘1992 consensus’ down DPP’s throat.


August 02, 2015 at 1:58 pm, Jenna said:

I can’t seem to open the “reply” button above. Jeremy – of course the KMT will try to destroy Tsai (they already have really – but did not succeed long-term). Not because “there’s so much at stake” but because that’s what the KMT does. They’d do it even if there weren’t a lot at stake. Authoritarianism is their literal raison d’etre!

But don’t assume success. They tried tear down Ke-P, and failed spectacularly. They tried to tear down Chen and only succeeded after he’d served 2 terms. Just because they’ll try doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. And let’s face it, Hung is almost certainly dead in the water. No matter what the KMT does to turn Taiwanese off to Tsai, there is no way they’ll vote for Hung.


August 02, 2015 at 2:52 pm, Jakub Piasecki said:

As to Taiwan’s international space, it’s not just participation in WHA meetings, as the author seems to suggest. Taiwan’s representatives also participated in ICAO meetings. Moreover, Taiwan signed FTA’s with New Zealand and Singapore, shortly after China concluded her respective deals. Whether or not it’s a lot, depends on one’s expectations, but given Taiwan’s overall international isolation, it’s a start.


August 02, 2015 at 3:56 pm, Joanna said:

Good response, Jenna. This is a Very Simple issue: Chinese and Taiwanese mentality are like apples and oranges. Essentially, the Taiwanese think Very Differently than the Chinese and vice versa. EVEN IF there IS a reunification, THERE WILL BE A LOT of FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS!!!! You Can’t put “apples” and “oranges” in one basket. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME….the THINKING and BELIEVES are NOT the same. This is All about GREED, POWER, FAME, and CONTROL. Human Nature at its “FINEST” SAD…


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.