Taiwan Today and Its Significance in East Asia

The “confrontation” between the United States and China, the Taiwanese presidential election in January 2020 and the policies of Taiwan’s incumbent President Tsai before next year’s poll remain some of the most important talking points in the region. Kawashima Shin analyzes trends in the situation affecting Taiwan.

For the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is the final target of its liberation movement. Hong Kong and Macau were recovered by the PRC in 1997 and 1999, respectively, after which the PRC promised that their political system would be maintained for fifty years following “liberation” by adopting its “One Country, Two Systems” policy. In March 1996, when the first Taiwanese presidential election was held, the PRC launched missiles into the sea near Jilong and Gaoxiong, and conducted military exercises that resulted in a stronger independent sentiment in Taiwan. 

However, as the Chinese economy expanded, so too did Cross-Strait economic relations. The Taiwanese economy became increasingly reliant on the Chinese economy as Chinese investment in Taiwan soared while Taiwan benefited from increased access to one of the world’s largest markets. After 2008, the Ma administration promoted a policy of cooperation with the PRC that reached its pinnacle when Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping met in Singapore in 2016. From the PRC’s perspective, the Kuomintang (KMT) had remained the preferred counterpart in Taiwan. Due to this circumstance, the start of President Tsai’s DPP administration in 2016, along with the KMT’s serious collapse, affected the PRC’s Taiwan policy. It prompted the PRC to adopt a new policy aimed at deepening social relations with Taiwan – such as by providing “attractive” job opportunities in China for Taiwanese – and in the following couple of years, the PRC’s policies were so effective that the independent sentiment weakened, and some politicians strengthened the importance of Taiwan’s friendship policy toward the PRC. 

However, the Tsai administration has also kept a hard line toward the PRC. Tsai accepted the fact of the meeting in Hong Kong in 1992 but continues to reject the existence of the “92 Consensus.” Xi holds the “92 Consensus” and “One China Policy” as the basis of unification and also mentions the possibility of using military power to unify Taiwan. 

On January 2, 2019, Xi unveiled “the Document for Taiwan’s Compatriots” that strengthens the “92 Consensus” and “One China Policy,” and at the Central Military Committee, Xi commanded the PLA to prepare for a military struggle. Xi also mentioned the possibility of using military power to unify Taiwan. However, Tsai remains opposed to both the “92 Consensus” and the “One China Policy.” The marked difference in the interpretation of the nature of the relationship between the PRC and Taiwan is becoming ever more apparent. Meanwhile, the confrontation between the United States and China is stirring further tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

The Taiwan Issue and U.S.-China Confrontation

Following the election of President Trump, Tsai held a telephone conversation with the US president. While this phone call raised some questions about US intentions, the United States and the PRC later reconfirmed US commitment to the “One China” policy. 

But as the Trump administration abandoned its engagement policy toward the PRC and began to adopt a policy that was more aggressive and more comprehensive, the Taiwan issue became one of the hottest issues in Washington, D.C. This contrasts with the earlier period of the Trump administration, when the importance of the Taiwan issue had significantly decreased to the point that there were some worries that Taiwan would become a bargaining chip for a deal between the G2.

However, as the US government strengthened the importance of liberal democracy and its security networks in the Indo-Pacific, the “Taiwan issue” became more important, leading conservative politicians and think tankers to insist on providing many more weapons to Taiwan and support Taiwan to join the security network, under the Taiwan Relations Act, and enhancing the level of protection of Taiwan from cyber-attacks – including the PRC’s fake-news campaign aimed at confusing public opinion and weakening Taiwan’s democratic spirit. Accordingly, in 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act that “allows officials at all levels of the United States government, including Cabinet-level national security officials, general officers, and other executive branch officials, to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwan counterparts” was signed by president Trump and enacted by the US Congress.

In the same fashion, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 – also enacted in 2018 – likewise deals with the Taiwan issue. “SEC. 1262. SENIOR DEFENSE ENGAGEMENT WITH TAIWAN” includes the following article: “Not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of State, shall brief the congressional defense committees, the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives on any plans of the Department to carry out senior-level defense engagement.” This article demonstrates US willingness to strengthen its commitment to Taiwan.

In addition, President Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act at the end of 2018. In its “SEC. 209. COMMITMENT TO TAIWAN,” an article describes US commitment to Taiwan as follows: “to support the close economic, political, and security relationship between Taiwan and the United States,” and “to counter efforts to change the status quo and to support peaceful resolution acceptable to both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” In the same bill, the United States declares that the “Arms Sales to Taiwan” will expand to “develop and integrate asymmetric capabilities, as appropriate, including mobile, survivable, and cost-effective capabilities, into its military forces.”

Finally, in 2019, the Taiwan Assurance Act was passed. This act officially endorses the view that “Taiwan is an important part of US strategy in the region and urges the United States to conduct regular transfers of defense articles to enhance Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities.”

These developments show that while the United States has not altered its “One China” policy, Washington now tries to engage with Taiwan as much as possible. The PRC is also getting more sensitive to the US attitude toward Taiwan and has attempted to oppose US policy and provoke Taiwan. For instance, the PLA air force flew aircraft across the Taiwan Strait centerline. In the East and West China Seas, the military activities of the PLA navy and coast guards also grew increasingly assertive over the past couple of years, even after the “improvement” of Sino-Japanese relations. 

Japan-Taiwan Relations

In March 2019, the Sankei shimbun newspaper published an article including an interview with president Tsai. In this interview, the president sent a message to propose a military dialogue with Japan. President Tsai Tweeted the news.

In March 2019, the Sankei shimbun newspaper published an article including an interview with president Tsai. In this interview, the president sent a message to propose a military dialogue with Japan. The Japanese government could not respond positively and rejected the proposal, but it can be surmised that it was the trends in US politics that pushed the Tsai administration to send such a message to Japan. 

     With the start of the Abe administration, Japan has adopted a positive policy toward Taiwan, concluding an “investment agreement” and a “fisheries agreement” among other things, to express its gratitude for Taiwan’s cooperation after the East Japan earthquake in 2011. After Tsai became president in 2016, the Japanese policy toward Taiwan became even more positive and the Japanese government was probably prepared to start negotiations for a Japan-Taiwan FTA, on the condition that the Tsai administration solve two problems caused by Ma’s KMT administration. The first issue was that of Okinotorishima. The Ma administration did not recognize Okinotorishima as an island but as a rock, negating Japan’s right to an EEZ in the area. The second problem was that of food import from Fukushima and other Japanese prefectures. The Tsai administration basically solved the first issue but could not settle the second one. Ultimately, Japan and Taiwan could not start negotiations on the FTA.

   In the first half of 2017, Japan still kept a positive policy, dispatching Jiro Akama, the vice minister of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, to join a meeting in Taiwan on countryside revitalization. Vice Minister Akama became the highest-ranking Japanese official to visit Taiwan since 1972, when Japan and the ROC cut off their formal relationship. However, on June 2017, Prime Minister Abe shifted his policy to a more positive disposition toward the PRC’s BRI, and decreased its engagement with Taiwan. In addition to the fact that the Tsai administration could not solve the food import issue, the referendum in 2018 led to the continuation of “the prohibition of import of food products from Fukushima and other five prefectures.” On the surface, this food import issue is the largest obstacle between Japan and Taiwan, but in fact, it is an even more significant problem that Japan continues to alternate its engagement policy between PRC and Taiwan. This is why when Japan started to engage with the PRC on June 2017, it stopped its positive policy toward Taiwan. 

     Hence, when Tsai proposed a security dialogue through the Sankei shimbun, the Japanese government could not answer positively because the food problem remained pending, and at that time had undertaken a more friendly policy toward the PRC. 

    However, in May 2019, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kono Taro announced that Japan supported Taiwan’s participation in the general assembly of the WHO as an observer. That the Japanese government is now formulating a positive policy for both the PRC and Taiwan represents a remarkable change.

Regional Cooperation and Taiwan

In East Asia, regional economic cooperation has been deepened, but there remains a deep divide between the PRC/DPRK on one side and the United States with its allies on the other. In spite of the fact that the “One China” policy was adopted by each country, Taiwan remains an important and essential “cog” in the mechanism of the regional organizations. Taiwan is one of the largest economic powers in this region, and if Taiwan does not join these frameworks or networks of regional governance, it would create an important vacuum in the way these organizations or frameworks function. Kono’s announcement of Taiwan’s participation in the WHO is also related to these issues.

    The Taiwanese government has been eager to join international organizations despite being under pressure from the PRC. Taiwan successfully joined organizations such as APEC and the WTO as “Chinese Taipei.” During Ma’s tenure from 2000 to 2008 and with the officious blessing of the PRC, Taiwan concluded FTAs with Singapore, New Zealand and other countries. This situation soon changed after 2016 and the start of the Tsai administration, when the PRC began to apply strong pressure on Taiwan’s activities in the international sphere. 

    In today’s global economy, the WTO is facing functional problems but new trends of mega FTAs and new frameworks are emerging. For instance, the CPTPP has already entered into force and the TTIP is under negotiation. Taiwan explores its chances of negotiating FTAs with Japan and other countries as a first step to join the CPTPP. However, it is uncertain whether or not Tsai or the next government will have enough power to persuade domestic interest groups that would suffer heavily if Taiwan were to join the CPTPP and other agreements.

    Regarding regional cooperation, the US-China confrontation provides Taiwan with a new chance. The United States now promotes the FOIP (“Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”) – an initiative initially proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Abe – within which Taiwan’s position is given a vital geopolitical importance. As mentioned above, the United States has adopted a series of laws to strengthen its commitments to Taiwan. However, the United States, Japan, and other US allies cannot infringe on their own “One China” policy, making it difficult for them to make Taiwan a formal part of this strategy. Taiwan is located within the “first island chain” as formulated by China, and from the US point of view, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines make up the barrier to the West Pacific and its territories, Guam and Hawaii. Against Chinese military expansion into the West Pacific, the Obama administration maintained its engagement policy toward China, and only implemented the Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the Trump administration broke from the engagement policy and started promoting the FOIP strategy. The way the United States and other allies might involve Taiwan with the FOIP and other frameworks, and how Taiwan may commit to this new trend in the West Pacific, remains a crucial and sensitive problem. 

      The US-China confrontation also influences Taiwan’s domestic politics. Animated by US support, some political groups push for resistance against PRC pressure, while other groups show a more modest attitude regarding the issue of friendship with the PRC. Recently, however, Hong Kong’s political movement of June 2019 has had a strong impact on Taiwan’s domestic politics.

Hong Kong’s Political Movement

The demonstrations in Hong Kong concerning the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill of 2019 have had a tremendous influence on the current political situation in Taiwan. Hong Kong’s situation reflects the reality of “One Country, Two Systems,” revealing that the PRC does not intend to preserve its previous political system – including liberty and other principles that Deng Xiaoping said China would guarantee for fifty years. The passion of the people of Hong Kong in their defense of freedom pushed the Taiwanese to wonder what would happen in the future should unification with the PRC take place.

    The DPP elections to select its party candidate for the next presidential election were held on June 2019, and Tsai defeated Lai Qingde, the former President of the Executive Yuan. Before the political movement in Hong Kong, Tsai was criticized for the fact that her economic policy is so “independent” that the Taiwanese economy will suffer damage to its trade and productive industries in China. However, Hong Kong’s situation provoked Taiwan’s public opinion, leading to many voters giving their support to Tsai, who had announced her opposition to the “One China Principle,” the “92 Consensus” and the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. Economic relations with the PRC are indeed significant for Taiwan, but at the moment giving away the foundation of liberal democracy in favor of the economy is unimaginable. 

KAWASHIMA Shin is a professor for international relations in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo.

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