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Cross-Strait Relations or China-Taiwan relations is one of the most complex and controversial issues in today’s international relations. The two entities, while having a shared heritage and language, have very different aspirations for their futures. For China, Taiwan is considered a wayward province that it needs to reunite with, by force if necessary. Taiwan, on the other hand, increasingly considers itself as a sovereign state capable of making sovereign decisions and participating in international affairs.
Taiwan’s relations with the mainland can often be predicted by the leadership or regime in power. Support for the idea of independence and its proponent -- the incumbent Democratic Progressive party -- has been increasing. On the other hand, the Kuomintang Party, which favors reunification, has been losing the support of the Taiwanese people as evident in the electoral successes of DPP’s Chen Sui-bian (2000-2008) and Tsai Ing-wen more recently.
Tsai Ing-wen, in particular, has been irritating China lately because of her refusal to be subservient to the mainland. Although claiming to favor the status quo, it is under her administration that Taiwan’s Navy and Air Force have been conducting trainings, patrols and naval drills in the Taiwan Strait, as well as completing the militarization of Itu Aba – the sole Taiwan-occupied feature in South China Sea. Taiwan’s relations with the United States have also been flourishing under Tsai and US President Donald Trump.
Aside from commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, its ascription to the role as the global champion of democracy makes the US feel bound to help Taiwan protect itself from invasion or forceful reunification with China’s authoritarian leadership. Losing a democratic Taiwan will challenge the role of the United States as a leader of the West and a major proponent of liberal ideals. Taiwan is also strategically important because under the banner of democracy promotion, the US is able to maintain its presence and keep an eye on China’s aggressive actions in the region and conduct operations in the controversial areas of Taiwan Strait, East and South China Seas.
After adopting a One China Policy during the Carter administration in 1979, the United States has dealt with Taiwan relations with strategic ambiguity. While there are no official established diplomatic relations, the United States counts Taiwan as an ally, vital in securing its regional interests. The Trump administration has made policies and pronouncements that have gone beyond those of his predecessors. Aside from unveiling a new de facto embassy in Taipei and signing the Taiwan Travel Act, the administration appears to continuously support Taiwan’s bid for independence by helping it stand up to China’s aggression, through support for US manufacturers’ arms sales to Taiwan and having the US Navy navigating in the Taiwan Strait. Trump officials have also been hinting at a stronger response to China’s moves in the South China Sea, committing to provide defense neccessities of Taiwan and opposing any effort to alter the status quo. The US president also signed the National Defense Authorization Act which has sections devoted to the strengthening of U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation through joint military exercises, trainings and exchanges. Moreover, the United States’ disinvited China from the Rim of the Pacific Exercises reportedly because of its militarization in the South China Sea, hoping to send a message that the US is willing take strong diplomatic actions regarding China’s aggression.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear to Trump that Taiwan would be the “most important, most sensitive core issue in China-US relations”. Taiwan is considered to be one, if not the number one, on China’s list of its core interests. While China has been slowly negotiating with other claimant states in the South China Sea for a Code of Conduct, reunification with Taiwan is deemed non-negotiable. Xi himself stated that any actions and tricks to split China will meet the ‘punishment of history’. Hence, it is no surprise that in response to this perceived threat to its sovereignty, China stepped up its legal and military pressure towards Taiwan, including suspending regular diplomatic contact due to Tsai’s refusal to endorse the 1992 consensus since she took office. In April this year, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a revised version of China’s surveying and mapping law intended to safeguard its claims in the South China Sea and Taiwan. At the same time, China conducted live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait, sending signals to both Taiwan and the United States. China has moreover used its economic muscle to show Taiwan its place by buying diplomatic recognition of smaller countries. In 2018, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Burkina Faso cut ties with Taiwan in favor of recognizing the One China principle and establishing ties with Beijing. In another vein, the Chinese government also demanded that foreign airlines revise their website references to Taiwan to reflect China’s claim on Taiwan.
Despite its efforts to resist China’s pressure with regards to reunification, Taiwan’s economy is tightly linked with that of the mainland. Economic ties and trade are often affected whenever there is political disagreement or tension between Taiwan and China. Many Southeast Asian states, Australia, Japan and others are faced with the same dilemma of looking at China as powerful economic partner yet relying on the United States as a security provider, particularly whenever China becomes aggressive vis. territorial disputes.
Taiwan can be said to be in a more precarious position because of its complicated, non-state status. Most countries that have the ability to offer considerable defense assistance recognize and have strong economic ties with Beijing – making it difficult for Taiwan to establish defense cooperation and alliances. It instead attempts to woo other countries in the region through economic cooperation via its New Southbound Policy. The policy is dubbed modestly successful in engaging and keep Taiwan’s presence felt in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. However, even with US support, NSP pales in comparison to China’s grand Belt and Road Initiative.
What Taiwan needs is to establish similar relations with other countries that it has with the United States and Singapore. The city-state, despite pressure from China, has said it would not stop its long-standing defense training exercises (Project Starlight) conducted with Taiwan. Other US allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia and India should consider going beyond criticizing China when it comes to cross-strait issues. If the allies want to ensure US presence and guarantee that the western notion of a rules-based order is maintained in the region, then helping Taiwan defend its security would be in their interest. How they can package such cooperation without suffering a backlash from China would be the major challenge.
Florence Principe Gamboa is a research analyst at Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress and a graduate student of International Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.